Editor’s Note: “Stokes” (Heinz) is the man.
The Holiday Season is almost upon us ladies and gentlemen! Given the anticipated uptick in related social occasions, and after two+ pandemic years, it’s time to revisit how we might leave a favorable impression in our wake. Here’s a hint. You call it corn, we call it poise.
What’s that you might ask? A quaint notion in 2022, I realize, but poise, according to Mirriam-Webster online, is an easy self-possessed assurance of manner. A pleasantly tranquil interaction between people. A particular way of carrying oneself. Put another way, poise is the practice of tact or graciousness in how we interact with others in various situations.
When it comes to the embodiment of poise, I always imagine people like Audrey Hepburn, Jacqueline Onasis, David Niven, or the Habsburg prince my wife once met, dined, and conversed with at some United Nations function a dozen or so years ago. Yes, really. Closer to home, I well remember some of the couples with whom my parents and grandparents socialized routinely during the 1970s and 80s in the Philadelphia and New York areas. In every instance, we are talking about women and men who displayed a certain calm, cultivated, and polished demeanor without fail. Charm for want of a better term.
Fast forward to late 2022. Are there any people in present-day life who displays similar traits? Like so many once common social conventions, individuals who exude poise seem about as common as hen’s teeth in our evermore socially engineered, egalitarian, yet increasingly unpleasant world of the 21st century. But has poise completely gone the way of the dodo?
While the quality of poise is without a doubt thin on the ground at this point in history, I remain optimistic that it is still around if we look hard enough. Indeed, poise merely lies dormant, like Godzilla at the bottom of Tokyo Bay, and just needs a little encouragement to emerge and bloom once again. With that in mind, and in view of the fast approaching 2022-2023 holiday season, here are a few ways we might revive and cultivate poise. And who knows? If we work more consciously to improve ourselves, others might well follow suit.
Ready? Here we go.
1) When you walk into the front hall, or across the living room to peruse the buffet table, or refresh you drink, avoid bobbing or swaying from side to side with that cinematic or music video bad boy swagger. Unless you are auditioning for a Happy Days or Grease reboot, just stand up straight, suck in your stomach, hold your shoulders back, and move ahead with a confident and purposeful stride. Leave the side-to-side sway to Dean Martin. Unless you are J. Fred Muggs, Manuel from Fawlty Towers, or from The Ministry of Silly Walks, and then by all means go right ahead. But poise won’t be what comes to mind as you cross others’ field of vision.
2) Greet people, new acquaintances or old friends alike, with a firm handshake. If you are French, or from Latin America, an embrace and peck on the cheeks might work, but otherwise, boys and girls, personal space unless it’s a close family member. Be aware too that not everyone shares your enthusiasm for unanticipated (or simply undesired) bear hugs. If you prefer to avoid a handshake, fine, but leave the fist and elbow bumps to the Richard Pryor movies of the 1970s, ok? Someone should have told President Biden (and other world leaders caught in the act) 18 months ago, but the practice looks silly and contrived on anyone over the age of 11 or 12.3) When you meet someone new for the first time, introduce yourself with “How do you do?” Avoid the weak and ubiquitous (at least in the United States) “Nice to meet you.” For people you already know, try “Lovely to see you again!” “Good to see you!” or something like “It’s been a long time. How have you been?” And whatever you say, don’t reply “Busy” to a similar inquiry from someone else. That particular answer has been done to death since at least the mid-1990s, when the New York Times ran a piece on the cult of busy in its Sunday magazine. You can be a bit more thoughtful (and interesting) than that.
3) Sit up and join the conversation, or, as my late maternal grandfather used to tease us kids, “Come to the party!” Nothing says bored and/or uncomfortable to those around you like slouching back in your chair at the dining table, with occasional mumbled, monosyllabic utterances, or doing your best impression of a wallflower all alone on that huge, overstuffed modular sofa in the corner of someone’s family room. For the love of God, live a little. Say hello, introduce yourself, make some acceptable small talk, and at least try to have a nice time. It certainly won’t kill you. Or stay home. I hear there’s a 144-hour marathon of Christmas Vacation on Hulu.
4) Moderate your voice. Ok. I get it. A roomful of people in high spirits having fun in each other’s company punctuated by occasional sounds of laughter, surprise, or similar pleasure. It sounds nice. What does not sound nice are overly loud, raucous voices like you might hear at a crowded sports bar or tailgate party at the BIG Sunday game outside the local university stadium as a bunch of slightly inebriated guys and gals shout at the TV following a fumble or interception. “Honey, keep your voice down!” as my late mother used to advise well into our teenage years when the concept finally took firmer hold.
