Dear Etta Kate: I'm a member of a roving supper club that meets at different members' houses. One of the members is an awful bore. She monopolizes every conversation with endlessly tedious stories on trivial topics. No one ever interrupts her, because this is the polite South. Several people have dropped out of the group. I probably shouldn't say anything when I'm a guest at someone else's table. But is there anything I can do as a hostess when it happens at my house? Perhaps it will encourage others to do the same? Please help!
Signed, Garrulous in Garner
Dear Garry: In a conversation held hostage by a boor or just a snore, Etta Kate’s father used to combat monopolizers in a very gruff voice: “It’s called a conversational ball – TOSS IT!” That’s not very kind or understanding, and although it does get the point across, you’ll certainly risk losing the friendship along with the conversation.
Let’s not go scorched earth, but look for a kinder, gentler way to handle Chatty Cathy.
Try saying this: “That’s fascinating, I’m sure, for those who follow [insert Cathy’s dull topic here]. But what I’m absolutely dying to know is how you prepared that delicious schnitzel you brought tonight!”
It is a way of wrestling the ball from her hands and making her toss it – if not to you, at least onto a less stultifying subject.
If all else fails, use the time-honored trick of raising of a hand and exclaiming, “Oh! I simply must greet our new arrivals/refill Lucinda’s glass/put the Baked Alaska in the oven. Please excuse me!” Then engage someone else, resisting the urge to say why you dashed over so excitedly. It might not fix the problem; however, at some point one simply must save oneself by jumping on the nearest social lifeboat.
For those who worry they might be Chatty Cathy, Etta Kate advises you to read three pleasant news articles (challenging as that may be), and update your awareness on topics of culinary or cultural interest. Then be prepared to ask others their thoughts about them. Making good conversation takes some research and effort.
Preparing five non-intrusive questions you may ask others is a way to appear interesting yourself. People who are interested in others are always charming to have around. “How do you enjoy spending your free time?” is acceptable, but one should never ask the judgmental-sounding question, “What do you do for a living?”
See? You are already well on your way to becoming a delightful dinner guest.
Yours in delicious dinner conversation, Etta Kate
Etta Kate is the nom de plume of a business consultant who maintains anonymity to protect her clients’ privacy. She is at work on her first book about etiquette.