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The Talk Of Host And Hostess At Dinner

Sydney Smith, by all accounts a great master of the social art, said of
himself: "There is one talent I think I have to a remarkable degree:
there are substances in nature called amalgams, whose property it is to
combine incongruous materials. Now I am a moral amalgam, and have a
peculiar talent for mixing up human materials in society, however
repellent their natures." "And certainly," adds his biographer, "I have
seen a party composed of materials as ill-sorted as could possibly be
imagined, drawn out and attracted together, till at last you would
believe they had been born for each other."

But this role of moral amalgam is such a difficult one, it must be
performed with such tact and delicacy, that hostesses are justified in
employing whatever mechanical aids are at their command. In
dinner-giving, the first process of amalgamation is to select congenial
people. Dinners are very often flat failures conversationally because
guests are invited at random. Choosing the lesser of two evils, it is
better to run the risk of offending than to jeopardize the flow of talk
by inviting uncongenial people. When dinners are given to return
obligations it is not always easy to arrange profitably the inviting and
seating of guests. But the judgment displayed just here makes or mars a
dinner. A good way out of the difficulty, where hosts have obligations
to people of different tastes and interests, is to give a series of
dinners, and to send the invitations out at the same time. If Mrs. X. is
asked to dine with Mrs. Z. the evening following the dinner to which
Mrs. Z. has invited Mrs. Y., Mrs. X. is not offended.

To see that there is no failure of tact in seating guests should be the
next process of amalgamation. To get the best results a great deal of
care should be bestowed upon the mixture of this human salad. Guests
should be seated in such a way that neighbors at table will interest
each other; a brilliant guest should be placed where he may at least
snatch crumbs of intellectual comfort if his near companions, tho
talkative, are not conversationalists of the highest order; the
loquacious guest should be put next to the usually taciturn, provided he
is one who can be roused to conversation when thrown with talkable
people. Otherwise one of the hosts should devote himself to the business
of promoting talk with the uncommunicative but no less interesting
person. A wise hostess will consider this matter of seating guests in
connection with selecting and inviting them. It is, therefore, one of
the subordinate and purely mechanical processes of the real art of

If hosts forget nothing that will tempt a guest to his comfort, they
will remember above all the quarter of an hour before dinner, and will
begin the actual conquest of amalgamation while their friends are
assembling. By animation and cordiality they will put congenial guests
in conversation with each other, and will bring forth their mines of
things old and new, coining the ore into various sums, large and small,
as may be needed.

In some highly cultured circles, men and women are supposed to be
sufficiently educated and entertaining to require no literary or
childish aids to conversation. Every dinner-giver, however, knows the
device of suitable quotations, or original sayings, or clever limericks,
on place-cards, and the impetus they give to conversation between
dinner-companions as the guests are seated. But the responsibility of
host and hostess does not end when they thus furnish dinner-companions a
conversational cue. "This is why," as has been well said by Canon
Ainger, "a dinner party to be good for anything, beyond the mere
enjoyment of the menu, should be neither too large nor too small. Some
forgotten genius laid it down that the number should never be less than
that of the Graces, nor more than that of the Muses, and the latter half
of the epigram may be safely accepted. Ten as a maximum, eight for
perfection; for then conversation can be either dialog, or may spread
and become general, and the host or hostess has to direct no more than
can profitably be watched over. It is the dinner party of sixteen to
twenty that is so terrible a risk.... Good general conversation at table
among a few is now rather the exception, from the common habit of
crowding our rooms or our tables and getting rid of social obligations
as if they were commercial debts. Indeed many of our young people have
so seldom heard a general conversation that they grow up in the belief
that their only duty in society will be to talk to one man or woman at a
time. So serious are the results of the fashion of large dinner parties.
For really good society no dinner-table should be too large to exclude
general conversation." At a banquet of thirty or forty, for instance,
general talk is impossible. At such banquets toasts and responses take
the place of general talk; but at small dinners it is gracious for a
host and hostess to lead the conversation often into general paths.
Ignoring a host and hostess through the various courses of a three
hours' dining, which I have already mentioned, can as easily be the
fault of the host and hostess themselves as it can be due to inattention
on the part of guests. A host and hostess should no more ignore any one
guest than any one guest should ignore them; and if they sit at their
own table, as I have sometimes seen hosts and hostesses do, assuming no
different function in the conversation than if they were the most
thoughtless guest at the table of another, they cannot expect their own
guests to be anything but petrified, however instinctively social.