5) Wait your turn to speak and avoid interrupting the festivities with soliloquys on why your team didn’t make the play-offs this year. Of course, it’s exciting getting together between the end of November and the start of January for various holiday gatherings, open houses, and dinners. People to see, things to say, news to share, sparkle and fabulous to behold, and so forth. But talking over others, or cutting them off mid-sentence is hardly charming. Besides, truly great conversationalists listen far more than they speak. Assuming we still aspire to something along the lines of the old Tonight Show when hosted by Jack Parr or Tomorrow hosted by Tom Snyder. 6) Avoid overly loud, forced laughter. It draws unnecessary attention, makes you sound, nervous, and lacking in confidence. So, unless you want to come across like The Lost Fiance Women in that early season of Seinfeld, or M.A.S.H.-era Alan Alda, rein yourself in a wee bit. And hey, if a fellow guest is a genuine raconteur and shares an account with the room that actually is riotously funny, go right ahead. Let loose like a jack rabbit on a date. But most of the time, most of the things and jokes we relate to each other aren’t that amusing. Worthy of a smile maybe. Possibly a chuckle or two before the conversation moves on. But a Hahahahaha. . . Bag-o-Laughs? Um, no. Besides, you do not want the people across a large room turning around at the peels of your laughter and thinking, “Who IS that dangerously unbalanced person?!” Remember. Calm, cultivated, and polished sophistication.
7) Close your mouth when not speaking or taking a bite of something at the table, or from your hors d’oeuvres plate. Nothing makes a person, regardless of his, her, or their age, look more like the village idiot than sitting there slack-jawed, with a vacuous smile plastered across his or her face. So, unless you really are vegged out like the late Gilda Radner’s lampoon of Sybil 40+ years ago when Saturday Night Live was actually cutting edge, close your mouth. Magically, you will look more sophisticated. 8) Avoid the dreaded “manspread” when sitting in mixed company. Cross one knee over the other, or rest one ankle across the other knee if you wear pants, or keep your feet on the floor immediately to your front. Alternately, you can cross your ankles. But let’s not air our difference to the world, eh boys? It’s hardly the cultivated image we wish to convey.
9) Along similar lines, fold your hands when in repose and avoid fidgeting or twiddling your thumbs. Likewise, don’t shake, jiggle, drum your fingers, or bounce your foot. Besides irritating at least a few of those around you, habits like these make you seem anxious, nervous, bored, uncomfortable, and otherwise not in control of yourself. Is that really how you want to come across? Wiggling like a bowl full of jelly ain’t the way to achieve a calm, cool, and collected, demeanor.
10) By the same token, don’t pick at yourself, a habit that seems rife when you people watch as I am wont to do in public. Not only is self-grooming, if we might politely call it that, distracting to others, but, depending on what you are picking, the habit is gross. At best. Besides, is the impression of a grooming chimpanzee really the memory you want to leave with family and acquaintances who you see one in a blue moon?
11) Limit your alcohol intake at holiday gatherings regardless of setting, context, or location. We hear this one every year. Shouldn’t have to say it again, but I will anyway. Know your limits and stop before you reach ‘em. Or simply don’t start. There are too many people who become sloppy, ugly, mean drunks, after a couple of glasses or drinks. Don’t be that person. Public inebriation is definitely NOT how we cultivate poise. 12) If you are sick come the big night, simply stay home. Do everyone a favor and call your hosts with regrets. Let’s be reasonable and responsible. Things come up, and sometimes that entails a last minute change of plans. Life is funny that way. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, we should have learned not to dump our personal yuck in others’ laps. It’s just plain thoughtless. Besides, this time of year, it’s highly probable that you can catch up with George and June at a subsequent holiday gathering a week or so later.13) Unless children have been mentioned explicitly on the print or electronic invitation, get a sitter. Avoid being THAT couple who foists their little angels upon everyone else. And, whatever you do, don’t call your hosts to ask if you can bring your kids along anyway because they are, “Really good.” Parties take time and money to plan, and it could be that your hosts prefer to entertain adult friends without the distraction of tired, bored, sniffly, and fractious children parked at a card table in another room. So, unless the party is at Chuck E. Cheese, spare everyone your version of Jon and Kate Plus Eight. Avoid putting your hosts in an awkward position, leave the kids at home, or drive ‘em over the river and through the woods at Grandmother’s house for a sleepover. Or suck up that relatively inconsequential disappointment and telephone your regrets. It’s the right thing to do.
14) And if someone tries to talk politics, unless you know for certain he or she shares your political views, and the two of you are alone out of others’ earshot, skip it. Seriously. Things are just too ugly, and it’s not worth spoiling the event for others just to prove how right your side is, how mistaken, and uninformed everyone else is. As the saying goes, you can’t cure stupid. Far better to try something like, “I need to refresh my drink. Excuse me, please.” or “Honey, is that the time? We have a baby-sitter to relieve and should go. Thank you for a lovely evening everyone.” I mean, really. Haven’t we all had enough of this particular rollercoaster ride? Let’s not let it taint one more little corner of our lives that might otherwise provide a pleasant few hours.
