The holidays are high social season, when even committed stay-at-homes are pressed into action. It's a time for slipping on the party duds and dusting off the social niceties.
"The whole underlying principle of etiquette is being considerate," reminds manners expert Peggy Post. "It's really practicing the golden rule."
That, more than knowing how to set a table, is what her great-grandmother-in-law, Emily Post, considered the social priority. Peggy Post has become the spokeswoman for the Emily Post Institute and a noted author on the social graces.
Many of these come in handy at the holidays, when invitations are accepted to dinner parties, office gatherings, and all manner of festivities.
Ms. Post shares some helpful pointers in a timely new book: "Entertaining: A Classic Guide to Adding Elegance and Ease to Any Festive Occasion" (HarperPerennial).
Some of the guidelines for being a good guest include:
* Don't tour your host's house uninvited.
* In the bathroom, put down the toilet seat and lid.
* Stay at least an hour after dinner before leaving.
* Use coasters (or napkins) to protect furniture.
* Never use the telephone without permission.
It also makes sense to find out what is appropriate dress. It would be rather embarrassing to show up in blue jeans and sneakers and find everyone else in more dressy attire.
"At a fairly small dinner party you don't want to eat and run," Post says during a call to her Fairfield County, Conn., home. "But there are exceptions."
Parents with small children, for example, may need to skip out early. Their departure shouldn't be too abrupt, though. A simple explanation - "We don't want to break this up, but we have to go" - will often suffice.
Graceful exit strategies are important in conversations, too, says Marjorie Brody of Brody Communications Ltd., an Elkins Park, Pa., company that specializes in teaching business communication skills.
Ms. Brody says that short conversations are the norm at office parties and large gatherings. "You should go with the attitude that you're going to talk to a number of people. You don't want to sequester anyone. Sometimes you are doing them a favor by exiting, even though you may feel awkward doing it."
To gently break off a conversation, Brody suggests saying something like, "It's been fun talking with you. I know you want to speak to as many people at this party as I do, so I'll see you later."
Another strategy, Post says, is to head for the refreshments, offering, "May I bring you something?" In the absence of a request, the conversation politely ends.
Both Post and Brody advocate taking the initiative when it comes to introductions. "I think it's more thoughtful to introduce yourself," Post says, "and the other person will generally offer his or her name."
And Brody adds, "Make sure you have good eye contact and give a good firm handshake. Too often people are looking around to see who else is there. That's rude."
At large social mixers, Brody recommends either approaching people standing alone or in groups of three or more. Two people may be engaged in a better-left-uninterrupted conversation.
Etiquette isn't just for adults. Post, who writes a column on teaching manners to young people for Parenting magazine, believes children learn from their parents, but not via crash-course lessons.
"It's a years-long, building-block process that starts with always setting a good example," she says. "When you go someplace or have company coming, then it's a good time to escalate the reminders."
Although children aren't expected to be perfect ladies and gentlemen, Post says minor faux pas can be avoided by anticipating rough patches, such as Junior's dislike for certain foods.
"Aunt Sue's going to be excited to see you, so don't say, 'Yech," when she serves you peas," Post says, giving an example. Her strategy: Do a little role-playing and walk through what is going to happen.