The conversational duty of a host and hostess is, therefore, to the
entire company of people assembled at their board, as well as especially
to their right-hand neighbors, the guests of honor. It is the express
function of a host and hostess to see that each guest takes active part
in general table-talk. Leading the talk into general paths and drawing
guests out thus become identical. It is this promoting of general
conversation which is the backbone of all good talk. Many people,
however, do not need to be drawn out. Mr. Mahaffy cautions: "Above all,
the particular guest of the occasion, or the person best known as a wit
or story-teller, should not be pressed or challenged at the outset, as
if he were manifestly exploited by the company." Such a guest can safely
be left quite to himself, unless he is a stranger. As drawing out the
people by whom one finds one's self surrounded in society will be
treated in a forthcoming essay, I shall not deal with it here further
than to tell how a famous pun of Charles Lamb's gave a thoughtful host
not only the means of swaying the conversation of the entire table to a
subject of universal interest, but as well the means of drawing out a
well-informed yet timid girl. Guiding his talk with his near neighbor
into a discussion of the pros and cons of punning, he attracted the
attention of all his guests by addressing some one at the further end of
the table: "Mr. White, we were speaking of punning as a form of wit, and
it reminded me that I have heard Miss Black, at your left, repeat a
clever pun of Charles Lamb's--a retort he made when some one accused him
of punning. Miss Black, can you give us that pun? I'm afraid I've
forgotten it." In order that her host and all the table might hear her
distinctly, Miss Black pitched her voice a little higher than in talk
with her near neighbors and responded quickly: "I'll try to remember it,

"'If I were punish-ed
For every pun I've shed,
I should not have a puny shed
Wherein to lay my punished head!'"

Thus Miss Black was not only drawn out, she was also drawn into the
conversation and became the center of an extended general discussion on
the very impersonal and interesting subject of punning. As the talk on
punning diverged, the conversation gradually fell back into private
chats between dinner-companions.

A host or hostess will know intuitively when the conversation has
remained tete-a-tete long enough, and will once more make it general.
When guests pay due attention to their host and hostess, the talk will
naturally be carried into general channels, especially where guests are
seated a little distance away. Even in general conversation a good
story, if short and crisp, is no doubt a good thing; but when either a
host or a guest does nothing but "anecdote" from the soup to the coffee,
story-telling becomes tiresome. Anecdotes should not be dragged in by
the neck, but should come naturally as the talk about many different
subjects may suggest them.

It is the duty of the host and hostess, and certainly their pleasure, to
make conversational paths easy for any strangers in a strange land. It
does not follow that a host and hostess are always well acquainted with
all their guests. There are instances where they have never even met
some of them. An invitation is extended to the house-guest of a friend;
or some person of distinction temporarily in the vicinity is invited,
the formality of previous calls being waived for this reason or that.
Unless a hostess can feel perfectly safe in delegating to some one else
the entertaining of a stranger, it is wise to seat this guest as near to
herself as possible, even tho he is not made a guest of honor. She can
thus learn something about her new acquaintance and put the stranger on
an equal conversational footing with the guests who know each other

In their zeal to give their friends pleasure, a host or hostess often
tells a guest that he is to take a particularly brilliant woman in to
dinner, and the woman is informed that she is to be the neighbor of a
notably clever man. To one whose powers are brought out by being put on
his mettle this might prove the best sort of conversational tonic; on
the other hand it might be better tact to say that tho a certain person
has the reputation of being exceptionally clever, he is, in truth, as
natural as an old shoe; that all one has to do to entertain him is to
talk ordinarily about commonplace topics. In ninety-nine cases out of a
hundred this is so. Some one is responsible for the epigram: "A great
man always lives a great way off"; and it is true that when we come to
know really great people we find that they are as much interested as any
one else in the commonplaces of life. Indeed, the more intellectual
people are, the more the homely things of life interest them. When
Tennyson was once a passenger on a steamer crossing the English Channel,
some people who had been assigned to seats opposite him in the dining
saloon learned that their neighbor at table was the great poet. In a
flutter of interest they listened for the wisdom which would drop from
the distinguished man's mouth and heard the hearty words, "What fine
potatoes these are!" This particular point requires nice discernment on
the part of host and hostess; they should know when they may safely
impress one guest with the cleverness of the other, and when it would be
disastrous to do so. Suppose the consequence is that each guest waits
for the sparkling flow of wit from the other, and to the consternation
of the host and hostess there is profound silence between two really
interesting people on whose cleverness they had counted to make their
dinner a success!