Do you best to practice and internalize these 14 pointers, and you’ll be well on you way toward greater poise, charm, and grace in ANY social situation, holiday or otherwise.
But wait! Before you go, here’s a FREE parting holiday gift! When you are invited somewhere during the holiday period, remember to glam it up a bit! You don’t necessarily need the plaid bowtie or waistcoat and navy blazer, but do put on some clean, pressed attire that does not stretch, feature a drawstring waist, scads of extra pockets, or camouflage pattern. Leave the hunting session out in the deer blind for another day. Time to resemble an adult with some grooming and sophistication even if only for one evening. Now, tuck in that shirt and put on a belt to match your loafers. Leave the oversized white sneakers to Larry David.
– Heinz-Ulrich von Boffke
Bravo, well done!
Thank you for putting in the time to present these great suggestions. I appreciate that this will put ourselves and others at ease. I will use these guidelines to improve my business interactions as well. I also like the comedic timing in your writing!
A few others:
Similarly to politics, avoid discussions of religion.
No potty-mouth (extremely difficult for me).
No more than a dab of St. John’s Bay Rum.
Don’t dwell on sad stories from the pandemic; we all have them.
Introduce yourself to strangers who are standing alone so they feel included.
Be sure to thank the hosts before you leave; no Irish good-byes.
Ask the hosts if it’s okay to bring someone they don’t know or someone they know but might not want to attend (Ex. recent ex-spouse of another guest).
Be extra disciplined about following H-U’s suggestions if it’s a work-related party.
Don’t do what my dad once did at a formal USAF affair, which was to emerge from the restroom and loudly declare “a gentleman dapper has just stepped out of the crapper.”
Simple and sound rules of thumb, H-U.
I suppose I would have to see the Dean Martin, side-to-side sway demonstrated in order to understand. Was that swagger, or inebriation? Part of the act, or real?
What are acceptable replies to “how do you do”, “how have you been”, etc? Lately, I’ve been going with “better than I deserve, how about you?”. I’ve considered using “consistently superior”, or “I am magnificent, how are you?”, but most people do not respond to tongue in cheek or wit very well.
What are examples of “acceptable small talk”? It always seems to me to be uninteresting and a bit dishonest.
When exactly, and why, did everyone begin to take themselves so seriously, and to be so dismissive of anything important?
Excellent post, H-U, and the illustration at the top is great!
Nice post. Number 11 is most important. No one likes a well dressed drunk.
An undressed drunk is even worse.
On the topic of shaking hands when meeting a new person: I (male) was brought up to always shake a man’s hand when introduced, but to wait for a lady to extend her hand first. Is that still the rule or is it outdated?
Apologies this took so long to get through the filter. I have no idea how it wound up in there. In the future, if you post something, just email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will see to it personally.
Excellent advice, Heinz-Ulrich, and presented with wit.
I have committed most of the social offenses Heinz-Ulrich so entertainingly enumerated here, and can therefore affirm the truth and wisdom of this article. As an erstwhile case study in what-not-to-do, this is indeed sound advice.
Rather than try to remember this entire, rather daunting list, I might suggest becoming a mature person with a modicum of self-possession and confidence. If one does that, one needn’t remember so many of these specifics.
Wit, you say? Not true! I’m about as sharp as a mashed potato sandwich. 😉
Thank you everyone for your kind observations and comments. The subject of gentility could fill volumes I suspect. This is just some of what parents, maternal grandparents, and extended southern family on ol’ Mom’s side taught us as children and teenagers. Most of it stuck (thank goodness).
Much like a fixer-upper house, or education, we’re never really done with self-improvement. If we go about it in the right way, it’s ongoing.
Kind Pre-seasonal Regards,
How unfortunate it is that many people associate proper behavior with snobbery. At a recent social gathering, a fellow faculty member, whom I barely knew, said “Let down your hair, man” to me. He has been stricken from my list of people worth knowing.
Correction: “Let your hair down,man”
I’m chuckling picturing Rapunzel at a cocktail party…
In all seriousness, I completely agree with the sentiment — snobbery and poise are entirely different traits. Your self-possession probably had this other faculty member feeling inadequate by comparison.
“You call it corn, we call it poise.” – love that reference! Some here may not have been around when that ad was prevalent.
Nice job, Heinz-Ulrich. Reads a bit like J. P. Donleavy’s “Unexpurgated Code,” the most amusing book ever written on this topic.
It’s getting harder with each passing year to adhere to number one:to suck in your gut, also, my wife reminds me to wear my hearing aid which would help with number four.Great article.
This might not be small talk, but I think a good line of discussion is asking people what they are passionate about: “Are you working on any cool personal projects?” “Seen/done/eaten anything really amazing lately?” This line of discussion is more interesting than “So, what do you do?” because who wants to talk about work at a holiday party?