Let’s be honest – if you’re invited to such a shindig, it’s probably going to be something cool, not something to “survive”. That said, there are ways to make the experience a BIT more fun and exciting. Every time, I go away thinking “that was the best night, EVER!”, even with some of the social and practical challenges, and over time, I’ve figured out a couple tips for how to enjoy yourself, and to avoid making a mess of things (most of the time), or living through a minor (or major) gaffe. You’re welcome.
- If you have national dress of the host, wear it. If you are invited to an Indian Independence Day function, rock the sari. If you are going to hang with Ghanaian peeps, bring out the batik up-and-down. If you don’t have anything, take a good hard look at your wardrobe – do you have edelweiss earrings for the Austrian-hosted reception? A Chinese-collar blouse? If you have anything that pays tribute in some way and recognizes the culture of your host, no matter how small, trot it out. This is what I like to call “fashion diplomacy”. Not only will it be appreciated, you’ll stand out a bit, which opens the avenues of conversation and you’ll actually get to talk to your hosts because you’ve started the conversation with your outfit. Wear that icebreaker.
- Don’t Dress Like a Slob. The fact of the matter is, you’ll be walking in next to the Italian CG and his wife, who have their clothing subsidized by Gucci, so, do NOT wear something that should have been consigned to the rag bag. Don’t get me wrong – you don’t have to go full-on designer and I’ve actually worn Target to functions, but you have to make sure you are well-turned out and that what you are wearing looks good on you. If you’ve gained a bit of weight recently, be aware that your shorter dress may actually be too short in the back, and when you bend over people will see a bit more of you than they’d like to. Avoid the big blousy stuff unless you are tiny and can rock it on your frame with some good accessories. If you are a woman, and you’re not wearing national dress (see #1 above), go for a nice dress. If you wear pants, for the love of God, wear a blazer, otherwise you look like the wait staff. Yes, you do – quit fooling yourself. If you want, put a blazer on with a nice dress, and you’re not subject to the congressional dress code, so go sleeveless if you want to and you can pull it off, and do the sandals too. And accessorize – reference paragraph 1 above, and if you don’t have anything that fits the bill, go for a statement piece or simple pearl jewelry. Guys – shave, or trim that Millennial beard. Shine those shoes. Wear a tie. And if you have them, break out the cufflinks, dude – it’s a special occasion. The bottom line is that you should be dressed just as nicely as you would be if you were going to a wedding as a single person looking to hook up. Not that you should at this particular event.
- Remember What Your Mama Taught You. The old-fashioned kind. Open the door for ladies. Thank the gentleman who opened the door for you. Say please and thank you. Let elderly people go first and offer them a seat. Make eye contact when you shake hands and talk to people. Don’t crush anyone’s hand or give them a limp fish. If the French CG leans in to air kiss you, do it anyway, even if he’s a bit of a flirt. Go through the receiving line and treat everyone the same. Introduce your plus one by name, not just “my wife” or “my husband” or “my partner”. Put a comma in that sentence and continue it – “My wife, Amy Jones.” Find something nice to say about everyone and everything.
- Watch the Booze. Sometimes, you may have a little too much fun, but if this happens at every reception, it’s going to affect your career, your relationship, and your life. If you are not a drinker normally, and you are nervous, this is not the time to try Long Island Iced Teas. If you are, know your limits. This is not a frat party, and there are people you will be among who will discuss you later. Yes, I mean the dude representing the Country Who Will Not Be Named who appears to be drunk and groping everyone in sight. Trust me, he’s not that lit.
- Try the Food When Prompted by Your Host. Countries go to great lengths to procure their local cuisine in foreign countries. In some places, it’s easier than others, but in every case, tracking down a chef who can make the obscure delicacy that is the ambassador’s favorite stressed someone on staff out. When someone from the host nation tells you to try the food and you don’t have a good excuse (i.e., vegetarian, allergic, religious restriction), just try it. You might be surprised at how good a fish eyeball tastes. If you never mastered the fake chew and swallow whole as a child, get on it now.
- If You’re Cornered, Escape Delicately. Even if you are unaccompanied, you can always escape an awkward or boring conversation delicately. Simply ask for a business card, say it was nice talking to the person, and excuse yourself. Then walk all the way across the room and join another conversation.
- If You’re Not Acknowledged, Move On. This happens. Either the group is all same-gendered and bonding, you’re not viewed as important enough, or the conversation is where someone is trying to close a deal or discussing something they shouldn’t be opening up on in public. If no one brings you into the conversation and eye contact or smiling isn’t melting the ice, just walk away. If your spouse or partner is in this group, get a clue and don’t get pissed – this is business and sometimes your presence helps and sometimes it doesn’t. You need to trust him or her enough to read the subtle cues. If it’s your supervisor and you should have been introduced, bring it up in the office the next business day. If it’s a subordinate, read the previous sentence. If it’s a casual conversation and the clique is just being jerks, say, “Thank you, gentlemen/ladies. It’s been enlightening,” and walk off. Be smart enough to know that the last option is one you should use only 2 or 3 times in your entire life.
- If Someone Joins the Group, Include Them. Unless it is someone who will completely dominate the conversation and push you out or who will alter the tone of a conversation that needs to happen, throw the newbie a bone, especially if you haven’t met him or her. If the newbie alters the subject in a way that doesn’t work for you anymore, excuse yourself and move on to the next group. This is a reception where you network and meet people, not a personal clique.
- Bail Out Your Buddies. Don’t leave your husband with the overly touchy tipsy businesswoman. Don’t let your wife be cornered by the boor who only wants to talk about how his cousin was refused a visa. If you notice that your coworker, spouse, or friend from another mission is uncomfortably trapped, walk in and say, “Oh, there you are! Excuse me, there’s someone I would like to introduce you to,” say a brief hello to the other party, and steer the victim to the other side of the room and to a new conversation. Don’t pull the rookie move of introducing someone to someone within his or her own mission.
- Remember, You WILL Make Mistakes. Over the last many years, I have brought flowers to a hostess that she was allergic to, “misconstrued” the history of Eastern Europe at a dinner party, and knocked over a few glasses of wine. Just last night, I dropped an asparagus on the floor. (Thank God it was outside and Indian street cats eat EVERYTHING.) When this happens, do not blame anyone. Make it right – offer to pay the dry clean bill, send a note, a box of chocolates, or anything else to apologize, but don’t dwell on it. If you’ve screwed up on the clothing front and are having a wardrobe malfunction, stand with your back to the wall, count 10 minutes on the clock past the national anthems and speeches, and then bail, unless it’s so bad you need to leave STAT. Smile. Laugh it off. And know that sometimes you just have to wak away (see asparagus comment). If someone else commits a faux paux and looks up, panicked, smile at them and tell them, “oh, things like this happen,” and don’t be a jerk about it. Continue the conversation with them so they don’t feel horrible and sneak off, but if they are running, let them. If you see someone else in a bit of a bind, change the conversation, offer up some safety pins, move to offer your napkin, or whatever else will help diffuse the embarrassment. Trust me, what goes around comes around.
Although they are technically work, remember that these events can be a lot of fun. It’s a great chance to meet new people, learn new things, and have interesting conversation. Just keep in mind you’re representing your country, and put your best foot forward. You’ve got this.