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Pitfalls To Avoid

What Should Guests Talk About At Dinner?

"Good talk is not to be had for the asking. Humors must first be
accorded in a kind of overture for prolog; hour, company, and
circumstances be suited; and then at a fit juncture, the subject, the
quarry of two heated minds, spring up like a deer out of the wood."
Stevenson knew as well as Alice in Wonderland that something has to open
the conversation. "You can't even drink a bottle of wine without opening
it," argued Alice; and every dinner guest, during the quarter of an hour
before dinner, has felt the sententiousness of her remark. Someone in
writing about this critical period so conversationally difficult has
contended that no person in his senses would think of wasting good talk
in the drawing-room before dinner, but Professor Mahaffy thinks
otherwise: "In the very forefront there stares us in the face that
awkward period which even the gentle Menander notes as the worst
possible for conversation, the short time during which people are
assembling, and waiting for the announcement of dinner. If the witty man
were not usually a selfish person, who will not exhibit his talent
without the reward of full and leisurely appreciation, this is the real
moment to show his powers. A brilliant thing said at the very start
which sets people laughing, and makes them forget that they are waiting,
may alter the whole complexion of the party, may make the silent and
distant people feel themselves drawn into the sympathy of common
merriment, and thaw the iciness which so often fetters Anglo-Saxon
society. But as this faculty is not given to many, so the average man
may content himself with having something ready to tell, and this, if
possible, in answer to the usual question exprest or implied: Is there
any news this afternoon? There are few days that the daily paper will
not afford to the intelligent critic something ridiculous either in
style or matter which has escaped the ordinary public; some local event,
nay, even some local tragedy, may suggest a topic not worth more than a
few moments of attention, which will secure the interest of minds
vacant, and perhaps more hungry to be fed than their bodies. Here then,
if anywhere in the whole range of conversation, the man or woman who
desires to be agreeable may venture to think beforehand, and bring with
them something ready, merely as the first kick or starting point to make
the evening run smoothly." However this may be, it is only with that
communicative feeling which comes after eating and drinking that talkers
warm up to discriminating discussion; and in the drawing-room just
before dinner, one can scarcely expect the conversation to turn on
anything but trifles.

At the moment a man presents his arm to the woman he is to take in to
dinner, he must have something ready in the way of a remark, for if he
goes in in silence, he is lost. There are a thousand and one nothings he
may say at this time. I know a clever man who talks interestingly for
fifteen minutes about the old-fashioned practice of offering a woman the
hand to lead her in to dinner, and whether or not that custom was more
courteous and graceful than our modern way of proceeding.

The question is often asked, "What should guests talk about at a
dinner?" I restrict my interrogation to guests, because there is a
distinction between the directing of a dinner-guest's conversation and
the guiding of the talk by host or hostess into necessary or interesting
channels. Dinners, especially in diplomatic circles, are as often given
to bring about dexterously certain ends in view as they are given for
mere pleasure; and when this is the case it is necessary as well as
gracious to steer conversation along the paths that it should go. A
guest's first duty is to his dinner-companion, the person with whom,
according to the prearranged plan of the hostess, he enters the
dining-room and by whom he finds himself seated at table. His next duty
is to his hosts. He has also an abstract conversational duty to his
next nearest neighbor at table. It is every guest's duty, too, to keep
his ears open and be ready to join in general talk should the host or
hostess attempt to draw all their guests into any general discussion.

The best answer to the question, "What should guests at dinner talk
about?" is, anything and everything, provided the talk is tinctured with
tact, discretion, and discrimination. To one's dinner-companion, if he
happens to be a familiar acquaintance, one can even forget to taboo
dress, disease, and domestics. One might likewise, with discretion, set
at liberty the usually forbidden talk of "shop," on condition that such
intimate conversation is to one's dinner-companion alone and is not
dragged into the general flights of the table-talk. While one talks to
one's dinner-companion in a low voice, however, it needs nice
discrimination not to seem to talk under one's breath, or to say
anything to a left-hand neighbor which would not be appropriate for a
right-hand neighbor to hear. When in general talk, the habit some
supposedly well-bred persons have of glancing furtively at any one guest
to interrogate telepathically another's opinion of some remark is bad
taste beyond the power of censure or the possibility of forgiveness.

