Tea etiquette, in one minute

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The well-mannered year ahead: Kick off 2013 with some very polite resolutions

Karen Cleveland, Special to National Post


You don’t have to use a quill and inkwell, but handwritten thank-you notes will make all the difference in 2013.

Diets, schmiets. Such pedestrian resolutions are usually gone by spring, anyway. Reign in the unrealistic ambition and instead, consider your crisp new calendar the perfect opportunity to really commit to a better year. Karen Cleveland shares her tips on how to make 2013 your most polished, charmed, best year yet, one month at a time.

January: Give the consummate toast
The most memorable toasts are concise, eloquent and convey just the right amount of emotion. Start by surveying the scene. Everyone have a drink? Stand and clear your throat, or move to a more visible area to get their attention. Make your intentions known in a clear, confidence voice (fake one, if you lack one). “Thank you for coming, I’d like to raise a glass to [insert subject or occasion of your toast here].” Say a few kind words about your subject, then raise your glass higher and repeat the toastee’s name. People will drink on your cue. Purists don’t clink, they merely raise glasses. Larger audiences logistically prohibit a clink and eye contact with every single guest, so just do your best. If you are the subject being toasted, lucky you! Do not drink to yourself — simply sit back and revel in the moment.

February: Upgrade from emails to handwritten notes
I know, email is so much more convenient than sitting down to write notes by hand, but the same could be said of paper plates over dishes. Paper and handwriting is just, well, nicer. Stockpile some great stationary that you are actually excited to use and a surplus of stamps. Grab some scrap paper to scribble what you want to write and test out your pen. A good note should address the recipient (Dear friend), touch on the occasion (“Thank you for hosting an excellent dinner”) and any specifics (“Sorry again about that red wine incident, it’s a late Christmas miracle that it came out of the carpet”) and close with a fitting sign off (“Looking forward to returning your hospitality, Sincerely, you’). Sure, you could put this in an email, but doesn’t  the medium elevate the message?

March: Make your bed every morning, all month

Making your bed is a metaphor. It sends a signal to the universe, and to yourself, that you set aside few moments of each day to add some order to your life. No matter how hellish your day was, you can take solace in knowing there is a tiny little sliver of civility waiting for you, in the form of a crisply made bed. Do it for a month and see how you feel. Such small daily rituals can set the tone for other things in life. Whether that tiny ritual is making your bed, in the morning, not going to sleep with a sink full of dirty dishes, or not using your front entrance way as a dumping ground, relish in some little practices that honour your nest.

April: Spring clean your online persona
If someone were to Google you right now, or creep your Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn profile, what would they find? Years ago, before the marvels of social media, we lived private lives and actively chose what parts of ourselves we wanted to make public. Today that model is totally inverted. Take care of your online reputation in the same delicate way that you would your offline persona. Do some digging and relentlessly edit, untag and delete until you are happy with your online image.

May: Edit your closet
This is a considerable task to undertake but a gratifying and important one. Set aside a weekend day. Begin by taking everything out of your wardrobe and sorting it into three piles. Pile one is for things you regularly wear and that are in good repair. A second pile is for things that you want to wear, but need some love. The final pile is for items fit to donate or if they are beyond that, shred into rags. Remove this third pile from your home immediately, as you’ll be instantly more motivated with a good purge under your belt. Take things to be mended, pressed, polished or sewn as needed, then put everything back into your wardrobe in a state that it is ready to be worn. Rotate items so forgotten pieces get their due, and if space is an issue, store your fall and winter items separately (under the bed storage boxes to the rescue).You’ll likely realize that most of the items you pitched were things you never really needed to buy, or they were of such poor quality, they fell apart. Shop smart by sticking to well-made things that you’ll actually wear, and that are on point with your social and professional life.

