20140131-place-setting-manner-matters.gif

[Image: Robyn Lee]

Dear Molly,

This is a question that has plagued me and some of my friends for quite some time. It has to do with being a proper dinner host. We believe if you invite a group of people to dinner, some of whom don't know each other, it is your job to facilitate conversation in which all parties can participate. If the chat veers off course, alienating certain members, the host should bring the discussion back to something everyone can understand and contribute to. 

It seems many people shockingly don't understand their duties as the host of a dinner, even one that is at a restaurant. If you do the inviting, you make sure everyone is enjoying themselves, right? 

Thank you in advance for your time and insight. 

Warmly, 

Peeved Partygoer

Dear Peeved Partygoer,

It's true. Good hosts do their best to make sure all of their guests are comfortable and entertained. So, yes, hosts should do their best to make sure that everyone is engaged in interesting conversation.

Yet their duties start well before the conversation does. They must first draw up their guest list with consideration to what the guests may have to say to one another. Thoughtful hosts who want their various acquaintances to meet and enjoy each other take the time to introduce them in such a way that they will be able to find subjects of mutual interest to discuss.

A host who invites two old friends from high school and a co-worker none of the rest of them have met before is, I'm afraid, setting someone up for exclusion despite everyone's best intentions. Guest lists are best drawn entirely from shared connections (school, work, curling team, etc.), or a true mix so no one group or interest overwhelms the others.

Of course we all find ourselves in situations now and again when there is an odd person out or where partners or spouses or dates of people who know each other end up with precious little to say about the round robin tennis tournament the rest of you played last week. Polite adults notice when they're dominating the dinner conversation and step back. Good hosts save their guests the trouble of having to notice for themselves and step in with new topics and questions or prompts for the less engaged to keep everyone participating and enjoying themselves.

Good conversation does tend to take on a life of its own, and hosts are best forgiven for getting wrapped up in subjects about which they're passionate (I will admit a great deal of self-interest in making this claim). Also note that there is nothing to stop a guest with the natural facility of or aspirations of being an excellent conversationalist from taking up the mantle of involving everyone and/or pointing out that the conversation is excluding some of the party when the host doesn't. There is also no reason that someone who is feeling left out of the conversation can't pipe up with questions to bring themselves up to speed or present a more captivating subject to grab everyone's attention.

In short, if you're the host be sure to take care of your guests; if you're the guest, don't worry about what the host should be doing, do what you know is right: avoid traipsing too far down conversational paths that exclude others at the table and make the effort to engage with all of your fellow diners.

More Manner Matters

Ask Us!

Manner Matters will run every other week, and we're looking for questions! Have you found yourself in a dining-related pickle recently (and not the delicious kind that indicates you are in a good deli)? Email etiquette@seriouseats.com with the subject line "Manner Matters" to submit your question. All questions will be read, though unfortunately not all can be answered.

About the Author: Molly Watson honed her ability to guide others in tricky situations by telling her little brother the best way to do everything. See what she has to say beyond dining at Ask a (Sensible) Midwesterner and see her work as a recipe wizard at Local Foods.

Comments

Comments can take up to a minute to appear - please be patient!

Previewing your comment: