Like the rest of the press corps, we have received our invitations to the annual reception at the White House, and it is time for me to brush up on my deportment for formal encounter. I turn, of course, to my guide in times past, ''Buel's Manual of Self Help'' printed in Chicago in 1894.
Let's stick to good manners on this side of the Atlantic, where I read that ''the bow, handshake and kiss are the three usual forms of greeting.''
Here's a delicate point that wouldn't have occurred to me without a hint: ''A cold touch of the fingers is a sign of ill-breeding; better not offer your hand if you cannot give a warm grasp that bespeaks the sincerity of your welcome.'' A nice touch, eh? I am going to rub my hand vigorously over my trousers just before the salutation to register the right degree of cordiality before presenting it.
And here's another valuable tip, since the hall will be crowded: ''At large functions, handshaking is little indulged, and never except between intimates. A gentleman may remove his glove to shake the hand of a lady, but if it be tight-fitting, and removal is difficult, he may offer his gloved hand without violating good manners.''
We can browse through Buel and pick out all sorts of handy hints. Have you reviewed the ritual of calling cards recently, for example? Buel explains: ''Every lady and gentleman will provide themselves with their personal cards, which should be neither very large in size nor printed with course letters. The approved size is a plain white card, nearly square, say 2 1/2 x 3 1/2 inches for ladies and 2 x 3 inches for gentlemen. A young lady's card should be slightly smaller than that of a married lady's. The print, engraving being now in style, should be plain script, fancy designs or gilt borders being bad form.''
With this busy Christmas season approaching, perhaps I should mention ''calls'' and ''visits.''
''Calls are limited to half an hour, unless there be good occasion for prolonging them, and when a second caller arrives the first one should usually depart as soon as circumstances will permit, though never with abruptness.''
When should gentlemen call? ''Gentlemen may call upon ladies, only when they are invited to do so, or to present a letter of introduction from an intimate friend of the person or family called on. . . . (A gentleman's) hat may be deposited beside the chair, or kept in hand, unless the lady urgently requests that it be given to the servant, which request will be taken as an invitation to make the call a visit.''
I am afraid I have strayed rather far away from the subject with which I started - the annual reception at the White House. But it might be wise to clear up just one item, the distinction between a ''call'' and a ''visit.'' A call, of course, is a short visit. In either case, gentlemen must be on their best manners. ''When a gentleman is paying his addresses to a young lady,'' Buel says , ''he will make his visits in accordance to the wishes of the lady, but it is not proper for him to remain later than 10 o'clock.
''Violation of this rule is a great offense against propriety, unless the couple are engaged, or a longer stay is necessary to complete some important assignment.'' The chapter encouragingly notes, ''All rules, however, have some exceptions.'' So that's that. . . .
Next assignment? ''Courtship and marriage.''