June: Make memorable introductions
Your dazzling handshake should be accompanied by your first and last name when introducing yourself. If you struggle remembering names, try repeating the name of the person you just met (“nice to meet you, Robin”). You can try to draw some recall connections, like reminding yourself that Robin is wearing red. When introducing two people, introduce up. If you introducing your intern to you president, you would say, “President, may I introduce you to our newest intern, John”. A person of high rank, importance or seniority (I know, I cringe at that too) is named first and receives the introduction. If you are introducing two peers that haven’t met, providing some context can help the conversation along. For example, “I’ve been meaning to introduce you. John, meet Mike. You both spent time in Italy last year.”

July: Be the best damn cottage guest
Charm your hosts so much and you just might score invitations for every weekend until Labour Day. Confirm what time you should arrive so you don’t surprise your hosts and arrive with something awesome for them. Help with meal preparations and clean up and make your stay as least invasive as possible. That means not taking over the entire bathroom vanity, hijacking the iPod with your music or leaving your wet towel and stack of magazines on the dock. Thank your hosts for having you with a thoughtful handwritten note, which you mastered back in February, right?

August: Throw an “oh, it’s nothing” weeknight dinner party

Summer entertaining is inherently casual, so ever an intimidated host can pull together a Wednesday night dinner party with ease. Gorgeous fresh produce, BBQs and long, lazy nights beckon for unfussy dinners.  Invite your guests a week or so out, then use that week to set aside mini tasks. Shop for beer and wine one night, stock up on ice the next, buy flowers the night before, and before you know it, the night of your dinner will only need your actual meal preparation. Grill everything you possibly can: some bread to serve with a salad to start, fish, meat, veggies or pizza for a main, then some fruit (serve over ice cream) for dessert. A bucket of beer and wine on ice within arm’s reach, a plethora of white candles and a laid-back soundtrack for the night and you’re set. Best part of grilling your entire meal? Very few dishes to wash up.

September: Pour the perfect cocktail

Chalk it up to the revelry of TIFF or the siren call of comfort cocktails, but when temperatures dip, I’m ready for a proper drink. Master a classic cocktail that you like to drink, perhaps an Old Fashioned, Tom Collins, Manhattan or Negroni. Stock up on quality ingredients and barware then enlist a trusted group of tasters to sample your concoctions. Warning: your skills are bound to improve with every round you serve them: it’s just science. Feel free to tinker with a trusted recipe, but only after you’ve mastered the purist’s version.

October: Nail a power lunch (or breakfast, or dinner)
Breaking bread with a client can galvanize a relationship. Or ruin it. Pick a date and time first, then choose a venue that is reputable, conducive to talking business and conveniently located for your guest. Make a reservation. If you are going to try for a table at a hotspot that doesn’t take reservations, get there very, very early as not to keep your guest waiting twenty minutes for a table. Give them the better seat at the table and keep your phone off of the table. Instagramming your meal is verboten. Settle into some small talk (read the headlines that day) before delving into shop talk. When the bill comes, they who did the inviting typically grabs the cheque, but to hell with that custom if grabbing the bill saves you from an awkward moment. Follow up from your meal with whatever you promised you would and if it seems natural, touch on something non-business related, for example, “thanks for your time over lunch, Nicole. Attached is the concept we discussed. Have a great time at the Brickworks this weekend with your daughter.”

November: Call in sick like a grownup

Cold and flu season isn’t fun for anyone, so coming to work when you are knowingly contagious is a cardinal sin. Spare your colleagues from your gnarly germs by staying home. Call or email your boss explaining that you are staying home sick for the day (text message is likely too casual a medium to convey this). Touch on who-can-cover-off-what in your absence, and if you hazard a guess, say when you expect to be back in fine fighting form. No need to go into gory details, but a cursory descriptor of what ails you should suffice.

December: Indulge in a bit of the good life
In a month saturated with shopping and hosting others, what is the harm in picking up a little something for yourself?  Treat yourself to something that your heart desires. Surely those lovely sheets, fancy stemware or decadent bottle of scotch will benefit your guests just as much as you, right? ‘Tis the season!

