Cocktail Party Etiquette


May 15, 2013 | BY Kristine Stewart

Our guest writer, Kristine Stewart, shares her canapé-sized tips for behaving your best at cocktail events

This week, we are discussing cocktail parties.  This is my favorite type of event because compared with formal dinners or afternoon tea, there is flexibility: you can wear something fancy but chic, in a casual atmosphere, and circulate the room as you please to socialise, or network.

Even so, things can take a turn for the worse after an awkward conversation starter, a crumbly canapé, or one too many martinis.  So before trotting off to your next cocktail event, here are a few tips to ensure you are making the best impression with fellow partygoers. 

If you are feeling nervous for an event, make a point of grabbing a drink when you get there, alcoholic or not.  This will keep you from fidgeting with rings, fingers, nails, or watches, and encourages open body language, exuding confidence.  Hold the drink in your left hand, so you can shakes hands with the right. 

Keep it classy by taking occasional small sips.  You do not need to keep up with those around you.  If you cheers or toast, make eye contact, but clinking glasses is not necessary.  Your drink of choice should be… a cocktail.

Eat before attending the event even if canapés are provided.  If you are hungry, you will be eyeing the passing food trays instead of keeping eye contact with your conversation partners.  Even if you are having dinner after the event, have a light snack beforehand to tide you over.  It is always clear who has skipped dinner because those conversation groups will conveniently hover near the serving door, waiting to pounce on fresh trays of canapés. 

When the wait staff offers you a canapé, take a napkin first.  You do not want sticky fingers to be part of your first impression as you shake hands during an introduction. I suggest restricting yourself to five or six canapés throughout the evening; they are not a meal replacement.  Don’t forget to thank the server when reaching for food or drink.

If you have something that will need to be discarded, such as an olive pit or shrimp tail, place it in your napkin and gently fold it to conceal the unsightly item. An olive pit should be removed from the mouth quickly with fingers, do not spit it out. 

Cocktail events are social and conversation is everything; it is networking in a social setting.  If you arrive at an event and realise that you only know a couple of people (one likely being the host), chat with them but do not cling to them throughout the duration of the event.  Instead, take a look at the groups forming around you and decide which are best to approach according to displayed body language.  If people are standing with their feet and shoulders square to someone, they are likely engaged in a serious conversation and one should not interrupt.   If people’s stances are relaxed, with open body language and arms by their side, this is likely an easier conversation to enter.  Groups of three or four are usually best to approach, groups of two are often better to avoid. 

Read more from our guest blogger Ingrid Chen on how to break the ice at parties

Prepare conversation starters ahead of time.  Scan through the day’s newspaper and read through your latest issue of Hong Kong Tatler so you are in the know and armed with interesting conversation topics.  Have varied topics to draw from, depending on with whom you find yourself conversing.

When introducing yourself, shake hands, make eye contact, and smile.  Say your name clearly so people can hear it and retain it.  Do not launch into an elevator pitch – especially in a social setting – but rather listen carefully, remember names and use them in conversation.  Ask engaging questions to facilitate conversation.  Only offer your name card if you plan to keep in touch. 

Hong Kong boasts some of the trendiest cocktail party venues, often with the backdrop of our impressive skyline, serving creatively prepared, delectable cocktails. Have a fabulous time at your next cocktail event, armed with engaging conversation topics, your most stylish outfit, and of course impeccable manners. Cheers!

Kristine Stewart is the director of the Hong Kong Institute of Etiquette