Missed Manners

The room was smaller than I would have liked. And there were no tables to stand behind and very few chairs. I was on an upper floor of the Cosmopolitan Club in Manhattan, celebrating the eightieth birthday of my husband’s father, the lights of the surrounding buildings twinkling through the windows as the bow-tied and velvet-draped guests poured in. Soon there were more than forty men and women in this compartment, most of them over sixty, all of them standing and talking, sipping cocktails, performing with ease an age-old ritual known as mingling.

I’m generally not a “greatest generation” person, but I couldn’t help but notice that these people knew exactly how to behave at a mixer. There never was anyone standing nervously and alone in the corner, pretending to read the fine print on a napkin. Nobody fell down. Nobody cried. Smiling guests approached, hands outstretched in confident greeting, a sparkling tidbit of information at the ready. My father-in-law is an accomplished author and also was a writer for CBS for thirty years, so the conversations tended toward the journalistic. There had been a presidential speech that afternoon, providing endless fodder for this group of lefties. Andy Rooney, who is almost exactly as you’d imagine, spoke amiably with a portly gentleman about whether Bush had put on a good show. When the man walked away, Rooney waved over a friend and asked, “Who was that who’s gotten so big I can’t recognize him anymore?”

So, two important arrows to have in your cocktail party quiver: interesting information about the outside world, as opposed to the latest on that uncle in prison, and also the skill and grace to make others feel comfortable, even if that means pretending at familiarity. Keeping a conversation going—with talk that is neither frivolous nor grave—is paramount. That’s where things often fall apart with my friends. I come from a generation raised on quick-cut commercials for everything from cereal to tampons, electric billboards, headphones, and home theaters. It’s always easier if there is a band on stage to stare at, or a movie. In those settings, socializing is restricted to snarky, mumbled one-liners and face-making in the shadows. My friends and I practically invented “social anxiety.” Among these comfortable old-guard New Yorkers, consummate adults at ease with nothing to look at but each other, I felt like a person in a state of arrested development. My attention span was roughly that of a seventh grader.

I headed to the bar for a stiff drink, an ancient tactic that has carried over nicely to modern times. A few slugs and back out into the room I went. Several guests had been briefed on my background. It kept coming up that my mother lives in the same town where the actress Jean Seberg was born. Had I thought ahead, had I known what to expect, I would have Googled Seberg and marked all the details—that she’d stood up for civil rights and against the Vietnam War and had been accused by J. Edgar Hoover of carrying a Black Panther’s baby. I would have known that she’d miscarried and, in a ballsy, tragic move, presented her dead white child at a press conference. I would have known that she herself had been found dead several years later, in a car in suburban Paris. An impressive chatterbox I would have been, indeed. Instead, I said, “Are you kidding? I love old movies!” mildly insulting the retiree to whom I was speaking.

Oh well, I thought, any minute and I’ll be face to face with someone new. That’s another fascinating aspect of accomplished socializing, the moving toward and away from conversations as though entering and exiting a freeway. Deftly, a man might say, “That’s just great. John will get a kick out of that. I think I’ll find him and tell him about it.” There are very few stutters or hesitations. There is no feeling that you’ve been interminably captured by someone boring, that a ransom note is forthcoming. Of course, this constant rotating of people requires a knack for remembering names, because decorum requires a final round of handshaking at the end of the evening, during which everyone explains how nice it’s been to meet everyone else.

The temperature in the room was on the rise. I’d had a few more cocktails and eaten more than my share of the smoked salmon and puff pastry appetizers. I’d chatted with just about everyone there was to chat with, occasionally breaking the rule against lingering. And then my own dear husband bade me to step out onto the balcony. The air outside was crisp and fresh, the skyline stunning. Looking around, I noticed that there were others leaning against the railing, also not talking. It was surely no coincidence that they all looked to be under forty.—Jennifer Vogel