Do you call it a sofa or a couch? What is the correct way to arrange a seating plan? How can you conquer the art of small talk? The smallest slip-ups can be revealing in the world of etiquette, so we penned a note on monogrammed stationery to two experts who can help you navigate the tricky terrain. Do RSVP, won’t you?

First up, Alexandra Messervy, former member of the Royal Household to the Queen Of England, and founder of The English Manner etiquette academy.

How important is a handshake? Vital. A limp handshake probably means you are a limp person. Too strong, and you are probably insecure or compensating for something. Make sure it is firm, but not too firm. Look the person in the eye, and smile. One or two pumps are sufficient, although in Middle Eastern countries it may last a little longer.

Do you have any advice on social kissing? It’s a minefield… Never kiss on first greetings; it’s too much, too soon. If you kiss them the first time you meet, where’s left to go? There’s no need to make silly ‘mwah’ sounds as you kiss, either.

What is an acceptable time for replying to an e-mail or text message? You should reply as soon as you possibly can. If you want more time then e-mail the sender saying you have the e-mail and that you will reply in the next couple of days. That way they know you’ve received it and are dealing with it. Texts should be replied to by the end of the day you receive them.

How should you respond to an invitation correctly? If the invitation has come through the post, then it requires a handwritten response on social correspondence paper, answered in the third person. For example: “Mrs Alexandra Messervy thanks William Hanson for his kind invitation to dinner on Friday 1st March at seven o’clock at Jefferson Towers and has much pleasure in accepting.”

The same form (third person) is taken when replying to an e-mail invitation. If the invitation has come through text, then you may reply by text. Facebook invitations are fine, although one would hope you are not being invited to a formal event online. Just do not click ‘Maybe attending’. You’re either going, or you are not.

Are thank you letters essential? Absolutely. They should be on social correspondence paper (around A5 size) and written in blue or black ink. There is no set pattern, but make sure your gratitude sounds sincere. A thank you text just doesn’t cut it.

Do you have any tips for ladies getting out of a car? Ladies should keep their knees and ankles together, and then swivel out of the car, pushing up from the seat to gracefully exit the car. If the man has got his act together in time to come and open the door, this can be a nice touch.

What basic tips do you have for grooming? For ladies, less is more when it comes to makeup. Wear subtle makeup to complement existing facial features, rather than trying to create new ones. Hair should be shorter rather than longer, although if going long then make sure it is in good condition, rather than straggly and out of control. With regards to men, any facial hair should be neat and tidy. Fluffy, tufty beards, or bristly moustaches are not attractive. Ensure your shoes are in good condition, also. A lady will often judge a man on the quality and condition of his footwear. Many men make such an effort getting dressed but then fail when it comes to the footwear.

Are there any commonly mispronounced words we should be aware of? In Britain we refer to it as a ‘lavatory’ rather than a ‘toilet’, a ‘sofa’ rather than a ‘couch’ and it is ‘dinner’ rather than ‘tea’ or ‘supper’.

When it comes to small talk, are there any sure-fire ways to sail through? Avoid the following topics: sex, health, politics, religion and money. That last one being the most important one to avoid. Instead ask the other person how they know the hosts, or how far they have travelled. News and current affairs is also a good topic, although nothing too controversial or serious, as you do not know that person’s beliefs.

What is your biggest pet peeve? People not saying please or thank you. There is no excuse to forget the basics. I can forgive someone for not knowing how to eat asparagus, but forgetting to thank someone for holding open a door for them is inexcusable.

The Finishing Academy’s Penny Edge hosts seminars on decorum. Here she offers us her top ten tips for flawless manners and navigating the tricky waters of social etiquette.

  • If there is no dress code on the invitation, always aim to be overdressed rather than underdressed. Being smart, clean and well groomed is essential.
  • Make sure you inform your host or hostess of your dietary requirements when you RSVP, so you won’t end up with a plate of food you cannot or will not eat.
  • As a host or hostess, you should find out at least three snippets of information about each guest, so when you introduce people, you can provide them with conversational talking points.
  • Read the newspaper before you set off for dinner; that way you can be up to date with polite chitchat.
  • You should never ask someone whether they have children, unless they bring up the subject (some people may not want or not be able to have them). In general, try to be sensitive.
  • When arranging a seating plan, the most important female should be on the right of the host, and the most important gentleman should be on the right of the hostess. Guests should be alternated between male and female, and partners should never be sat together.
  • As a guest, if you’re unsure how to use the cutlery, a safe bet is to work from the outside in.
  • Don’t toast with a glass of water; it’s said to be bad luck.
  • Talking too loudly or with your mouth full is unlikely to endear you to other guests.
  • If you must make or receive an important phone call, excuse yourself and apologise.

This article first appeared in What’s On in March 2013