Lily Beth’s Eleven Rules for Navigating Society

My best friend Rose (who you may remember from “The Case for Books” and “Have Spouse, Will Travel“) and I have a saying we shoot back and forth at one another when describing a particularly taxing social event.

She’ll say, “Well, how was the party?”

And I’ll say, “Oh, ghastly. Not a soul one would know, dear.”

And then we both laugh, because Rose and I are from backgrounds as working class as they come – her father a 1930s Boston orphan who made his way up in the world through military engineering, and my father, one generation away from being born in a house with a dirt floor, who made his way up the ladder via the oil industry.

Although our immediate families do much better than most people we went to school with, our blue collar backgrounds are deep and only as far away as the next family reunion where Aunt Becky will be sure to keep us in line with tales about harvesting cotton or Aunt Sue will pull her skirt up over her head in a whiskey-fueled stupor. The little money our families do have is decidedly of the new variety.

We were both blessed with enough money to get through school, although we both worked throughout college and graduate school to afford the things we wanted. Social class, persay, didn’t much matter to us.

And then we both landed jobs that require us to deal with wealthy people – real wealth – most of the day.

We’re fund raisers in the non-profit sector.

We knew we were good at cultivating relationships, and we had no fear about asking for money, but being transplanted to a very old city (Rose is from the West and I’m from the South) with a very old aristocracy totally floored us.

There were rules – unspoken, but hard. Unbending. And we needed to learn them, and learn them fast, to be able to do our jobs.

Lily Beth’s Electronic Finishing School Crash Course:

Eleven Rules for Navigating Society

1. No swearing in public. Now, you can swear like a sailor with your partner or close friends. (Mama always say, “Sometimes there’s just one word that will do, and that word is fuck.”) But with people you don’t know particularly well, or even with people you do know well in public, no swearing.

This was particularly hard on both of us – we’d both just finished degrees at exceedingly liberal, activist colleges where swearing was a required minor for graduation. (Extra bonus points if you can work the word “fascist” in.) We felt ridiculous when a major catastrophe was followed by “Well darn!” or “That’s a shame” issued from our own mouths, but still felt we should err on the side of caution.

Then along came another woman, an acquaintance from graduate school, who felt very strongly about not changing the way she spoke to appease the upper class masses (and believe me, when you’re at a three hour ladies luncheon on a Tuesday and look out across the room, they do seem likemasses), even though her job – like ours – was primarily to raise funds and garner support from those rich enough to be considered “philanthropic.”

She kept her first job three months. Her temper had a lot to do with it, and her volatile nature of trotting out politics and religion in polite company, but the swearing (or so we heard) was the final straw. Her second job only lasted six months, with similar complaints.

Apparently no one felt secure enough to give their money to a woman who was known, on occasion, to refer to certain people as “cock-sucking motherfuckers” while in an evening dress at an awards dinner.

2. Educate yourself: read everything. Forget the society pages – do you have a subscription to your local business journal? No? Then get your company to pick up the tab for your subscription and have hard copies sent to your office, or get a (usually cheaper) online subscription and comb it daily as part of your morning reading. This is going to cover all the major mergers, buy outs, executive promotions, and awards for the movers and shakers of your city.

No one’s saying you need to be an expert on acquisitions, but it’s invaluable to be introduced to someone and be able to say, “Oh, Mr. Tay-lor, I’ve just read all about you in the Journal – congratulations on your Business of the Year award. I had no idea Taylor Industries was so committed to education funding in low-income school districts!”

In addition, read the local arts section (keep up with the plays, ballet, art openings, opera, symphony, etc – we promise, it’s not as hard as it looks, and reading about a new sci-fi remounting of Macbeth is much more interesting than the business journal).

In addition to that, read books. Save your Candace Bushnell and Janet Evanovich for the beach. Read histories, biographies, memoirs, philosophy texts, classic and ancient plays, read literature. It’s the easiest way to have an educated conversation without introducing politics or religion, or relapsing to the weather or the local news.

Last, cancel your subscriptions to Newsweek and Time. They’re rags. Get a subscription to Harper’s. (No, not that Harper’s – this Harper’s.) It’s the second oldest magazine in America, and it covers literature, politics, culture, finance, and the arts. Punch anyone who calls you a pinko commie socialist in the face – they’re probably sporting a white power bumper sticker on the back of their truck anyway.

3. Attend events. I know you probably blow hundreds of dollars a year already on your local wings and beer joint – reroute some of that cash into attending the arts. Just like we budget for our electric bill, Jack and I also budget (literally – it’s right there *pokes iWork Numbers spreadsheet*) our opera, ballet, and symphony subscriptions. Most of these institutions are dying for young blood, and have accordingly priced “young professional” memberships. (Our ballet subscription? A mere $80 annually – that’s probably less than a single month of your fancy DVR cable/internet package.)

In addition, we attend art openings, after parties, and lectures.

Do it. You will be a better rounded, more educated person for it, and it gives you an excellent opportunity to chat up everyone from college kids to the upper crust on a regular basis. Plus, it gives you something to talk about besides the American Idol finale.

(Intimidated by attending what people think of as “the fine arts?” See my article on Attending the Opera, which is equally as useful for the symphony and ballet.)

4. Make friends. Invite them to events. My city has a pretty liberal, accepting Junior League chapter, although as I understand it, they’re not all that way. (In the 1960s, the Junior League of my hometown blackballed my mother for being Catholic, and a girlfriend of mine in Washington, D.C. related that she’s met women who’ve moved to D.C. strictly to join the Junior League for their first year of membership, then transfer back to the South into one of the more exclusive leagues.)

But for me, it worked out beautifully. I met a ton of other young women, both married and single, in both the corporate and non-profit sphere. More importantly, when Jack and I got married, most of our friends were single – which was great, but sometimes you just want to go on a date with a couple, not a random group of six.

But sometimes it’s hard to ask that new couple you met out for dinner and drinks. (There’s an awful lot of pressure to keep them amused and entertained the whole time.) Attending events regularly has allowed us an easy way to broaden our social networks by inviting people to share a box at the ballet, or sit next to us at the opera, or attend an opening at the art gallery with dancing and a reception.

5. Donate money. So this one’s going to smack your pocket book a little, but you decide how much. Maybe you can only afford to make a $20 annual donation to the Human Rights Campaign – that’s fine. But maybe you can afford a bit more than that, you’ve just never thought about it before.

Donating money gets you on invitation lists (to events where, you guessed it, you’ll still be paying more money to attend, but suck it up), and puts your name out there. I’ve never met Judge and Mrs. John Howard Smith III, but I can tell you immediately that they sponsor an opera production each year, personally underwrite a ballet dancer, and are responsible for that new modern art exhibit, because this is all published in the playbill each season. And people do read those names to see if there’s anyone they recognize. And people do store names they see over and over again in their memory. I promise.

Giving Anecdote 1: Recently, the arts institution I was working for threw a large fund raiser. A party-of-the-year type fund raiser. We’ll call it, for lack of a less frat house term, epic.

I sauntered up to the event coordinator’s desk one day at work.

“What,” I said, as I tapped the invitation mock-up on her desk, “Do I have to do to get my name listed as a hostess on this invitation?”

“Give me $XX,” she replied, “and the appropriate spelling.”

I wrote her a check out for $XX (which, had I been in the corporate world, might even have been covered or matched by my company), and carefully printed “Jack and Lily Beth Tempest” on a post-it note. (Honestly, y’all, it wasn’t as much money as you’re thinking.)

The invitations went out, with “Jack and Lily Beth Tempest” listed among the ten or so names in the “host and hostess” category printed on the invitation itself.

The next day I received a call from the Board President, a gruff older gentleman with enough money to light half of it on fire and still never miss a mortgage payment on a single one of his million dollar vacation homes.

“Lil’beth,” he said, for that’s how he pronounces my name, all one word, “I got the gala invitation in the mail t’day. Just wanted to call and tell you that’s a damn fine thing you and Jack did.”

I blinked at the phone and replied, “Oh?”

I honestly had no idea what he was talking about – like I said, it wasn’t that much money, so didn’t occur to me.

“I saw your names there,” he continued, “And I thought to myself, I know what she makes in salary – I know she and Jack chose to make a concerted effort to support this event. And I damn sure know that she and Jack are more committed to this organization than – well, some people I could name.”

