What is etiquette and why is it important? Debrett’s, the famous coaching company and authority on how to conduct yourself during social occasions, defines etiquette as ‘a set of guidelines that have evolved to make everyone feel welcomed and valued, to make everyday life easier, removing anxiety and awkwardness.’ Following the correct etiquette allows everyone, from guests to hosts to staff, to feel relaxed and able to enjoy themselves at formal occasions.

A Complete Guide to Special Ocassion Etiquette

If you’re attending a special occasion and feel nervous about behaving correctly, follow this guide and its guaranteed that everything will run smoothly.

Before the event


Special occasions tend to have formal invitations which require an RSVP. Whether you can attend or not, the correct etiquette is to reply promptly. Not RSVPing is not the same as declining, so if you can’t go you need to let your host know by sending a short but polite note. If you do plan to attend don’t wait until the last minute to RSVP as it will be very inconvenient for your host if they have planned the event presuming that you won’t be attending.

Times of arrival

Your invitation will include the time of arrival and they must be strictly adhered to. You will usually be invited to arrive before the main event of the occasion happens, for example, the invitation might say ‘Reception 7.30, dinner at 8.15’. In this case you should arrive at or very close to the reception time rather than rushing in at 8.10. If you are facing a genuine delay, attempt to get a message to your host. If this isn’t possible endeavour to slip in unobtrusively when you arrive rather than drawing attention to yourself.

Dress code

The dress code for your event will be stated on your invitation. This is a hugely important part of special occasion etiquette so don’t be tempted to go off-piste and wear something different. Contact your host if you are unsure what the dress code means, but they will usually be one of the following:

White tie

This is the most formal dress code and is usually reserved for events such as state dinners and events like the Academy Awards.

Women: A formal, floor length evening gown paired with dramatic and expensive shoes and jewellery.

Men: A tuxedo or long black jacket with tails, worn with a white shirt, white bowtie, a waistcoat, black patent leather shoes and white or grey gloves if appropriate.

Black tie

Less dressy than white tie but still formal, and usually reserved for evening occasions.

Women: A floor length evening gown or stylish knee-length dress worn with heels.

Men: A tuxedo, black bowtie, black cummerbund or waistcoat, and black patent leather heels.

Formal or black tie optional

Women: Choose a floor length gown, a knee-length cocktail dress or a little black dress. Heels with a small bag in a matching or complementary colour adds elegance and practicality.

Men: A tuxedo or dark suit with smart leather shoes.

Cocktail attire

Fun and informal, but still with a ‘dressy’ feel.

Women: A knee-length dress, or smart trousers or skirt with a nice blouse.

Men: A jacket and smart trousers or chinos, with or without a tie. Louder and brighter colours and patterns are appropriate at these events.


Anything goes for both sexes, but stay away from denim jeans, shorts, vests and flip-flops.


Most manners are common sense and something that you will automatically use every day. However, it’s worth reminding yourself of the following to ensure that every formal occasion goes well.

  • Conversation. Don’t monopolize a conversation, but allow for back-and-forth dialogue. Asks questions and genuinely listen to the answers.
  • People’s names. Making an effort to remember people’s names makes every social event easier. When someone tells you their name, use it a couple of times in conversation to help you retain it.
  • Mobile phones. Try to keep usage to a minimum, especially during speeches or when networking. Step outside the event if you need to make calls or send texts.
  • Gossip. Don’t engage in gossip as it is disrespectful and can create awkward social situations if someone finds out you’ve been talking about them.
  • Avoid politics and religion. If you have just been introduced to someone avoid talking about contentious topics that could lead to disagreements.
  • Learn how to smoothly change the subject. Being able to graciously guide a conversation from a controversial topic into less difficult territory is an excellent skill to develop.


Formal invitations usually include a time that the event will end, usually worded something like ‘Carriages at midnight’. As with the arrival time, this should be strictly followed. People who overstay their welcome can be annoying and inconvenient, so don’t attempt to hang around. Equally, don’t leave excessively early as it can be construed as rude and ungrateful. After the event send the host a hand-written note to say thank you, especially if you were unable to say goodbye in person on the day.

Following the correct etiquette during special occasions isn’t difficult and it helps to make sure the event is enjoyable. By arriving and leaving promptly, displaying good manners and dressing appropriately, both you and your fellow guests will have a great time.

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