Life Audit

’Tis the Season to Schmooze

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It’s shaping up to be another season of silent nights for Martha Wehling.

Although she’s got a full schedule of holiday parties and end-of-year benefits, the 28-year-old tends to get anxious in formal social situations, making chitchat a chore.

Wehling, who expects to graduate from Seattle University School of Law this month, knows that she needs to embrace the parties. The events will bring a bounty of networking opportunities for her as she begins her job search. She wants to waltz through these parties with the kind of grace and ease that will impress potential employers. But she is girding for the worst.

Before attending law school, Wehling worked in consulting and often found herself attending similarly formal parties. She describes the experiences as painful. “I could not remember people’s names, I was bad at small talk and then we had to eat a meal,” says Wehling, who is a strict vegetarian. “It was excruciating because these are the three things I am worst at. I’ve never been able to develop a system for parties.” Bad experiences die hard. Wehling’s unease last summer at a party still haunts her. She ran into a lawyer with whom she had just interviewed for a summer clerkship and could not remember her name or the context in which they met. “I was so embarrassed, and the conversation ended quickly,” she says, because she did not know how to handle the situation.

Life Audit entertaining expert Jennifer Kaye applauds Wehling’s desire to improve her social skills. “Socially confident and well-mannered people tend to achieve better results in the business world,” she says.

And Kaye acknowledges the anxiety that formal social events can cause. Wehling is not alone in feeling like she would rather be doing anything but worrying about which fork to use, how to introduce people and keeping conver­sations flowing.
Fortunately for Wehling, social graces are a lot easier to acquire than a law degree.

Taking Initiative

Wehling admits that she tends to be a wallflower at parties. She is happy to talk to people when she is approached but rarely initiates conversations. But Wehling needs to be at the top of her game to make the most of these parties, and that means being comfortable with herself and her surroundings. Kaye wants Wehl­ing to figure out a way to relieve her anxiety, whether it means literally taking a few deep breaths before entering the party or getting a drink to relax her.

Upon entering the room, Kaye says Wehling should not make a beeline for a far wall or for a single person at the event. Instead, Kaye tells Wehling to talk with people as she crosses the room, even if she does not know them. “If you see people you have not met before, take the initiative to meet them. Make eye contact, introduce yourself,” Kaye advises. “By taking that initiative, she will show others that as a young lawyer she is energetic and outgoing.”

If, as happened last summer, Wehling forgets a name, Kaye wants her to shrug it off. Don’t pretend to remember. Simply apologize and ask for the name or try Kaye’s trick: If you recognize the face but forget the name, introduce yourself. Chances are the person will respond with his or her name.

“It’s always OK to say, ‘Remind me of your name again.’ It’s also OK to say, ‘I’m sorry, I know we’ve met before but I don’t remember your name,’ ” says Kaye. “It’s all how you handle it.”

If the party has a formal, seated dinner component, Wehling should try talking to one person at a time. Kaye suggests devoting half of the meal to the person seated on the left, the other to the person on the right.

To keep the conversation flowing, Kaye suggests that Wehling start by asking biographical questions to find something in common such as where your companions work, whether they have children or where they grew up. Chances are Wehling will find a nugget of information to use when the awkward silences inevitably arise.

Kaye advises steering away from certain topics that could be inappropriate to discuss with strangers, like religion or politics. Gossip or off-color jokes also show bad form. Because Wehling is a vegetarian, she often struggles with food choices at these events. Kaye tells her that the best way to handle this issue is to call the host ahead of time and ask for a meal that will meet her dietary restrictions. “In earlier times it was never appropriate to refuse food. Now, with religious and dietary restrictions, it is OK to do so. Just say, ‘No, thank you.’ ”

Kaye also wants Wehling to pay attention to her table manners. Napkins should be placed only on the lap. Elbows should be kept off the table.

When dining, the general rule is to use utensils starting from the outside and working toward the plate. For unusual utensils, watch your host, says Kaye, or lean back and quietly ask the waiter what the purpose of it is.

When finished with a course, place the utensils side by side in the middle of the plate. At the end of the meal, it is appropriate to place your napkin to the left of the plate.

If Wehling has met business contacts, Kaye believes it is best to wait until the meal is over to exchange business cards. If Wehling wants to get someone’s business card, she should offer hers first and wait for the other person to offer one.

Finally, Kaye says Wehling can get a lot of mileage out of ending the evening on a high note. “Close conversations graciously. Always say, ‘It was very nice meeting you and I hope we can have a chance to talk again.’ ”

After all, you only get one chance to make a good first impression. And during the holidays, that chance is the present.

Our Expert

Jennifer Kaye

Jennifer Kaye is the founder and CEO of Beatrice Productions, a Washington, D.C.-area event planning and fundraising firm. She has produced events for such clients as America OnLine, Sony and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, as well as private parties in the homes of some of the most discriminating residents of the nation’s capital.

Vital Statistics

Martha Wehling

Position: Law school graduate, Seattle

Ag: 28

Goal: To become more at ease and improve conversational skills in formal social settings.

Life Audit Hot Tip: International Etiquette

So, you need some assistance with etiquette but realize Miss Manners may not be able to help you woo a new client in Tokyo or Abu Dhabi. Life Audit expert Jennifer Kaye says there are numerous ways for today’s business-savvy lawyer to brush up on etiquette. She favors The English Manner (, which offers an array of courses for men, women and global travelers. Embassies or consulates also can provide useful tips, as can the help desks of NGOs like the World Bank.


Game Plan Manner Minder

• Which fork? Work from the outside in.

• How do I butter my bread? Bread is placed on the plate to the left (your drink is to the right). Instead of taking a big bite out of the whole bread slice or roll, break it into pieces and butter each piece separately before eating it.

• What’s the deal with spoons? Hold spoons in the right hand. When eating soup, the spoon moves away before bringing it to your mouth. With desserts, the spoon should come toward you.

• Can I talk to my friend sitting across the table? Unless the table is small six or less people wait until a course is finished. Then you may get up and talk to another person in between courses.

• How do I introduce the boss? Always stand when being introduced to a person of higher rank, regardless of gender. Let the higher-ranking party extend his or her hand first.

• Is it OK to kiss someone in a social setting? Not unless you know the person extremely well. Stick to handshakes.

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