How people can expect to navigate modern parties without the skill of being able to hold a drink, carry a plate and shake hands simultaneously, Miss Manners cannot imagine. Personally, she can do all three while also fanning herself, jotting down a telephone number and holding a nosegay.

But she understands that there are people who, not being so perfectly trained, react with dismay when given a filled plate, knife, fork, napkin and wineglass--and no table.

She therefore believes that the buffet meal is a form that should be used sparingly and carefully. And just because she is able to juggle, that does not mean that she likes being required to demonstrate her talent, especially at mealtime. She long ago made a wise decision to control the amount of carousing she does by skipping all social functions at which she would be expected to stand.

This need not rule out buffet meals entirely. The buffet meal is always a compromise--the presumption is that if you could serve all 83 guests at the dining room table, you would--but, then, few aspects of socializing do not leave something or someone compromised. Let us at least set the standard that every guest invited to a full meal is provided with a chair. Half of them will sit on the rug, but that does not excuse inviting people to your house for the purpose of eating dinner from your floor.

The buffet table is properly set so that it would form an attractive pattern if viewed by a guest hanging from the chandelier. Miss Manners prefers diagonal rows of forks across the front left corner, with a row of overlapping napkins at the same angle, nearer to the edge, but tolerates those who are partial to circular formations and such whimsy. Plates are stacked at the back corner, not too high, and platters are set at rhythmic intervals.

A long buffet table is set with two supplies of everything in mirror image. This is so two squadrons of guests can approach from opposite ends and meet just after the middle, where every one of them will exclaim, "Oh, that's the same salad! I already took some of that."

The brighter guests will then depart from the table. The less swift-minded will continue down against the tide, exclaiming, "Oh, that's the same rice!" etc.

Centerpieces are not absolutely required, but if one is used it had better look like a centerpiece. People will eat anything on a buffet table. The same guests who would never take seconds from a passed platter go back for fourths when they see all that food laid out like sale merchandise in a shop.

Buffet food should not require the use of a knife by the eater, and it should be almost as good in the lukewarm state as in the hot. A host who does not use large plates and huge napkins for a buffet meal deserves what he eventually finds in the rug.

Dessert should not be on the table with the main course, or at least three people will say, of the triumphant result of your having beaten egg whites until your arm was about to fall off, "Eeeeew! This is sweet! I thought it was potatoes."

It is customary to offer some sort of service, even if it is only going around saying, "Here, let me take that," to stop guests from marching into the kitchen and dumping their garbage in all the wrong places. If there are enough authorized hands to do so, it is sensible to hand out extra courses and to bring around the platters from the table for seconds. The fewer times your guests get up, the less you have to re-upholster.

The ideal buffet meal is one at which the guests, having taken their plates, are shown to a set table or a variety of small tables and allowed to eat on something more reliably horizontal than their laps. From there, it is but one short step to a truly civilized meal.