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Entertaining widens one's circle of friends among officials and private citizens of the host country and other Foreign Service officers and diplomats. It also facilitates the informal exchange of information. Just as being a guest at a host country event affords the American diplomat an opportunity to experience the host country's culture, guests of embassy officers will expect to experience American culture. When planning the event, one must carefully consider whom to invite and how formal or informal the event will be. Also, be aware of the local customs on reciprocity.

The ambassador fulfills the obligation for formal entertaining for the mission; however, many staff members often have entertaining responsibilities as well. The type of entertaining depends on one's preferences, purpose, resources, and available facilities. For example, events can be hosted at one's home, a local restaurant, or club. Representational events need not be large, elaborate, or expensive. In many situations, a simple lunch or a backyard barbeque can be more effective (and enjoyable) than an elaborate dinner or reception.

Whom to Invite

Everyone in the diplomatic and consular community understands the need to make friends quickly. Therefore, it is perfectly acceptable to invite new acquaintances, as well as individuals one wishes to meet, even before receiving an invitation from them. When members of the host government are invited, the event becomes an official function of the US Mission and international protocol is in order. Well in advance of the invitations being sent, the protocol officer and/or senior officers at post should review the proposed guest list.

A common way to extend an invitation to a formal event and/or official function is through official stationary cards followed by a telephone call. Increasingly, however, the invitation is extended over the phone, and a card is sent as a reminder. Letterhead and calling cards are seldom used. Handwritten invitations on informals are a good way to extend invitations without the expense of having invitations printed. Some posts have blank stock, others do not. Check in advance to determine if this is an option at your post. As the RSVPs arrive, the protocol officer may be able to help design a proper seating arrangement.

The long-standing dilemma when entertaining abroad is the variation in responses to invitations. Invited guests may accept an invitation, but not attend. Others may not RSVP at all. Invited guests sometimes bring uninvited guests or arrive late.

Differences in the country's cultural norms and perceptions of socially acceptable behavior account for these variations. When it is crucial to have an accurate guest list, one might telephone the invitees to ask if they will attend. Differences in the concept of social time affect the role of the host as well as that of the guest. Find out whether the time on an invitation will be adhered to, or taken to mean two hours later. If guests arrive late according to custom, they will probably also leave late. The only way to learn these intricacies is by asking at post.

When making the guest list, do not assume that higher-ranking US officers are off-limits. They often consider it a pleasant change of pace to attend less formal social functions. To accommodate them, check with the ambassador's or principal officer's secretary, and confirm the date to avoid scheduling conflicts.

Informal Entertaining

At most posts, informal entertaining is not only appropriate, but also the easiest and most representative of the way Americans entertain at home. Informal events encourage both the guests and the host(ess) to relax and circulate. Furthermore, if guests feel that they will not be competing with the gala event of the year, they are more likely to reciprocate.

Informal parties can take many forms, such as family-style meals, buffet lunches and suppers, barbecues, picnics and tea parties. The key to any event is to move the guests around so they can talk to different people. Accomplish this by serving in several rooms, planning interactive games or music and dancing.

Buffet style is an excellent way to serve informal meals. The host(ess) or waiter may serve guests from the buffet, or guests may serve themselves. Tableware may be part of the buffet service or the table may be set in advance. Tables of six or eight people are more conducive to conversation than tables of four. If you choose not to set up tables, at least clear coffee tables and end tables so the guests can put down their dishes. A few tables for guests who are not comfortable eating from plates on their laps is a thoughtful touch.

If using place cards, follow the rules of precedence to determine who will be placed in the seat of honor (for a man, the seat to the right of the hostess and for a woman, the seat to the right of the host). If there is no prepared seating plan, ranking guests should be invited to sit at the host's table.

Unless there is a receiving line, the host(ess) and his/her spouse should stand near the entrance to greet guests as they arrive and also to say good-bye as they leave.

Formal Entertaining

As the host(ess) of a formal event, one may call on US mission colleagues to serve as "co-hosts." Representational entertaining is a shared responsibility among officers at post. Formal entertaining includes a variety of representational events, meetings, and activities, as well as "black tie" and "white tie" dinners and receptions. A formal printed invitation should be issued well in advance, usually four to six weeks ahead. Invitations may also be extended by a phone call followed by a reminder card.

Prepare a guest list that shows the title or profession of each guest and make that list available in advance to the mission staff members who will be co-hosting with you. Occasionally, other guests or Ministry officials may request the list; it may be appropriate to provide it to them. It is appropriate to provide the list to the guest(s) of honor.

One may wish to consult the post's protocol officer for advice in creating a guest list and seating arrangement. The number of guests, their names and positions, the purpose of the party, and the shape and number of tables are but a few of the details which need to be addressed. Guidelines for seating and service follow, but keep in mind that they may be adapted to each event.

