Whatever the excuse, terrible table manners, hostile hosts and awkward introductions abound during the Toronto International Film Festival. But in my opinion, the event is a time to show our guests just how well mannered we are as a nation. The 11-day festival comes with a set of unique social conundrums, so I have compiled a list of helpful tips to get you through TIFF faux-pas free.
My own thoughts on the topic of etiquette have been collected by means of observation – galas and cocktail receptions are a constant in my diary. I have also gathered other professional opinions. Dorothea Johnson is an etiquette expert and founder of The Protocol School of Washington. During her 40-year career, she has helped ambassadors become amiable and politicians become polite. Don't let her title fool you – she's wonderfully with-it. Her book, Modern Manners: Tools to Take you to the Top, was written alongside her granddaughter, actor Liv Tyler.
I also spoke with Nicholas Mellamphy, creative director of The Room at Hudson's Bay. Its fitting rooms are frequented by high-powered fashion plates, and I knew he'd have opinions on how to deploy impeccable manners.
Even in our emailed-thank-you's world, etiquette has a place, though the decorum of today is a far cry from the abandoned formalities of yesteryear. However, the golden rule – kindness – remains. The intent is neither perfection nor discrimination, but rather comfort and confidence to make oneself feel at ease in any situation, in turn putting those around you at ease as well – which, in essence, is the most mannerly thing to do.
"The biggest thing that people need to understand with TIFF is that it's not Cannes!" says Mellamphy. "The female starlets aren't wearing gowns, they are wearing cocktail [dresses]. They are cool." TIFF style is certainly unique, thanks in part to a more low-key vibe associated with the event (though not quite the Colorado casual associated with the Telluride Film Festival, of course). Public screenings and events have made it the "people's film festival" and the fashion is a reflection of that. So while visions of Keira Knightley clad in Chanel couture or Gwyneth Paltrow laden in Harry Winston jewels may inspire you to go all out, "It isn't that here," Mellamphy notes.
Johnson has some tips for the more manner-minded individuals who aren't necessarily focused on making a red carpet splash. She cites preparation as a key element to avoiding a fashion blunder: Find out beforehand what the dress code is for the event and go from there. "Being low-key is the key. You don't have to be so flamboyant," she notes. In other words, leave the glitz and glam to the pros (it is, after all, their night to shine). She also has one fashion tidbit that goes far beyond TIFF: "Refinement is powerful!"
WHEN DOING MAKEUP AND HAIR Go for the blow dry and forget the makeup artist, or vice versa. It results in a relaxed elegance that looks wonderful on everyone.
The days of autograph collecting are far behind us: The pens once waved desperately in the direction of the famous have been replaced with cellphones. Invasive? Yes. Instantly gratifying? Absolutely. If the sight of Eddie Redmayne swiftly departing Variety Studio's camp at Holt Renfrew leaves you desperate to document, then I suggest erring on the side of George Hurrell (Hollywood's foremost portraitist) as opposed to Ron Galella (tinseltown's pioneering paparazzo). Take a lovely photo – one that doesn't include you. Keep your social media needs at bay and leaving the poaching to the paps.
If you're unbearably eager to self-snap alongside a visiting star, then the key is politeness and good judgement. "Liv and her dad (Aerosmith's Steven Tyler) really get it all the time," says Johnson of her famous family's experience with the front-facing phenomenon. "They are both very kind and very accommodating." She adds that she has noticed times when their handlers will move in to block access, so her insider advice is this: Keep an eye on the mood of those around the celebrity before going in for the photo.
To this I would add that a simple "Hello" works well instead of just insinuating yourself into a photo op. Ask a friend or someone near (politely) to take a candid photo while you are talking. This way you get the shot but in a far more casual way; there's nothing worse than uncomfortably standing to pose while others watch.
WHEN POSTING IMAGES Use the hashtag or Twitter handle for the film the star is promoting when you upload your pictorial prize on social media. Think of it as a digital thank you note for the time they took indulging you with your preposterous desire to self-photograph.
The likelihood of a street-side or hotel lobby run-in with a visiting celeb is high. The desire to talk to one may strike, but there's an art to doing it and common sense is involved. "If someone is there to promote something, then it's fair game," says Mellamphy. "If you stumble upon someone in the day, it's not appropriate." So, if you spot someone of note in a dark corner of a small restaurant, it's probably not the time to stop and chat about your own budding film career or inquire about an off-screen romance you read about in a gossip rag (the latter is never actually appropriate – neither are the topics of politics and religion).
