Ask the party doctor: Yes, boors with BO can make it

December 16, 2005

Wary of parties? Felipe Fernández-Armesto offers advice on avoiding faux pas, while Anna Fazackerley discovers the secrets of a supreme networker

Dear Professor Fernández-Armesto,
I consider myself to be a leading light in my field. But no matter how much I publish, I am invisible at parties. I attended a bash thrown by our vice-chancellor recently and spent 50 minutes standing with a group of academics from our Slavonic studies department without once managing to join the conversation.

I dread the Christmas party season and more humiliation. Can one learn to make a better impression - or any impression at all?

Norbert Finkelstein (Dr)
PS. I am almost certain that I don't have a body odour problem.

Never fear, (Dr) Norbert. Your silence helps you. It will earn you renown as a profound but cautious thinker. Just listen with specious concentration to any drivel your colleagues utter: they will mistake this for respect and misread it as sagacity.

And don't let your BO inhibit you. You're clearly convinced you've got it - probably correctly. Studies show that insanitary habits, unkempt beards and mucky dickies increase prospects of academic preferment.

All you lack is conspicuousness. You can achieve this by elbowing your way into the Slavonicists' scrimmage. But remember - say nothing. Slavic literature abounds in taciturn heroes, and the Slavonic department will credit you with a mind as strong as your elbows.

And thank you for sharing with us: it's gratifying to know that your colleagues can be voluble on the modest quantities of drink vice-chancellors serve.

Dear Professor Fernández-Armesto,
My wife is keen to attend our department's Christmas party. The problem is that I have been indulging in some rather heated extracurricular activities with a female colleague.

My wife is understanding, but I worry that things might get out of hand after everyone has had a few glasses of warm white wine. What is the etiquette in these situations?

Professor Hugo Duffton-Gerty

Unquestionably, dear Professor, you should chill the wine. This will help make it palatable and will contrast pleasantly with the hot stuff you mention.

Confess gay experiences to your wife. This will divert her suspicions and increase her attentions. It will establish your politically correct credentials with the gender studies department and indemnify you against denunciation by your mistress for harassment, unprofessional conduct and abuse of power.

Dear Professor Fernández-Armesto,

I long to be erudite and witty when I meet strangers at social gatherings, but I find that whenever I open my mouth I say completely the wrong thing.

How might I polish my social skills before I offend anyone else?

Bob Smith

The wrong thing, as darling Oscar once said, is always witty: the right thing is merely dull. Utter your betises with relish and hire a claque of desperate students to applaud them. Develop other forms of rudeness, such as leering, toe-treading, drink-spilling and canape-regurgitating: your insults will then be thought intentional and therefore clever.

If you can't think even of the wrong thing to say, simply repeat your interlocutors' words with added emphasis. They will see this as a sign of wisdom.

And change your name, Bob: it's boring. I suggest Professor Hugo Duffton-Gerty.

Dear Professor Fernández-Armesto,

I got overexcited at an interdisciplinary research symposium last night.

While talking to my head of department about expressing science through mime, I waved my arm and knocked her front teeth out with my champagne glass. Will this ruin my promotion prospects? How might I make amends?

Dr Roderick Losarcos

A brilliant ploy, Dr Roderick. I congratulate you. Your superior will get a cosmetic tooth-job at your insurance company's expense and be eternally grateful: I daresay she was hideously ugly, and the process can only be an improvement. Take flowers to her bedside and suggest that the tiniest hint of gap would be sexy.

Kindly send me the name of your champagne glass supplier: I have tried to emulate your achievement but succeeded only in breaking my glass. Kindly also send me the details of your symposium: mine serves only sparkling hock.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is Prince of Asturias professor of history at Tufts University in the US.

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