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What Should I Know About Formal Etiquette?

Mary McMahon
Updated Jan 24, 2024
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Formal etiquette is so involved that there are entire books on it, but there are a few tips for situations in which formal etiquette is required that may make people who are unfamiliar with the nuances of etiquette feel more comfortable. For people who have been invited to formal events in other countries, or events with heads of state, it may be advisable to pick up an etiquette book for more detailed information.

Etiquette is a collection of rules of conduct which can be used in a variety of situations. The foundation of formal etiquette is good manners, which means that someone can still navigate a formal situation very successfully if he or she has a thorough grounding in manners. Formal etiquette gets into the nitty gritty of everything from how to hand garments to a coat attendant to how to ask for a dance at a ball, but people can often get along just fine by following the models set by other guests, and remaining polite and gracious at all times.

When an invitation to a formal event is issued, it is polite to respond as quickly as possible, indicating intention to attend and how many guests will be brought. The invitation usually includes some cues to behavior, such as “black tie” to indicate the expected formality of dress. To prepare for the event, people should take time to select garments which are appropriate for the occasion, and they should ensure that their personal appearance is neat and flawless, from shoes to hairline. People who are unsure can consult an etiquette book or their host to determine the proper dress code.

For women, formal dress usually includes a floor length gown, along with matching accessories. Men wear tuxedos or suits, depending on the event. For men who are not quite certain about what to wear, the staff at a fine men's store should be able to offer advice upon being informed about the nature of the event. The timing of the event is important, as different sorts of clothes are worn in the morning and in the evening; morning weddings, for example, have a different dress code than evening dinners.

Rules of behavior at the event vary, depending on the type of event involved. As a general rule, people remove outerwear at the door and pass it to an attendant, and they should greet the host immediately, expressing thanks for the invitation but not lingering, as other people want to greet the host as well. Seating is typically assigned at formal dinners and balls or dances with tables for guests, and people should comply with their seating assignments.

At a formal event, people should take care to behave with decorum, treating people politely and respectfully and avoiding activities which are considered rude or in poor taste. At dinners, the forest of silverware on the table may be confusing, but people simply start on the outside of the setting and work their way in. The servers will take away or add plates and silverware as needed, and people who feel shy can follow the examples set by other guests. As a general rule, food should never be picked up in the hands unless it is presented as a finger food, and people should eat neatly. After the event is over and people have returned home, thank you notes should be sent to the host.

The goal of etiquette is to make people feel welcomed and comfortable, which means that if someone does violate the rules of formal etiquette, it would be considered grossly impolite to mention it. People who are nervous about the possibility of being corrected or chastised by other guests should rest assured that this should not happen at a formal event.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

Learn more
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