It is also the province of a host and hostess tactfully to steer the
drift of general table-talk away from topics likely to offend the
sensibilities of any one guest. Hosts owe not only attention but
protection to every person whom they ask to their home, and it devolves
upon them to interpose and come to the rescue if a guest is disabled in
any way from doing himself any sort of conversational justice. Swaying
conversation round and over topics embarrassing to any guest requires
the utmost tact and delicacy on the part of a host and hostess; for in
keeping one guest from being wounded or embarrassed, the offender
himself must not be made to feel conscious of his misstep. Indeed he may
be, and usually is, quite unconscious of the effect his words are having
on those whom he does not know well. Any subject which is being handled
dangerously must be juggled out of sight, and the determination to
juggle it must be concealed. Tho it is quite correct for one to say
one's self, "I beg pardon for changing the subject abruptly," nothing is
worse form than to say to another, "Change the subject," or, "Let us
change the subject." To do this is both rude and crude. Directing
conversation means leading talkers unconsciously to talk of something
else. Any guest, as well as a host or hostess, may graciously steer
conversation when it touches a subject some phase of which is likely to
offend sensitive and unsophisticated people. At a series of dinners
given to a circle of philosophic minds religious intolerance was largely
the subject of discussion. The circle, for the most part well known to
each other, was of liberal belief. A guest appeared among them, and it
was known only to one or two that this man was a sincere Catholic. As
the talk turned upon religious discussion, one of the guests so directed
the conversation as to bring out the information that the stranger was a
Catholic by faith and rearing. This was a very kind and appropriate
thing to do. It acquainted the hostess with a fact of which she was
ignorant; and it gave all present a feeling of security in whatever
they might say.

A hospitable host and hostess will not absorb the conversation at their
table. They will render the gracious service of furnishing a background
for the cleverness of others, rather than display unsparingly their own
brilliancy. Indeed, a man or woman does not have to be brilliant or
intellectual to succeed in this most gracious of social arts. The host
or hostess who possesses sympathy and tact will surpass in dinner-giving
the most brilliant person in the world who selfishly monopolizes
conversation at his own table. If guests cannot go away from a
dinner-table feeling better pleased with themselves, that campaign of
hospitality has been a failure. When the self-satisfaction on their
faces betrays the subtle art of the host and hostess in having convinced
all their guests that they have made themselves interesting, then the
acme of hospitality has been achieved. One of the most good-natured but
most inane of men was one day chuckling at having been royally diverted
at a dinner-party.

"He was at Mrs. X's," said some one.

"How do you know that?"

"Indeed! Don't I know her way? She'd make a raven go home rivaling the

To be able to make your guests better pleased with themselves is the
greatest of all social accomplishments.

"An ideal dinner party," says a famous London hostess, "resembles
nothing so much as a masterpiece of the jeweler's art in the center of
which is some crystalline gem in the form of a sparkling and sympathetic
hostess round whom the guests are arranged in an effective setting." It
would seem quite as necessary that a host prove a crystalline gem in
this masterpiece of the jeweler's art. To be signally successful at
dinner-giving, care to make the talk interesting is as necessary as care
in the preparation of viands. Really successful hosts and hostesses take
as much precaution against fatalities in conversation as against those
which offend the palate. While attending carefully to the polishing of
the crystal and to the preparing of the menu which will make their table
a delight, they remember that the intellect of their guests must be
satisfied no less than their eyes and their stomachs.

Next: Interruption In Conversation

Previous: What Should Guests Talk About At Dinner?

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