(Published first in the National Post, December 2012)

What’s ‘cocktail’ attire?

What does it mean when a party invite stipulates ‘cocktail’ attire?

Of all of life’s enigmas, dress codes can be the most difficult to crack. And the festive season brings a deluge of societal invitations, many of them seemingly crafted by a U-boat’s encryption specialist. When a party planner specifies “holiday formal” or “smart casual,” she might as well be demanding “late-period Etruscan.” Fortunately, the vagueness of “cocktail attire” belies its rather straightforward meaning. For gentlemen, the standard uniform is a dark suit, crisp dress shirt of a solid colour or subtle pattern, a tie and dress shoes. For women, this is an occasion to wear what Mrs. McArdle describes as “a little black dress.” Remember that cocktail functions are a time for refinement, not excess. As etiquette expert Karen Cleveland wisely advised me: “You don’t want to be the flashiest person in the room, but you don’t want to be the most underdressed. You just want to look really well put together.” To “gussy” oneself up, Cleveland, proprietor of the excellent Finishing School blog, advises gents to consider a nice pocket square or a pair of great cufflinks, while ladies can take their pick of jewelry. But please, convey holiday cheer through actions, not fashion. “You don’t want to be pulling out the reindeer sweater your grandmother gave you,” says Cleveland. “Exercise good sartorial judgment.” Words that wise should be printed on a T-shirt.

Need advice? Want to settle a debate? Go ahead, ask McArdle anything: Askmcardle@canadianbusiness.com

Illustration by Peter Arkle

(First published in Canadian Business, November 2012)

Five Unique Hostess Gifts For That Last Summer Invite

There’s no more avoiding the obvious: the last weekend of summer is looming. Hopefully the past few months held long, languorous days devoted to soaking up the sun in good company. If a trip away for Labour Day weekend is in the cards, bringing along something nice for your host could keep you as a guest in good standing.

Flowers or a great bottle of wine are always good, safe bets, but if you’re jockeying to be top of mind for the first long weekend invite for next spring, it might be time to stock some other gifts.


  • Nothing says unabashed relaxation more than being horizontal with a book. If you know your host well enough, you could pick up a display-worthy coffee table book on a topic they are into. If you know them intimately and think they share your taste in literature, you could pick up copies of some of your favourite reads.

Magazines For The Year

  • Magazine subscriptions are the gift that keeps on giving. If you have a sense of what they read and subscribe to, you could bring the latest issue of a magazine with a note explaining that you’ve arranged for year’s subscription.


  • Foods that can be lazily grazed on are perfect because they don’t impede your host’s planned menu or cramp their kitchen. Bring along fresh baked goods to add to tomorrow’s breakfast table, or visit a great patisserie for treats — like fresh marshmallows and macaroons — that will last for a few days. Buy twice the amount and you’ll even have excellent snacks for the drive….


  • Not to knock the ubiquitous bottle of wine, but there are boundless options when it comes to boozy gifts. Bring along the ingredients for a classic cocktail (Negronis are my favourite) and a classic shaker, or find a gorgeous pitcher and whip up a few batches of sangria. Just ensure you’ve brought all the ingredients to keep out of your host’s hair.

Coffee and tea

  • Put together a basket of some freshly ground high-end coffee and some gorgeous teas. It could also be packaged prettily into a teapot or a French press — salvation for a die-hard coffee drinker should they find themselves a guest in the home of a non-coffee drinking host.

(Published first on The Huffington Post Canada, August 2012)


Is it ever okay to tuck your napkin into the front of your shirt?


Yes, if you are eating a meal that you just ordered from the children’s menu, tuck away, otherwise, no. Napkins stay on your lap — if you have to leave the table, they go on the chair, not the table, as no one wants to see the physical evidence of what you’ve wiped off of your face.

The only other expectation to when it is ok to tuck a napkin into your shirt is if you are applying pressure to a wound. Which shouldn’t be done at the table, anyways.

(First published on She Does The City, August 2012)