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Dinner party conversation: a few do’s and don’ts
Dinner party conversation: a few do’s and don’ts

By Jay Remer, the Etiquette Guy

Dinner party conversation can often be a very tricky – if not contentious  - art, depending on the group of guests gathered around the dinner table. A seasoned host has probably deliberately invited an eclectic array of guests to dine and imbibe. And who doesn’t like a lively conversation?

However, the emerging practice of asking guests to contribute something verbally by going around the table in turn is somewhat mildly amusing and, at the same time, quite annoying — sometimes infuriatingly so and potentially devastating. It has the function of disrupting a table, and has – dear Gentlereaders – even been known to result in guests walking away not only from the dinner table but the host’s house.

The point of this interruption in most cases is ego driven – or has touched a delicate nerve - and brings the conversations percolating around the table to a complete halt. It also serves to make some people ill at ease by asking them to speak extemporaneously about a surprise topic, most likely well considered in advance by the host.

Such games - although intended to be fun - can have quite the opposite effect. This is contrary to all rules of etiquette, where the main function of the host is to put people at complete ease.  Rules of etiquette are designed to benefit others, not ourselves. To force someone to share their inner most thoughts on a particular subject at the drop of a hat can be entertaining, but usually at someone else’s expense and can potentially be humiliating.

For example, bringing up controversial topics such as same sex marriage or abortion (even in our modern times, still somewhat controversial) can elicit opposing points of view, which can be extremely personal and therefore defined as taboo. Political or religious discussions - although I personally find them dangerous subjects - are considered by many to be inappropriate for the dinner table but manage to find their way there anyway.

This is precisely the antithesis of civil behavior. There arise some serious issues here, which are best debated away from the dinner table – perhaps in a more intimate setting or even away from the table when, as it often occurs, the group breaks up to discuss for more intimate tête-à-tête.

Having said that, it is important to remember that it is the host’s prerogative to bring up any subject matters he or she sees fit. It is after all his or her party and we - as guests - have accepted the invitation.

A few tips from the Etiquette Guy:

- Keep the subject focused on the person to whom one is speaking rather than on oneself is polite.

- Talk about virtues and avoiding faults or potential sore points is also good. The ego cloaks itself in passive aggression sometimes and can be cruel and certainly inappropriate at the table where digestion is important.

- Small talk (speaking about subjects which are often surface and don’t really “matter”) is always a fall back position and often times a good place to begin.

Jay Remer is the Etiquette Guy, and is certified by the Protocol School of Washington as a consultant for corporate etiquette and  international protocol.

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I went to a dinner party last night with a group where conversation drifted in and out of politics and religion as well as many other topics. At one point the hostess stopped the conversation to say, “Notice I changed the subject. We’re not going to talk about that.” It was very awkward as the conversation had drifted around so much (civilly, I might add), that I had only the vaguest idea which subject she was indicating was forbidden. The conversation recovered, but not without great embarrassment to the person who had been talking. I told my husband that the hostess should have jovially said something like, “Let’s not talk about politics. It’s so bad for digestion.” Something similar would have made it clear the subject was off limits without coming across as a condescending admonishment. It made me very uncomfortable. That said, I don’t do much talking at such affairs. I’m more of a listener.

  • Prunella
  • 25 May, 2012
  • 3:08 pm

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