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Party on… Just mind your manners

Formal meetings are only one facet of conducting business at major markets like mipcom. People in this industry are an amicable, if not gregarious, bunch and many find themselves on the receiving end of a seemingly endless succession of invitations to social events during the month of October. However, much depends on drinks and dinner. For as fun and un-businesslike as cocktail parties and group dinners often seem, they play an integral part in building relationships that might just help you seal your next big deal. Committing social gaffes of the 'I can't believe how rude that was' variety may break a deal before you've even had the chance to get one on the table. You have to bring your A-game. So with that in mind, we've turned to a few etiquette experts and market veterans to divulge their strategies for making it through cocktails and dinners with your dignity and business intact.
October 1, 2007

Formal meetings are only one facet of conducting business at major markets like MIPCOM. People in this industry are an amicable, if not gregarious, bunch and many find themselves on the receiving end of a seemingly endless succession of invitations to social events during the month of October. However, much depends on drinks and dinner. For as fun and un-businesslike as cocktail parties and group dinners often seem, they play an integral part in building relationships that might just help you seal your next big deal. Committing social gaffes of the ‘I can’t believe how rude that was’ variety may break a deal before you’ve even had the chance to get one on the table. You have to bring your A-game. So with that in mind, we’ve turned to a few etiquette experts and market veterans to divulge their strategies for making it through cocktails and dinners with your dignity and business intact.

License to eat, revoked
The number one purpose of cocktail parties is to provide a networking opportunity. So upon entering one, it’s no time to be Shrimpy McEats-A-Lot. You’re there to meet new people, not hang out at the hors d’ouvre table, scarfing back seafood, quaffing wine and gossiping with someone you already know. ‘Walk into the party tall,’ says Adeodata Czink, president of Toronto’s 20-year-old etiquette firm The Business of Manners. Czink adds, ‘Keep what you want to get out of it, and who you’re there to meet, top of mind.’

Once in the door, gladly don the name tag that awaits you and then make your arrival known to the organizer. At this point, you can also ask the host to make some introductions for you, suggests Lew Bayer, partner at Winnipeg-based The Civility Group, which offers courses on business etiquette such as ‘How not to be a Cocktail Weenie.’ Let the host know the kinds of industry folk you’re looking to meet, which should help you ease into the practice of making cold introductions on your own.

Whatever you do, don’t get sidetracked by the free food and booze. While that deep-red cherry tomato appetizer may seem deliciously innocent, Czink says ‘it’s a monster’ waiting to attack your clothes and leave an embarrassing stain in its wake. Sure, you can eat – after all there’s all that food floating around on servers’ trays – but the etiquette expert says you should limit yourself to one-bite appies, more than that and you’ll be stuck with a gob full of food at an inopportune time. Furthermore, avoid awkward snacks like meat on a stick; they’re more than a mouthful, and you’re usually left wandering aimlessly for what seems like hours wielding what has now become a weapon in a crowded room – the naked, pointy stick. Phyllo-filled treats are also a no-go, as anyone who’s worked the room covered in flaky pastry will attest.

On the drink side, Czink says it’s polite to take a glass of vino, but put a limit on consumption. She notes for women, in particular, there’s a double standard. ‘If a woman gets obviously drunk, she can never recover her reputation.’ And when you have the glass in hand, opt for stemware (it doesn’t tend to get your hands wet with condensation), keep it in your left hand and leave the right free for handshakes and business card presentation.

Come here often?
As for striking up a conversation, it’s best to approach people who seem to be between meetings. Barging into a chatty clatch isn’t a good idea, and once you’ve made your move, leading with ‘Do you come here often, big boy?’ is even worse. The simpler the opening line, the better. Czink says you need not utter anything more elaborate than ‘Hello, I don’t believe we’ve met. My name is…’ And at that point, she says, you immediately have several possible topics to carry the conversation, including your connection to the host, your purpose for being at the party, and the general ambiance of the room. Additionally, says Bayer, you should be ready to state your name, title, company and give a short description of what you do.

During the chat, it’s important to focus on the other person and make eye contact. For you Crackberry addicts out there, it means putting your PDA and/or cell phone to sleep. Answering a call or eyeing incoming email at this juncture is ‘like blowing your nose in front of the person – extremely rude,’ says Bayer.

That initial 30- to 45-second intro should be enough to determine whether or not you’ve made a connection, and the conversation doesn’t have to be needlessly drawn out. To extricate yourself, don’t lie and say you have to go to the bathroom – just offer your hand to shake and say ‘It was a pleasure to meet you.’ At this point, you can also give the person your card. Be sure to present it so the print is right-side up for the receiver. More often than not, you’ll get one in return, but if the gesture isn’t reciprocated just carry on to the next person. And as the party winds down, be sure to scout out the host and thank them for inviting you.

What’s for supper?
Many of the same rules apply to business dinners, but as fits the more formal and longer-lasting event, dress, behavior and conversation should get turned up a notch. Again, the meal is about building relationships and dealing with business, while the food served is secondary.

If you have any dietary issues, be sure to inform the host well in advance of the meal. Don’t, under any circumstances, complain of your ailments at the table, says Bayer. Additionally, don’t view the invite as an opportunity to gorge yourself.

Once seated, take cues from the host. Usually, Bayer says, the host will convey their spending limit in subtle ways. For example, they may recommend a few dishes from the restaurant’s menu as excellent, and this should give you an idea of what they are prepared to spend on the meal. If the host says ‘everything is fantastic,’ you’re being given carte blanch, but Bayer recommends refraining from ordering the most expensive item on the menu; it just makes you look greedy.

Ordering food that you intend to save for a doggy bag also comes off badly. In fact doggy bags/leftovers are to be avoided altogether. ‘I’ve known people to even ask for an extra portion to take home for their spouse,’ says Bayer. ‘It’s rude to order food that you will not eat in the company of the host and to take advantage of someone else’s hospitality.’

Finally, mind your manners, just as your mother told you. It’s not necessary to be schooled in the arcane arts of dining, but you have to make an effort. That means no taking calls during dinner and no slurping, burping, chewing loudly or with your mouth open and shoveling food into your cake hole. Dining pace should be measured and you should attempt to match that of your companions.

In good company
Certainly, socializing is the centerpiece of the evening. Neil Court, long-time MIP attendee and partner at Toronto’s Decode Entertainment, likes to bring like-minded people from different companies together at the dinner table, especially program buyers. ‘They always want to meet people who buy similar shows, and it makes for a more interesting and relaxed evening,’ he says. Moreover, adds Court, the host must make an effort not to overwhelm guests with too many reps from their own company. ‘I was invited to a dinner once with seven people from the host’s company, and one from the client’s; it’s intimidating,’ he says. ‘A ratio of two to one is a good rule, especially when you’re dealing with people new to the business.’

And you need to keep the business talk to a minimum as no one wants to be at the sleepy end of the table at a three-hour dinner. Says Court, ‘Be prepared to talk about something other than shop.’ And if you’re dining with an international crowd, make an effort to come to the dinner knowing something about the other countries represented at the table. ‘It makes you a hell of a lot more interesting,’ he explains, ‘and it’s flattering to your guests.’

Both Bayer and Czink suggest boning up on current events so you’re able to start conversations and ask questions to keep them moving, and having a small repertoire of clean, yet humorous, anecdotes at the ready to fill any lulls. Subjects to be avoided at all costs, especially with new business acquaintances, include your sex life, partisan politics and religion. And Czink cautions that too many references to extended family, the kids or grandchildren ‘can become tedious.’

Check, please!
So you’ve had a great evening, everyone’s happy, relaxed and full – how to deal with that pink elephant in the room: the check? As a rule, the person whose issues the invitations pays. Czink says the best thing to do is arrange pre-payment or at least make sure the bill never shows up at the table. If it’s a group dinner where people are picking up their own portion of the tab, be sure to pitch in your fair share – and that includes an allowance for the tip.

Finally, to insure you leave the meal with your reputation intact be sure to thank the host and extend handshakes to the others at the table. Also, if you suggested setting up a meeting, passing on a name or said you would send some subsequent information during the course of the evening, says Bayer, make sure you deliver on your promises.

Now go out and get those pre-market haircuts and manicures to complement the etiquette tune up, you’ve got parties to attend and new crowds to woo.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.

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