Both the guest of honor and other guests must know who has the place of honor. In the United States, the place of honor for a man is at the right of the hostess; for a woman, it is at the right of the host. However, in some countries, the place of honor is at the left of the host/hostess. The host and hostess can sit at opposite ends or across from one another at the same table. They may also be seated at separate tables. If so, each chooses a co-host or co-hostess, creating two more seats of honor. Co-hosts and co-hostesses are usually ranking guests or colleagues from the US Mission. After the guest of honor and the host(ess) or co-host(ess) are seated, the arrangement goes by rank, gender, and nationality. As a general rule, couples sit across the table from each other, not side-by-side. Several examples of possible seating arrangements are illustrated below. To seat 8, 12, 16, or 20 people without two men or two women sitting together, the hostess sits to the left of the seat that is properly hers. ("W" represents a female guest; "M" represents a male guest.)

Sample Seating Arrangement for Eight

Sample Seating Arrangement for Fourteen

The most common arrangement places the host and hostess at the head and foot of the table. ("W" represents a female guest; "M" represents a male guest.)

Sample Seating Arrangement for a Men's/Women's Luncheon or Dinner

For same-sex events with only a host or hostess, a better balance of rank may be achieved by designating a co-host and having the host and co-host seated opposite of each other at the center of the table.

As a general rule, an even number of men and women alternate seats at a table. In American homes, foreign guests take precedence over Americans of comparable rank with the exception of the Ambassador of the United States. The Ambassador is seated as a host or hostess to avoid seating precedence conflicts. This courtesy also applies to the ambassador's spouse. If an unequal number of men and women (or individuals of more than one nationality) are in attendance, alternate both the sexes as well as the nationalities. One possibility is to seat the host(ess) and the guest of honor opposite each other in the middle of the long sides of the dining table and then alternate from there. The husband of a high-ranking female official is seated commensurately; do not demote him. When many high-ranking officials are expected to attend the event, if possible, seat them in a manner such that many hold a seat of honor. An excellent way of doing this is to use round tables. Using round tables is also helpful in minimizing disruptions if place settings must be removed at the last minute.

Place a seating chart in the entrance hall so that each guest may find his/her place before entering the dining room. Although rarely practiced today, men might be given a "take-in card" which designates a particular woman to escort to the table. Place cards are used when there are more than eight guests. Place them above the plates with the names and titles visible to the guests seated at either side. For the benefit of the guests across the table, consider printing the names on the back of the cards as well. When there are many tables, a table chart is often used to assist guests in locating their table.

One waiter for every six to eight guests is generally sufficient. Guests may be served in sequence around the table or women may be served before men. If guests are served in sequence, the woman on the host's right is served first. The man to her right is served next, and service proceeds counter clockwise so that the host is served last. If women are served first, the woman on the host's right is served at the same time as the woman to his left. Two servers then proceed clockwise around the table to the women and then to the men. If there is only one server per table, the direction of service should be reversed after each course so that the same guests are not always served last. Local customs for serving should be observed.

As mentioned above, seek advice at post about the local customs on toasts and drinking in general. Usually, toasts are made with the dessert course. At the end of the meal, the host or hostess makes the first move to leave the table. Guests then follow in order of precedence. Coffee may be served in another room.

For suggestions on menus, table settings and decorations, consult an etiquette book or a cookbook designed for entertaining.

Receiving Lines

At formal receptions, a receiving line enables the host and hostess to greet each guest personally. Usually, the host stands first and the hostess stands second. However, the hostess may defer to guests of honor and stand after them in line. To stand in line and receive guests with a drink or cigarette in your hand is considered discourteous.

An official staff member may introduce each guest; guests may also introduce themselves. All US staff members should help the host(ess) attend to the guests by "taking them off the line": greeting them as they finish the receiving line, accompanying them to the refreshments, and integrating them into conversations.

At the end of the event, the host should be available near the exit to say good-bye to guests. At an event hosted by the Ambassador, Deputy Chief of Mission, Public Affairs Officer, or agency head, staff members should stay until all foreign guests have departed.

Being a Guest

Certain  guest responsibilities hold true whether you are attending a formal international event or a local party.

If you are a parent, you may be reluctant to leave your children behind when attending social functions. However, in most cases, children may not accompany their parents. Most social events for business or pleasure will not include children. If the event does include children, the invitation will make it very clear.

The tradition of toasting is practiced around the world. In most countries, a guest who is being toasted remains seated and does not drink to the toast. The honored guest makes a reply by standing and offering a toast to the host and hostess.

Leave a party at a reasonable hour, no matter how much fun you are having. Leaving early is better than overstaying one's welcome. But be aware that in some countries, a reasonable hour may be very late by US standards. It is best not to leave prior to the departure of the senior official of any nationality. Do not leave before the guest of honor or the senior representative of your mission leaves, especially if you are helping to host a US event. Be sure to thank the hosts before you depart, keeping the farewells brief.

You should thank your hosts in writing or by phone the next day unless the event was a very informal event or a very large reception. Thank-you notes are hand-written and signed without courtesy titles (i.e., Mark Roberts, not Mr. Roberts). If you feel the situation merits a more elaborate thank-you, let local custom be your guide for an appropriate response.

Adapted from material published by the Overseas Briefing Center of the U.S. Department of State.
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