And then it dawned on me as I unearthed one of the invitations from a stack of paperwork and stared at it – my and Jack’s name was listed among several other donors, not including our own CEO. Even our own CEO hadn’t forked over a relatively measly amount from her paycheck to ensure this event – an event we were throwing – was a success.

Trust me – giving gets you noticed.

Giving Anecdote 2: Last year, Jack became involved with a gay rights activist group. Of course, we’re both open proponents of gay rights, but he particularly liked what they were doing concerning bullying policies in local schools. And he specialized in legislation and voter analysis. He thought he could probably be some help to them.

After attending a few meetings, he was offered a seat on their board, which he proudly took. He came home from a board meeting one day with an invitation to their annual “Gay Prom” fund raiser – an alternate prom hosted annually each year to combat the exclusionist policy of the local high schools, explaining that not only did the local schools restrict “same sex” couples from buying prom tickets together, but even restricted the dress code so that “all girls must wear a formal dress.”

This burned the hell out of me, and I sat right down, figured up how much we could afford to give, and wrote them a donation check to finance their alternative prom.

Two months later, we dashed from an afternoon literacy fund raiser I was organizing for my service group to said alternative prom – I literally changed into my formal dress in the car and piled my hair on top of my head.

When we entered, we saw our names were emblazoned on a massive sign along with a dozen or so other donors. I squeezed Jack’s hand proudly, and then we proceeded to dance our asses off with the high school kids, laughing hysterically at our ages when we realized we were the only people on the floor when the DJ spun “Groove is in the Heart.”

So I felt good. Good things, good karma.

But a week later, I was at a fund raiser for a new performing arts center when I was approached by a man I’d only met a handful of times – an important man, the kind of man who finances whole political campaigns.

“Ms. Tempest,” he said, shaking my hand. “So lovely to see you.”

And then he leaned in, close to my ear.

“I saw you and Jack’s name on a banner at an event this weekend – downtown – you know the one? And I wanted to say – thank you. For your help. And your support.”

I stared at him for a minute, then broke into a wide open smile, and just nodded.

“Of course,” was all I said.

And you better believe that new-found relationship came in handy down the road, when I was raising money for my own causes.

Furthermore, Jack and I gave generously – $XX here for a women’s shelter I was working with, $XX there for a new community health center – for a couple of years before I started collecting the tax letters. It never occurred to me that our giving would add up to enough to qualify for a tax deduction, and yet when I poured over our bank statements at the end of the year, our charitable giving totaled much more than I’d ever considered.

Now I keep them in a folder each time a tax receipt comes in the mail, and submit them to our accountant.

6. Keep copious notes. I’ve got a good memory – I remember all the names of people’s kids, and their birthdays, and the stories of how they met their spouse. But the wider your social circle gets, the harder this becomes to keep up with everyone. I’m helped along by my business card holder (a slender red leather volume I keep in my purse) and my electronic address book. When I meet someone socially for the first time and am offered a business card, I stow it away in my holder so it doesn’t get lost, and then when I have a moment, jot down where I met them and any other interesting details on the back. Then I record this in the “Notes” section of my electronic address book with their contact information.

The more events you attend, the more important this becomes. Not only do patterns begin to emerge (like that you run into Tom at an awful lot of education fund raisers, and that when you’re raising money for your own programs, Tom might be a good guy to ask to sponsor an educational component), but it’s also just a damn good thing to know. A year ago, we weren’t that good of friends with Joe and Karen, but when we met them, they’d just given birth to their first baby and commented that she’d been born on the 4th of July. A year later, we’re much better friends, and sending a gift to their daughter on her first birthday became appropriate. They were exceedingly touched that we remembered, which we wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t jotted it down in my book when we met them.

7. Send thank yous, congratulations, and notes of sympathy. Every time you’re invited somewhere, send a thank you note the next day (a real, honest-to-god note, not an email). It’s just good practice, and furthermore, it’s falling out of fashion – which makes it even more appreciated when you do it. It helps differentiate you from people.

Keep your ear to the ground and your eye on the newspaper. Whereas flowers as a congrats for a promotion or sympathy for a loss may seem like overkill because you don’t know the person that well, a note is always appropriate and appreciated.