At large, formal dinners, on the order of banquets, it would be
impossible for all guests to include a host or hostess in their
conversational groups from any and every part of the table; only those
guests seated near them can do this. But at small, informal dinners all
guests should, whenever possible, consider it their duty to direct much
of their conversation to their host and hostess. I have seen guests at
small dinners of no more than six or eight covers go through the
various courses of a three hours' dining, ignoring their host and
hostess in the entire table-talk, while conversing volubly with others.
There is something more due a host and hostess than mere greetings on
entering and leave-takings on departing. If the dinner-party is so large
that all guests cannot show them at the table the attention due them,
the delinquent ones can at least seek an opportunity in the
drawing-room, after guests have left the dining-room, to pay their host
and hostess the proper courtesy. Hosts should never be made to feel that
it is to their cook they owe their distinction, and to their table alone
that guests pay visits.

To say that the dominant note in table-talk should be light and humorous
is going too far; but conversation between dinner-companions should tend
strongly to the humorous, to the light, to the small change of ideas.
There should be an adroit intermixing of light and serious talk. I noted
once with keen interest a shrewd mingling of serious talk and small talk
at a dinner given to a distinguished German scientist.

A clever woman of my acquaintance found herself the one selected to
entertain at table this foreigner and scholar. When she was presented in
the drawing-room to the eminent man who was to take her in to dinner,
her hostess opened the conversation by informing the noted guest that
his new acquaintance, just that morning, had had conferred upon her the
degree of doctor of philosophy, which was the reason she had been
assigned as dinner-companion to so profound a man. The foreigner
followed the conversational cue, recounting to his companion his
observations on the number of American women seeking higher education,
et cetera. Such a conversational situation was little conducive to
small talk; but on the way from the drawing-room to the dining-table,
this clever woman directed the talk into light vein by assuring the
scholar and diplomat that there was nothing dangerous about her even if
she did possess a university degree; that she would neither bite nor
philosophize on all occasions; that she was quite as full of life and
frolic as if she had never seen a university. You can imagine the effect
of this vivacity upon the profoundest of men, and you can see how this
clever woman's ability at small talk made a comrade of a notable
academician. As the dinner progressed the talk between these two wavered
from jest to earnest in a most charming manner. Apropos of a late book
on some serious subject not expurgated for babes and sucklings, but
written for thinking men and women, the German scientist asked if he
might present his companion with a copy, provided he promised to glue
carefully together the pages unfit for frolicking feminine minds. Two
days later she received the book with some of the margins pasted--which
pages, of course, were the first ones she read.

When making an attempt to sparkle in small talk, dinner-guests should
remember that the line of demarcation between light talk and buffoonery
may become dangerously delicate. One can talk lightly, but nicely; while
buffoonery is just what the lexicographers define it to be: "Amusing
others by clownish tricks and by commonplace pleasantries." Gentle
dulness ever loved a joke; and the fact that very often humorists, paid
so highly in literature to perform, will not play a single
conversational trick, is the best proof that they have the good sense
to vote their hosts and companions capable of being entertained by
something nobler than mere pleasantry. "When wit," says Sydney Smith,
"is combined with sense and information; when it is in the hands of one
who can use it and not abuse it (and one who can despise it); who can be
witty and something more than witty; who loves decency and good nature
ten thousand times better than wit,--wit is then a beautiful and
delightful part of conversation."

Opinions as to what good nature is would perhaps vary. "You may be
good-natured, sir," said Boswell to Doctor Johnson, "but you are not
good-humored." The speech of men and women is diverse and variously
characteristic. All people say "good morning," but no two of God's
creatures say it alike. Their words range from a grunt to gushing
exuberance; and one is as objectionable as the other. Even weighty
subjects can be talked about in tones of badinage and good breeding.
Plato in his wonderful conversations always gave his subject a fringe of
graceful wit, but beneath the delicate shell there was invariably a hard
nut to be cracked. If good nature above all is sincere, it will escape
being gushing. The hypocrisy which says, "My dear Mrs. So-and-so, I'm
perfectly delighted to see you; do sit right down on this bent pin!" is
not good nature; it is pure balderdash.

