Mister Manners

Romney and Obama’s First Lunch: A Social Etiquette Guide

As the former rivals prepare for their first post-election meeting, Kevin Fallon offers tips on how to keep things from getting awkward.

(L) Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images (R) Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Mitt Romney, 2012 presidential hopeful turned Disneyland adventurer, and Barack Obama, still president, will have their first meeting since their brutal battle for the Oval Office on Thursday. The president will host his former rival for a private lunch at the White House, a summit that could quickly surge to the top of the list of history’s most awkward.

Given the barbs thrown at one another during the grueling presidential campaign and the bitter feelings that may linger after the final vote tally, it’s easy to imagine interactions quickly veering toward the uncivil. With that in mind, we’ve combed through a series of helpful etiquette guides to provide Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney with pointed suggestions on how to act in order for the lunch to go smoothly.

To begin with: while it is considered polite to bring your host a gift, Romney should not bring up past gifts he believes Obama has given. This includes, apparently, forgiveness of college loans to young people, or free health care to minorities—two policy “gifts” that he thinks won Obama the presidency. A simple ficus will do, Mitt.

Undoubtedly, when the two do sit down to break bread, there may be lingering resentment and conversation could be slow and filled with awkward silences. Luckily, the Internet has created a useful guide on “How to Fill Awkward Silences.” Its first tip for opening up discussion is to “find something non-threatening to comment upon,” such as the food or the weather. The guide helpfully cautions that should one be inexperienced in small talk, it’s best to begin with a simple question—“Did you see the Cubs game last night?”—instead of a more complex sentiment. Presumably, “What did you know about Benghazi, and when?” is off the table.

The insightful tip sheet also recommends that, should the conversation lull, one party would be wise to talk about their achievements. “The other person will find this interesting because they can compare their own achievements against yours,” the guide says. “For instance, if you own a large swimming pool, show them a photo.” However, it is pertinent that when, for example, Romney boasts that he won his fantasy football match this past weekend, Obama does not reply, “SHUT UP, I’M PRESIDENT!” In fact, it may be best if the president does not bring up the fact that he is the president at all.

Similarly, when Romney sheepishly informs Obama that he’s taken a “very exciting position” at a venture capital firm founded by his oldest son, the president should exercise due restraint and stifle all giggling at the act of nepotism.

Each person should also show up for the event with a catalog of possible conversation topics stored away, so that there will be few uncomfortable breaks in conversation. This guide suggests, “Talk about some things that maybe you would like to do, like joining a club or something.” Romney would advised to stick to things like “book clubs” and “church softball teams,” and not “world leaders” or “commanders of national armies,” in order to avoid tense moments.

Under no circumstances should Obama serve Romney a glass of his now-famous White House brew of beer. Milk is a favorite of the Mormon also-ran, if Saturday Night Live is as accurate in its portrayal as it typically is, but perhaps a caffeine-free diet soda will do, should one be available.

When the beverages do arrive, Emily Post suggests that it is appropriate for either the host or the guest to propose a toast. “Stories that might embarrass the honoree are off-limits,” so Obama may steer clear of “remember that time I trounced you in the Electoral College?” Spur-of-the-moment toasts can be an off-the-cuff pleasure if the mood is right and the message heartfelt. Post’s example, “To Phil—a great boss who will be an even better VP. Congratulations!” may not be the best template to pull from on this occasion, however.

Etiquette Scholar also has some clever tips that pertain directly to business lunches. One point it underscores is to “make it clear that you are the host.” While President Obama may want to preside over the meeting with an air of dominance, he should stop short of peacock-strutting into the room while “Hail to the Chief” blares, Jay-Z and Beyoncé smile on from the background, and Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster dramatically unfurls behind him. That’s just rubbing it in.

As host, Obama will be charged with crafting a suitable menu. The commander-in-chief should take lessons on this point from the ever-informative font of etiquette that is the Hollywood rom-com. This lunchtime rendezvous, after all, is tantamount to a date. Along Came Polly, for example, warns Obama that serving spicy food could lead to a disastrous and embarrassing stay in the White House bathroom for his guest. A kind note in advance requesting to be notified of any of Romney’s allergies could prevent a calamity like the one that befell Will Smith in Hitch. Of course, if Obama were truly dedicated to throwing a successful meal, he would have had Romney tailed for weeks as he dines at various establishments, making note of what spurned the former governor to remark, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

Finally, it is always pertinent for the guest to follow-up with a thank-you note, expressing gratitude for a lovely time—even if one wasn’t had—and briefly recapping any business decisions that were made during the engagement. With the visit to the White House no doubt stirring complicated, perhaps wistful emotions, Romney should take special care to ensure that the letter is not stained with tears.