Recently, I saw the double-slam of a woman I’ve met once or twice on two separate giving lists – as a major underwriter for the renovation of a local park, and as a sponsor for one of the performers in an opera production we adored. I looked up her business address, and decided to drop her a note, letting her know that Jack and I had our first date at that particular park, and that the renovation campaign was important to us and we knew it couldn’t have been done without her help, and also that we both worked in the arts and had recently been to an opera performance that obviously wouldn’t have been possible without her contribution.

“It is people like yourself,” I wrote, “that allow Jack and I to stay and work in this particular community. As my mother says, “You’re just doing all the good,” and we wanted to thank you.”

To my surprise, she wrote me a letter – not a note, but a letter – back, commending Jack and I for our work in the arts community, expressing her fear and frustration that the city was considering tearing down the park in the first place, and then inviting us to her home for a party.

Wow. Notes go a long way, y’all, even with people you don’t know well. (For additional info on sending notes of all sorts, see “The Lost Art of Letter Writing.)

8. Choose your wardrobe carefully. I’m not going to fill your head with ridiculous ideas about how you should wear pearls to the gym or never go to the grocery without lipstick. Quite the opposite, actually – when you start going to a variety of functions, you need to dress appropriately for that function. Period. And this can be hard when your entire “event list” thus far has consisted mainly of going to dive bars with friends, college house parties, and the occasional lecture, protest, or poetry-slams at the local coffee shop.

You can still do all those things, of course – be my guest – but if you’re going to expand your event list, you need to expand your wardrobe. I got this advice from my mother beginning at age 12, and continue to see it in everything from Edith Head’s books to modern day guides for professional women: buy the best clothes you can afford. One fantastic, well-made dress is worth eight pairs of cargo pants from Target.

Expand your wardrobe reasonably (don’t spend money you don’t have), but optimistically – there’s nothing worse than getting invited somewhere, like onto someone’s boat, and realizing you have nothing appropriate to wear. (Been invited to a ladies luncheon, a garden party, or an equally stressful function? Peruse my article on “The Four Most Confusing Dress Codes of All Time.”)

Now, my mother is serious about clothes. Her family was poor, and she wore her mother’s hand-me-down suits (suits!) to school until she was in college. It was a major bone of contention in her life – not only did it signify that she was poor, but it also just meant she always looked out of place, period – a 15 year old kid in a secretary’s outfit from 1938. She vowed she would never, ever do that to her daughter.

My mother and I go on shopping trips four times annually, once a season. Now, this may harken images in your mind of Paris and Milan, of boutiques where we sit and sip diet cokes with lime while saleswomen parade dresses in front of us – not so. Not even close.

All this means is my mother comes up (or I go down) four times a year, and we spent two days hitting everything from Ann Taylor and Banana Republic to Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom. And y’all, we are on a mission.

Traditionally, we sit down over a cup of coffee or tall glass of iced tea the morning of, either in a hotel room, my house, or a cafe. And she grills me, making a little pocket list with a tiny pencil.

“Now,” she’ll say, “you’ve got that gala in December – is it cocktail or black tie? Oh, and the Junior League luncheon; it’ll be cold, though, so we’ll need to get you something classic but warm. And close-toed shoes. Do you have enough wool slacks? Is your winter coat still in good condition? Do you need boots?”

Or –

“Three beach weddings this summer – what are people thinking. I know you don’t have any light dresses; I wish you’d get over your mortal fear of empire waists. Do your capri pants from last season still fit alright? You’ll need some hats, to keep the sun out of your eyes. And what about a tote – you know you and Jack are going to be stuck in a rental car or airplane for almost all of July, traipsing across the country, you’re going to need a good tote to travel with.”

Whether you plan to spend a thousand dollars or a hundred (my favorite coat of all time, a peach-polka-dot raincoat, was picked up at a vintage store for $20), you still need to inventory your wardrobe each season with an eye towards the events coming up. And not just the clothes, but also the essential accessories – there’s nothing worse than picking out the the perfect white dress for a 4th of July party and realizing the day-of that you can see straight through it because you never bought a slip, or the perfect formal gown for a party but panicking two hours before because you don’t have a strapless bra or a single evening bag.

