It seems that every organization with money to raise, a cause to promote or – this week at least – a film to celebrate has a gala on its calendar, which means that it's almost impossible to avoid attending one at some point during the year. For some gala warriors, these fetes offer the perfect opportunity to eat, drink, be seen and act merry. For others, they are evaluated on the pain (not pleasure) scale and are looked upon as ordeals to be endured until the final speech wraps (or the Champagne stops flowing). Whether you're a seasoned pro or new to the gala circuit, the following tips will help any guest make the best of the big night out.
Most galas will provide attire guidelines on their invitations and it's wise to follow them. As a general rule, women should avoid overdressing, while men should take pains not to underdress. (In most cases, that means wearing a suit and tie – unless "adolescent rebel" is the desired effect.)
Every effort is made to give the gala the appearance of a major social event, but don't be misled. Galas are business. Everyone in attendance is fulfilling a duty and is there to connect and be connected with. For that reason, choosing a date for purely personal reasons will only complicate your work (and burden your companion). If gala-ing solo seems too lonely, attend with colleagues who share an interest in the crowd or who feel obliged to attend because you asked them. (Just be sure you don't add insult to injury by making them pay their own way.)
Be fashionably late
Get there too early – that is, at the appointed hour or 15 minutes before that – and you'll find yourself uncomfortably alone in a cavernous space. The best time to arrive is 15 minutes late. By then, the room will be starting to come to life.
Know your lines
It's a good idea to prepare a comment or two about the organization throwing the gala, if only to have a polished answer to the question "What brings you here tonight?" Thinking ahead about your pithy take on the headlines is equally useful. The key word, however, is "pithy." The idea is to grease the wheels of superficial conversation while you and your co-conversant are scanning the room for your next contacts.
Give good picture
Photographers will often be present, hoping to capture images of attendees having a conspicuously good time. To increase your chances of being shot – which can lead to good visibility if the photo appears in a newspaper or magazine – it helps to look fabulous, to be fraternizing with attractive or high-profile associates, to have a connection to the photographer or to be a notable figure in your own right. If you are snapped, be sure to give your formal title to the photographer when he or she asks for your name. Otherwise, you'll be stuck with a generic label such as "partygoer."
Drink just enough
Alcohol management is one of the evening's most important tasks. Imbibe just enough to lubricate your capacity to entertain and be entertained by relative strangers while also staying alert. Once you cross the threshold and lose your focus, embarrassment is right around the corner. A drink or two during the reception plus a glass or two of wine at dinner should be about enough.
Go with the chicken
If dinner is being served, you'll likely be offered a choice of entrees, one of which will always be chicken. Beef is sometimes on offer, but even bad chicken is preferable to lousy beef. (And if the chicken is subpar, the beef will be just as bad, if not worse.) If you have special dietary needs, be sure to declare them well in advance.
Talk, but not too much
Once you've been seated, you'll have more than an hour to kill with the persons to your left and right. Keep conversation light, keep it moving and show an interest to find interest – that means asking as many questions (or more) as the opinions you offer. No matter how interesting the conversation becomes with any one table mate, be gracious and include the person seated to the other side of you, too.
Listen – or at least pretend to
One thing is true of any gala: There will be speeches. There will be too many of them, they will be too long and most often they will not be very good. Still, you owe it to your table mates and table host to listen or give the impression that you're listening. (This goes double if you are the table host yourself.) This means looking to the podium and abstaining from chit-chat. Assume people are watching you with a critical eye, because they are.
Even if you're longing to leave an event that is running overtime, common courtesy requires that you hold your seat until the speeches are finished, but only to a point. Ten o'clock is that point. Regardless, you don't want to be the first to make an escape or even the second. Be third at the earliest, to avoid insulting your host. (Wait much longer, though, and you risk being crushed in the stampede to the coat check.) Before leaing, say a discreet good night to the people to your left and right and thank the table host personally, then make your move.
Since you will have brought plenty of business cards to share and likely collected as many as you distributed, make a point of sending e-mails during the week following the event, while the memories are fresh. You may not end up with your picture on the society page or the event website, but don't despair. You endured, and there's always the next one. That you can count on.