Johnson says you can absolutely approach someone and introduce yourself, and suggests breaking the ice with a little compliment. "It doesn't have to be a lavish compliment," she says. "But something to open the door to conversation." If you find yourself at Hugo Boss's annual must attend party, this year hosted alongside Vanity Fair, it's important to remember to end a conversation as politely as it began, no matter how high the level of boredom. Smile and part gracefully, saving the eye rolling for the teen idols.
WHEN MINGLING There's nothing more important than making an introduction. When doing so, you should say the first and last names of each person clearly so they are remembered.
On table manners
Does the thought of a black tie gala leave you feeling anxious? The flatware and stemware choices alone may cause some to run for the hills, but not to worry: The basics are quite straightforward. Hopefully your host will have place cards at the table, arranged based on interest and potential conversation. If they have missed this important task (tsk tsk), wait for them to point you in the right direction; if they skip this step, I suggest sitting with someone you've never met before. You just never know, you might find yourself leaving with a new best friend. If your seatmate turns out to be a bore, Johnson has a tip: "If you can get that person talking about themselves, it really does help.
Once seated, it's time to tackle silverware. Start on the outside and work toward the centre. If you happen to drop a fork on the floor, pretend it never happened; pick up another and carry on. The same goes for spilling water or wine: unless you have spilled on yourself or a seat-mate, it's best to ignore it and not cause a scene by sopping it up with napkins. Leave the drama for the big screen and go on with your conversation. Speaking of napkins, they belong on your lap and should be placed there only once your host has placed theirs on their lap. It should go without saying that a napkin should not be tucked into your shirt to form a bib. If, like me, you worry about eating too fast, adapt the one bite, one wipe, one sip pattern. Take one small bite, wipe your mouth and take one sip of wine or water – wiping your mouth before taking a sip will keep the rim of your glass clean – then repeat. It's a foolproof way of avoiding an early empty plate. When faced with a dining companion whose table manners are non-existent, Johnson advises carrying on bravely. "It's best to keep calm and never acknowledge that they have poor manners," she says.
Speaking of poor manners, have we finally come to a time where the cellphone has a spot beside thew fork and knife at dinner? "Indeed not!" says Johnson with a laugh. "I believe that which is only connected to the dining should be on the table. I'm very firm about that." She notes this rule includes eye glasses and evening bags (which should be stored on your lap, under your napkin). My thoughts are this: If it is absolutely imperative that you check your phone, do so when your companion is in the washroom; when seated at a large table with multiple guests, excuse yourself and return with the phone out of sight. "You have to show respect to your host by stepping up to the plate and being a good guest," says Mellamphy.
WHEN HOSTING A DINNER If you have a guest who is unable to attend lastminute, alert those laying the tables at the venue or restaurant and have the seats and place settings shifted to accommodate. It's in poor taste (and horribly boring) to force a guest to spend the evening beside an empty chair.
On movie theatre manners
Netflix and iTunes have made the movie watching experience more casual, but if the film festival buzz inspires you to attend a showing on a screen larger than your Mac Book, then some basic, civilized behaviour is in order. Arrive on time. Don't talk during the screening. Unwrap your licorice, Junior Mints and Milk Duds during the previews. Your feet, no matter how well-attired, should remain on the floor. Hats should be off and backcombing kept to a minimum. Booing is frowned upon, as is hissing. Johnson says one should be keenly aware of their behaviour at any event, "be it formal or casual. Trying to have two or three sets of etiquette doesn't work." She notes that "Being mindful of those around you" is the key to attending anything without incident, whether it's a screening, gala, or something as casual as the Canadian Film Centre's annual BBQ.
WHEN ENTERING AND EXITING THEATRE AISLES "Excuse me, please" is generally a nice thing to say when making your way to a seat, as is "Thank you" and "I'm sorry" (should your derrière brush up against an unassuming moviegoer).
A final thought
While one never wants to look as though they have swallowed the book of etiquette, I truly believe that these rules should be embraced. Manners enhance the quality of everyday life. And now that you know a few of the basics, with practice you'll be able to break the rules, too (that's half the fun). It's most important to remember that you weren't invited to a party because your hosts feel that you are in dire need of food and drink – you are meant to add to the fun.
DON'T JUST SIT AND GAWK Get up, talk, and for god's sake, put down your phone!