Welcome back to “In Good Taste,” where we explore all things mannerly pertaining to food and how to enjoy it with others. Today we’ll explain how to be the perfect dinner party guest.
Charm everyone. That sounds awfully difficult, so let’s rephrase to make it less intimidating. To be considered delightful, a guest’s first desire and responsibility should be setting a goal of not offending anyone. While that sounds obvious and seems rather easily achieved, quite the opposite is often true. Dinner in someone else’s home, especially among those you might not know well, can supply enough stress to foster the capacity for “The Big Gaffe.”
“Where did you go to school, Bob?”
“Funny story now, but it was awful then. I went to Hoity-Toity U, but I only stayed a year because of the rampant snobbery there.”
Later, Bob learns that his dinner partner not only attended HTU, but her grandfather founded the institution. Bob’s luck could be worse. His dinner companion might be the hiring manager at the company where Bob just interviewed.
Keep conversations upbeat and positive. When in doubt, follow the lead of your host. Carefully consider the full ramifications of a subject that might seem safe at first blush. Err on the side of caution. Ask questions that prompt others to speak. At a holiday dinner one might ask about people’s food traditions; during summer, inquire where people have enjoyed vacationing or what plans they have. Leave a few beats between sentences so others can chime in.
Guests must observe the courtesy of turning to the right and left at regular intervals so that all might be considered equally fascinating and no one is left slurping soup in the conversational lurch. Remember when answering a query from another guest to toss the conversational ball back after your brief reply. If all else fails, exclaim over the host’s food choices and skill in preparation.
Don’t arrive empty handed. Bring some gift or small consideration to your host. At a pot luck, everyone brings a dish that is expected to be consumed that evening; however, at a true dinner party, the host does not expect and very likely does not desire additional courses toted in by guests. It is a modern quandary: How can one know which type of party one is attending? Ask your host, “What may I bring?” If a course is expected, he or she will guide you. If they insist, “Nothing, just bring yourself!” then a proper gift of nice chocolates or a good, but not exorbitant, wine is appropriate for your first time at someone’s home.
Once you embark on a pattern of reciprocation, these gifts may diminish or cease, should you mutually choose to bypass them. This can be done after you reciprocate a second time, insisting their your friends’ offer is “too kind, your company is gift enough.” If they continue to bring wine despite your exhortations not to, then you should as well.
And reciprocate you must. Because we do lead such busy lives and our homes might not be suitable for formal dinner parties, you might host more often, but with just a few guests at each event. Or you might choose to host your guests at a restaurant or have your dinner catered. But in any case, to be a guest who is welcomed again and again at your friends’ tables, you must reciprocate in an equivalent, but not necessarily mirrored fashion.
Thank your hosts. Thank them at the table and again as you depart their door. Repeat the next day. The key to being correct with your thank you is to reflect, or move one step up in formality, the method that was used to invite you. If you got a phone call, then your call, e-mail, or pre-printed note card is acceptable. If you received a handwritten invitation, then nothing less will do in return by expressing your thanks using your best engraved stationery in your finest hand.
Follow these simple rules of courtesy and your seat at the table will be assured again and again. Your presence will be considered a delight that rivals the sweetest dessert.
Etta Kate is the nom de plume of a business consultant who maintains anonymity to protect her clients’ privacy. She is pleased to be so warmly welcomed into the WFAEats family of contributors. If you have a question about food and dining etiquette, Etta Kate will be happy to help. You can post your messages in the comments section of this page.