Recently, I attended a party celebrating Bastille Day. It was hot. It was in a different city. And when I got there, I sensed that my feet were all wrong somehow. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. And then, halfway through the cocktail hour, I realized: I was the only woman there in closed-toed shoes, having thrown only my trusty stand-by silver work heels into my suitcase. Every other woman there was in sandals or peep-toes. Because it was summer. It didn’t exactly ruin my evening, but it did give me a moment of heartburn, to be sure.

Plan ahead, is all I’m saying.

9. Keep up your appearance. I have a secret to share: Jack loves mani-pedis. Before transferring to the political sphere, he was a carpenter/electrician in the arts. He stood on his feet and worked with his hands all day. And then we spent a holiday in Las Vegas with my family, and while everyone else was out gambling, I suggested Jack and I go down to the salon. He was a bit dubious, but he also has an unsurpassable sense of adventure, so he agreed.

We sipped iced tea and got a manicure and pedicure each. And, much like the bath towels, he confessed to me afterwards: “I was wrong – that was absolutely awesome. Awesome. That felt great. And the thing where they wrap hot towels on your legs – oh my god. Do you think I could do that at home? How much do you think one of those little towel-heater-things would cost? I totally understand why women go to salons now.”

Likewise, when I first started in the industry, I’d always given a lot of attention to my hair (another hold-over from Mama’s own childhood, she started insisting I have my hair done professionally at the age of 13, as soon as I started asking to dye it blue), but I’d never paid any attention to my hands. I had good, strong nails, and I chopped them off when they became unmanageable, and that was it.

When I started noticing other people’s hands at events. When women gestured or told a story, when they picked up a program or wine glass, when they passed out business cards. My own hands hardly seemed the hands of an adult – nails too long and unkempt, or cut down but never filed, or that nail on my index finger that I’d torn off but ignored.

Now I do my nails at home, opting for the salon only when I have a particularly important event. I still don’t wear polish on them – I find it chips a lot faster than the polish on my toes and therefore pisses me right off – but I do file, buff, and polish them weekly.

Likewise with my eyebrows. Oh, I went through the phase in college that a lot of women go through, where it’s fashionable to overpluck your eyebrows. But then when I started working full time, I let them go entirely, thinking it was the adult thing to do. And then I noticed in photographs (which my mother, of course, helpfully pointed out) that I’m Italian. Sure, Rose, who was so Aryan she was practically Norse goddess, could let her perfect eyebrows go unchecked. Not me – my eyebrows were engaged in a dangerous tango to become one, and so thick that they had begun to detract from the beauty of my eyes – they were all you could look at!

Appearances aren’t everything, but they’re part of everything.

10. Mind your manners.

  • I have a rule that I don’t drink alcohol while the sun is still up. (This may seem strange, until you attend a brunch, an afternoon BBQ, and an evening dinner and realize you’re hung over at 3pm.) Nor do I have more than one drink at any society function. These are my limits, and I presume you know yours – utilize them.
  • Be polite in conversation. Don’t gossip – even if others do. While it may seem like a bonding moment when you and Bitsy exchange catty comments over someone’s horrendous choice of dress, it’s still going to make Bitsy (and anyone who overhears you) wonder what you say about them when they’re not around.
  • Brush up on your basic table manners – because they’ll surprise you. You’re moving along at a perfectly nice clip, and then someone puts an artichoke in front of you, and the evening screeches to a halt because you don’t know if you eat it with your hands or a knife and fork. (A little rusty on table manners? See my article, “Table Manners 101: A Primer.”)
  • Don’t answer your cell at an event. Likewise, don’t text or check your email; it signals to others that, at the best, you’re bored, or at worst, they’re not nearly as important as whomever else you’re talking to/texting/emailing. Unless you’re a surgeon or obstetrician, get in the habit of turning your phone off the moment you approach the doors of events, parties, or other public functions. You can always excuse yourself and duck into the ladies room if you need to check or send messages.
  • Keep direct eye contact with the person you’re speaking to at any given moment. Don’t glance over their shoulders constantly or let your eyes roam the room; this gives them the impression that you’re dying to get away and are searching for someone else to talk to. Resist the urge to turn and look every time you hear a door open.
  • If you have people over to your home and are playing hostess, greet each one individually as soon as they enter, then match them up in conversation with someone else. I see people make this mistake constantly, and it’s a big one – a host or hostess is busy flitting around to refill the bar, or take something out of the oven, or has gotten herself immersed in a conversation with other guests. Then, when someone new arrives, not only is there no one to greet them and welcome them to the party, but they have to either break into someone else’s conversation or stand around awkwardly until someone approaches them – not exactly a warm welcome. The best way to do this, frankly, is to have a partner – either a spouse or a girlfriend who you deputize (politely) to do either the greeting and introductions or assist with the last minute preparations, like decanting the wine or putting something on ice.
  • Avoid politics, religion, or money in conversation. My mother told me this when I was a young girl, and as I was a budding social activist (and a teenager), I assumed Mama was just way behind the times. Now that I’m a grown woman, I understand that she knew exactly what she was talking about – you just never know how people feel about particularly delicate issues, and a polite social function is not the time to rail against the latest legislation, go on at length about your religion, or talk about how much money you made last year. It makes people feel awkward, I promise, and you never know who you might offend. Save it for your close friends.
  • Don’t flash your wealth around. Nothing screams “this moron is not worth my time” louder than a pair of those sunglasses with a giant logo tacked onto the side. Keep it tasteful, and keep it simple.

11. Be kind to others. Give the benefit of the doubt if necessary.

An anecdote: at a gala dinner late last year, one of the organizers invited a particularly glamorous young social couple (she a big-shot at an auction house, he a film maker) who had a reputation for being excellent dinner conversation. We’ll call them Celeste and Yves.

When the invitation was extended, Celeste declined politely, stating that they had other plans.

And because she and the organizer were close friends, he (wrongly) pressed her on it.

“Celeste, you simply must come – the artwork is going to be exquisite – change your plans!” he implored.

“I can’t,” she finally confided, after he’d more or less bullied her into it. “Yves hasn’t worked at all this year, with the recession. We simply can not afford the ticket price. Period.”

And then he told her that didn’t matter, it was much more important to him that he have someone of her background there to stimulate conversation about the art.

“You’ll practically be working – you’ll be doing me a tremendous favor – I’ll put your name on the list at the door, don’t even worry about the tickets.”

She felt like she was in an awkward spot (which she was), so she agreed.

And then, the night before the event, organizer’s wife went into labor unexpectedly.

And, you guessed it, their name didn’t get added to the list. Which wasn’t a big deal during the cocktail hour, but because their name wasn’t on the list, they also didn’t get added to the seating arrangements for dinner.

As I helped usher the last guests into the ballroom for the dinner, I spied Celeste and Yves still loitering awkwardly around the art gallery by themselves. She looked like she was going to cry.

“Vanessa,” I said softly to the organizer’s assistant. “What’s going on with those two over there?”

“I’ve no idea,” she said, putting up her hands, visions of the latest kerfluffle with the Saladhis dancing in her head. “They weren’t on the list. Lily Beth, those people crashed.

I chewed on my lower lip for a minute, sizing up the situation.

“I don’t think so,” I said, observing their behavior. “I think there’s been a mistake.”

“Well even if there was,” she said, “What the hell am I supposed to do now?”

I didn’t even answer her – time was of the essence. This was going to take some strategy.

“Go talk to that young couple over there,” I said, shoving Jack, my trusty husband, towards them. “I’ll be back in two minutes.”

And then I stole two blank place cards and addressed them (I’d done all the others anyway), and I left the stunned assistant (who I significantly outranked, thank god) fluttering her hands while I stole away into the ballroom to re-arrange some clever seating. I knew that the Board President and his wife had cancelled at the last minute, and that left two open chairs at the artist’s table.

I took a breath and stole up to the guests on either side of the open chairs just as the first salad course was arriving.

“Mr. and Mrs. Bradstreet, hello,” I said. “I hope you don’t think me tremendously rude, but I wanted to let you know that Mr. and Mrs. Sellars had a bit of a struggle making it back from California in time and she’s just called to let me know that they can’t make it tonight. I was wondering, instead of leaving these two seats empty, if I might place a young couple who’s just arrived at your table – she specializes in art, you know, fascinating woman; I just know she and her husband will lend excellent conversation to your evening.”