Thoughtful dinner-guests take pains not to monopolize the conversation.
They bring others of the company into their talk, giving them
opportunities of talking in their turn, and listening themselves while
they do so: "You, Mr. Brown, will agree with me in this"; or, "Mr.
Black, you have had more experience in such cases than I have; what is
your opinion?" The perfection of this quality of conversational charm
consists in that rare gift, the art of drawing others out, and is as
valuable and graceful in guests as in hosts.

The French have some dinner-table conventions which to us seem strange.
At any small dining of eight or ten people the talk is always supposed
to be general. The person who would try to begin a tete-a-tete
conversation with the guest sitting next to him at table would soon find
out his mistake. General conversation is as much a part of the repast as
the viands; and wo to the unwary mortals who, tempted by short
distances, start to chatter among themselves. A diner-out must be able
to hold his own in a conversation in which all sorts of distant, as well
as near, contributors take part. Of course, this implies small dinners;
but English-speaking people, even in small gatherings, do not attempt
general conversation to such an extent. They consider it a difficult
matter to accomplish the diagonal feat of addressing guests at too great
a distance.

Dinner-companions, however, should be alert to others of the
conversational group. A guest can as easily lead the talk into general
paths as can a host or hostess. Indeed, it is gracious for him to do
this, tho it is not his duty. The duty lies entirely with a host or
hostess. At any time through the dinner a guest can help to make
conversation general: If some one has just told in a low voice, to a
right-hand or left-hand neighbor alone, some clever impersonal thing, or
a good anecdote, or some interesting happening suitable to general
table-talk, the guest can get the attention of all present by addressing
some one at the furthest point of the table from him: "Mr. Snow, Miss
Frost has just told me something which will interest you, I know, and
perhaps all of us: Miss Frost, please tell Mr. Snow about," et cetera.
Miss Frost, then, speaking a little louder in order that Mr. Snow may
hear, engages the attention of the entire table. The moment any one
round the table thus invites the attention of the whole dinner-group,
dinner-companions should drop instantly their private chats and join in
whatever general talk may ensue on the topic generally introduced. The
thread of their tete-a-tete conversation can be taken up later as the
general table-talk is suspended.

A narration or an anecdote should not be long drawn out. A dinner-guest,
or a host, or a hostess, is for the time being a conversationalist, not
a lecturer. It is the unwritten law of successful dinner-talk that no
one person round the table should keep the floor for more than a few
short sentences. The point in anecdotes should be brought out quickly,
and no happening of long duration should be recounted. A guest in
telling any experience can break his own narration up into conversation
by drawing into his talk, or recital, others who are interested in his
hobby or in his experience. Responses to toasts at banquets may be
somewhat longer than the individual speeches of a single person in
general table-talk; but any dinner-speaker knows that even his response
runs the risk of being spoiled if extended beyond a few minutes.

There are never-failing topics of interest and untold material out of
which to weave suitable dinner-talk, provided it is woven in the right
way. And this weaving of talk is an art in which one may become
proficient by giving it attention, just as one becomes the master of
any other art by taking thought and probing into underlying principles.
So in the art of talking well, even naturally fluent talkers need by
faithful pains to get beyond the point where they only happen to talk.
They need to attain that conscious power over conversational situations
which gives them precision and grace in adapting means to ends and a
fine discrimination in choosing among their resources.

A one-sided conversation between companions is deadly unless
discrimination is used in the matter of listening as well as talking.
For instance:

Mr. Cook: "Don't you think the plan of building a great riverside
drive a splendid one?"

Miss Brown: "Yes."

Mr. Cook: "The New York drive is one of the joys of life; it
gives more unalloyed pleasure than anything I know of."

Miss Brown: "Yes."

Unless under conditions suitable to listening and not to talking, Mr.
Cook might feel like saying to Miss Brown, as a bright young man once
said to a quiet, beautiful girl: "For heaven's sake, Miss Mary, say
something, even if you have to take it back." While it is true that
listening attentively is as valuable and necessary to thoroughly good
conversation as is talking one's self, good listening demands the same
discretion and discrimination that good talking requires. It is the
business of any supposedly good conversationalist to discern when and
why one must give one's companion over to soliloquy, and when and why
one must not do so.

The dining-room is both an arena in which talkers fight with words upon
a field of white damask, and a love-feast of discussion. If guests are
neither hatefully disputatious, nor hypocritically humble, if they are
generous, frank, natural, and wholly honest in word and mind, the
impression they make cannot help being agreeable.

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