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Guests at formal events

rolls royce

It is expected that guests will be particularly punctilious in matters of punctuality, dress and behaviour. However, despite the formality of the occasion, guests should be sufficiently relaxed to make the atmosphere light and convivial. In fact it shows good manners to be appearing to have fun.

If the invitation specifies ‘and partner’ then the name of the person must be given to the host. Guests should not bring an unauthorised plus one. Additional guests should also be briefed, in advance, by the primary guest about the nature and purpose of the event.

Time of Arrival
Times of arrival as stated on formal invitations are strictly adhered to. If a formal invitation says reception 7.30, dinner 8.15 then it is best to arrive at or very shortly after the time given. In the case of a genuine delay then get a message to the organiser, especially when it is a seated dinner. In the case of a stand-up reception then guests running late need not notify the organiser but should try to slip in quietly.

Dress Codes
Dress codes for formal events are normally clearly stated but it is best if there is any doubt to contact the organiser. Guests should always dress more formally and modestly than when among friends. This is particularly important where cultural sensitivities may come into play.

Receiving Lines
When there is a formal receiving line a guest may be asked to give their name to an announcer. In this case always give the full name, with title. (In some cases guests may have filled in a presentation card.)

– peers should give their exact rank, eg ‘the Duke of Mayfair’ or ‘the Earl and Countess of Aldford’
– professional titles should be in the form of ‘Professor James Hill and Mrs Hill’, or ‘Mr John Adam and Dr Jane Adam’
– married couples would be ‘Mr and Mrs John Debrett’
– titles such as ‘The Hon’ are not used nor are prefixes or suffixes such as ‘Bt’ or ‘MP’

Speak clearly, move forward promptly when announced and greet the hosts briefly, even if you know them well. If it is a long line a person may want to repeat their name as they progress, or vary their greeting, for example: ‘Good evening, it is so kind of you to have asked me/us’. Subsequently ‘How do you do?’

Food and Drink
If a guest has an allergy or is a vegetarian then it is important to say so on replying to the invitation. It is unacceptable to make a fuss on the night and best either not to take something from a dish or to leave food on the plate. Asking for special drinks or cross-examining waiting staff about ingredients is bad manners.

Small Talk
Avoid established contentious areas, such as religion and politics; personal remarks, including compliments, and jokes may be misinterpreted. Guests must make an effort to be sociable and include those who don’t know anyone (particularly in a business context) during the drinks and at the table. Keep the conversation flowing and be attentive to other guests.


The usual procedure is to have a drinks reception and then to be shown through to the table. Pause before taking a seat as there may be grace, during which the guests stand with heads slightly bowed. Sometimes there are speeches before dinner; if this is the case then guests take their seats (after grace) and then the speakers are introduced. Serving food is usually delayed until after the speeches.

Once the guests have been seated they should pause before starting to eat, although it is not necessary to wait for everyone to be served before starting. Fast eaters may need to slow down to allow time for others to be served at a large gathering. Slow eaters should also be aware of others and not delay the staff.

At the end of dinner there may be a toast, for which the guests will stand. There may be grace, followed by speeches. If there is clearing going on during the speeches, or coffee being served, then guests must try to remain as still and silent as possible.

High Tables
Certain institutions, such as Oxbridge colleges, have a high table, usually literally raised on some kind of dais, a reminder of ancient customs and the banqueting halls of the Middle Ages. It is usual for those seated on the ordinary tables to be shown to their seats first and then for those at the high table to come into the room. Those at the ordinary tables will stand to greet them. Certain institutions have particular traditions, such as greeting guests of honour with a slow handclap. Guests will almost certainly have had this explained to them, but if not then take a cue from others rather than being the first to make a move.

Rose Bowls and Loving Cups
Institutions that have rose bowls, bowls passed round in which people will dip their fingers as a ceremonial form of ablution, or loving cups, which is a complex form of toast with arcane rules, should have prepared guests in advance. Guests need not be afraid of getting it wrong but should aim to copy others more familiar with the specific ritual.

Dinner Dances
It is customary and good manners for the male guests to ask each of the ladies from their table to dance.

Thankyouletters reply

Many formal invitations will include the wording ‘Carriages at xx o’clock’ or state the time the event finishes. As with arrivals, these guidelines are usually closely adhered to. If a guest knows they will have to leave early, they should notify the organiser. Otherwise it is best to slip away with no fuss.

At the end of an event the organiser or host may place themselves in a suitable position near the door for leave-taking, in which case guests should say goodbye and thank you. However, if the host, or organiser, has been caught up, for example by seeing off the guest of honour, then it is quite acceptable just to make a discreet exit.

Guests must send a prompt formal thank-you letter (ie handwritten in ink), to the main host or organiser whose name was on the invitation. The letter may make reference to the provider of the building, say the Master of the College, and to the person being honoured, if applicable, but they do not need to be thanked. If the invitation came to the guest through another individual, who was not the main host, for example a member of an organisation, then that person should be thanked. A thankyou letter may contain a phrase apologising for not having been able to say good night and thank you properly on the night.

Charity Events
If the event in question was a charity fundraiser, for which a guest has bought a table, or brought guests, then they need not thank the host by letter, other than in exceptional circumstances, to congratulate them on the event, for example. The chairman of the charity (or one of the committee) should, however, in their turn, thank those who have taken tables, with a report about the sum raised and a brief explanation, such as: ‘It will go towards the MRI scanner,’ and possible future dates or plans.