Mr. and Mrs. Bradstreet, who were a little miffed at having two empty seats at their table, were delighted. I thanked them profusely (and very quitely), and casually switched out the placecards at the wine was being served.

Then I launched myself back into the gallery.

“Celeste, Yves, please – I see my husband has been monopolizing you! Please, let me escort you to your seats; dinner is just beginning. I hope you don’t mind that we seated you with the artist herself,” I said as I gently took Celeste’s elbow and maneuvered her out of the gallery, chatting all the way about the other people she was being seated with so she would be prepared for her table companions.

Right before we entered the ballroom, she stopped and grasped both my hands in hers and leaned in very close to my ear. She looked like a woman who’d just narrowly escaped a death sentence.

“Thank you,” she said softly. And we looked at each other – she still looked like she was about to cry. In that moment, we both understood what had happened, and we both understood that I’d pulled some strings to take care of it, and she was grateful that I’d treated them like guests instead of party-crashers. A whole silent conversation happened between us in a matter is seconds.

And then she lifted her chin and took a deep breath as I opened the door. I introduced Celeste and Yves to their table companions, who were thrilled that their table was now eight instead of six, and of course they did indeed provide wonderful conversation and atmosphere to the evening.

Jack and I stole away outside, around the back of the building, to have a cigarette.

I collapsed against the brick wall in my formal gown, and sighed. Jack, for his part, kissed my forehead.

“That was a good thing you did,” he observed.

Flash forward to the following Wednesday at the office.

The event organizer, in for the morning to tie up some loose ends before his paternity leave, stopped by my office with a cup of coffee to chat about how the event had gone over the weekend in his absence.

“Brought your mail,” he said. He set it down next to the coffee. “Heard from Vanessa that you handled the Celeste and Yves situation with your usual aplomb. Terribly sorry about that. I was panicked when I realized I’d forgotten to tell her to add them to the list, but I knew you’d take care of it.”

I wanted to dump the coffee in his lap, leaving that poor woman and her husband loitering around the lobby as if they didn’t belong. After he left, I opened my mail.

A little handwritten envelope fell out onto my desk. I opened it. It was a short letter, written on pink Smythson stationery.

“Lily Beth,” the letter began, although the writer didn’t really know me from Eve.

Yves and I had a wonderful evening on Saturday, which is due entirely to your intervention on our behalf. I just can not thank you enough for your kindness. I was a step away from dissolving into quite a mess when I realized we had not been added to the guest list – I knew we shouldn’t have taken [the organizer’s] word on it, and surely, attending was against our better judgement, even after we’d accepted. You can imagine how ashamed we felt in that gallery, all dressed up and literally nowhere to go. We both know that you went above and beyond to rectify the situation, and heaven knows we appreciate that – but what I wanted to thank you for most was your utter discretion and courtesy, treating us from the very beginning as if we belonged. As long as I live, I will never forget your kindness. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Love,

Celeste

I stopped in the auction house a month or so later on an errand for our CEO. I certainly didn’t expect Celeste to be working, but there she was – perfectly manicured hands, private grey-colored dress, beautifully coiffed auburn hair.

“Lily Beth,” she said when she saw me come in, waving the other staffers away. “How are you?”

We chatted a few minutes, and I explained why I was there.

“Steve,” she said to the manager, “I’m stepping across the street with Ms. Tempest to get a cup of coffee. She has some business she wants to talk over.”

We did, indeed, step out for a cup of coffee. We chatted for more than an hour, although neither of us brought up the incident or her heart-felt thank you. We had a great deal in common, and quickly became friends.

She is now an irreplaceable part of my entertaining, as I am in hers.

The lesson here, much like Google’s mission, is “Don’t be evil.”

Furthermore, be kind. I could have behaved like that assistant – full of her own self-worth. I could have, mean-spiritedly, taken the opportunity to snub a woman who might otherwise not given me the time of day. I could have just disavowed the situation as “not my problem.” But I didn’t do any of those things, and now we’re friends.

Be kind.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: