Friday, September 17, 2010

Reggie's Advice For the Tongue-Tied Guest at Table Amongst Strangers

The other day Reggie received a telephone call from a lady friend.  A charming, game gal with a swell sense of humor and great style, she is at ease and in her element in the elegant drawing and dining rooms of what is left of society, the waters in which she and her dapper husband swim effortlessly.  They are a sought-after couple in the county where Darlington House is situated, where they spend the warmer months of the year in one of the great and important houses.  And they are a fun and interesting addition to any party or dinner table.  I like her, and I always look forward to seeing her when our paths cross.

Whoever did the seating here didn't follow the alternating "boy/girl" rule.
Plus, Reggie thinks those look like electrified candles!

She was quite exasperated when she called me.  "Reggie," she said, "I've got to ask you to write about something on that blog of yours.  Last night I sat a table at yet another benefit, and neither the person on my left nor on my right knew how to talk to me.  It was like pulling teeth just to get them to say anything.  After two inteminable courses of grunts and monosyllabic answers to my questions, and not a single one in return, I finally just got up and left.  I couldn't take it anymore!  Why do these people go to parties if they can't--or won't--at least do their dinner partners' the decency of talking to them?  Would you please write about this on your blog?  I think your readers would be interested to know what you have to say about this."

Lots of good conversation going on here, but whose hand is that
holding the cigarette on the bottom left?

Of course Reggie was rather flattered that such a lady as my caller would ask his opinion and think that he might even have something to say on this matter.  And since she did, he does.  For this is a subject that Reggie has given considerable thought to over the years.  Namely, how does one navigate the waters of social intercourse when one finds oneself at a table, adrift amongst a sea of strangers?  And, in particular, what does one talk about under such circumstances?

The answer is it is remarkably easy to start the juices of dinner party table conversation running, Dear Reader, and then keep them flowing for as long as one is at table.  It really only requires the most minimal of effort.  To start the conversation one need do nothing more than be a good asker of questions, and a good listener.  And then once the conversation has begun, it is easy to keep one's dinner partners engaged in pleasant banter throughout the meal by volunteering bits and pieces of information and one's opinions in response to one's dinner partners' comments, all with the goal of eliciting additional pleasant conversation for the duration of the meal.  But like many simple things, Reggie believes that achieving success at such intercourse requires effort, practice, and a willing audience.  Just as it takes a chef years to master turning out a perfectly roasted chicken every time he is asked to do so, it takes practice to become a good party conversationalist under all circumstances.

Nice, but couldn't they have rented some decent ballroom chairs?

For when one accepts an invitation to a party, whether large or small, private or public, one enters into a contract to perform at said party appropriately.  And that means playing ball with the other guests.  No, not literally--unless the party is a tennis round robin--but figuratively, where the game played is one of wit and verbal volley.  And that means keeping the conversation going.  Just as many a party is helped along by the flow of spirits, so is it aided by the ready flow of conversation.  And the responsibility of a guest to keep the conversation going is a broad one.  It does not apply only to intimate private parties where the guest list is carefully chosen, and where conversation often runs freely as a result, but it applies also to more public gatherings, such as large benefit dinners, where one can find oneself assigned to sit at a table surrounded by strangers.

But if one is not as facile as Reggie or his lady caller are at instigating and carrying on such conversations (Reggie can converse with a door knob, if required), one shouldn't be content to just sit there quietly, either, waiting for others who are better equipped to do so to start and then keep the conversation going.  One must gather up one's bespoke britches and stride forth into the conversational maelstrom, leaving one's cautions and inhibitions behind to gather dust amongst the wreckage of dinner parties past.  For a dinner party--and I'm including benefits here, too--without conversation at table is a wreck of an evening, indeed.

Ah, the days of cigarettes at table . . .
An otherwise perfect dinner marred by those nasty folding chairs again

To address the very serious shortfall in the understanding of those who drove my lady caller to distraction, Reggie has come up with a set of pointers and suggestions for the tongue-tied party guest to grease the wheels of conversation when he (or she) finds himself sitting at a dinner table amongst strangers.  The employment of these conversational gambits, I might add, Dear Reader, will ensure that said guest will soon find himself (or herself) at the happy center of a freewheeling and enjoyable conversation that can last the better part of an evening, and certainly through at least the several courses required in a sit down dinner.

Success in these matters requires but that you ask any of these seven questions, either individually or serially:
  • Tell me, how do you know the host and hostess?
  • Are you affiliated with this charity/organization/worthy cause?  Do you support its work?  If so, in what way?
  • That's a lovely brooch/dress/tiara you are wearing, is there a story behind it?
  • Isn't this a lovely night for such a party?  What did you do today leading up to it?
  • Do you live here, or are you visiting?  If you do not live here, where are you from?
  • Are you here with a group, or are you on your own?
  • Isn't this a marvelous band?  Have you heard them before?  Would you like to dance?
Failing all of the above, here is a sure fire way of eliciting a response:
  • This party is a goddamn bore, would you like to do some blow?
Reggie is, of course, joking with this suggested last question . . . at least he thinks so.

Well, they thought it was amusing!

All funning aside, and with the exception of the last query, each of these are positive and leading questions that give one's dinner companions the opportunity to open up and volunteer information that can then be the basis for further questioning by the perspicacious listener.  And once your dinner partner's attention has been engaged, and the conversation is flowing, here are six further things to ask or say that ensure its happy continuation:
  • Do you really think so?
  • And then what happened?
  • Really?  How so?
  • Do tell me more . . . 
  • That's the most interesting thing I've heard all evening!
  • How remarkable, what a coincidence . . .
And failing that:
  • Would you like to do some more blow?
Wait a minute, that was supposed to be a joke!

That gal on the left would have a better time if she followed Reggie's advice

Anyway, back to the subject at hand.  You will find yourself a popular dining companion, indeed, if you take it upon yourself to engage in polite conversation at parties with those on either side of you that keeps your companions wanting more, rather than less, of your company.  If, on the other hand, you just sit there, awkwardly pushing your food around because you haven't anything to say, then you really shouldn't have bothered to go out that evening.  Parties require a certain level of behavior from the guest, and that includes keeping the conversation going in a pleasant and diverting manner.  If you are not able or willing to do so, then your time (and that of your unfortunate dinner companions) will be much better spent if you stay at home, alone, catching up on--and then taking to heart--insightful past Reggie Darling posts on matters of etiquette and social comportment.

And with that, Reggie wishes to leave you with but a few more thoughts on this topic that are well worth considering:
  • Don't take this all too seriously, we're talking about parties here;
  • Believe it or not, your new found dining companion probably isn't as interested in what you have to say as they may appear to be.  They, like you, are at a party and likely understand that conversation at such gatherings is, by its nature, expected to be light-hearted and non-confrontational.  If they are asking you such questions it is because they are polite and well-versed in party etiquette, and they know how to keep the conversation going.  Don't read too much in to their attention; 
  • If you find success in your conversations, do not then monopolize them.  Allow your companions the opportunity to ask questions or volunteer information, too.  Do not become the dreaded Conversation Hog, as deliciously skewered by my quite brilliant fellow-blogger Social Primer;
  • Avoid the "no-no" topics of religion, politics, and money--and tread lightly in discussing one's work or profession; and
  • Watch you alcohol consumption--don't drink so much that your ability to navigate such events or conversational engagements becomes compromised.
So, who forgot to order the candles and centerpieces?

It's as simple as that.

Tell me, Dear Reader, what are the questions and topics in your conversational arsenal that you employ when you find yourself seated amongst strangers?

All photographs from LIFE Images; all cartoons by William Hamilton


  1. Reggie,

    Excellent thoughts and conversation starters. Another I like is, for example....I understand you enjoy gardening etc.....tell me about your favorite seasonal flowers, plantings, etc.

    Art by Karena

  2. My former vocation had amongst it's requirements, the attendence of lunches, cocktail parties, and dinners. I was from the beginning a bit surprised, then amused, then tortured, by the percentage of the conversation that revolved around alcohol.
    I do not, and have never, drunk a drop.
    I was constantly put in a position where I had to choose to pretend to know what people were talking about, expose my tetotaling... an inevitable sidetrack/stick-in-the-mud, or do my best to nod in faux participation.

    When an entire table is headed in one direction a single dissenter will seem just that and no one wants to sit and talk with a dissenter... especially when the root of the issue is the taboo subject of religion.

    I usually chose the polite abstinence and consequentially came off as an antisocial bore.

    What does one do when the table, repeatedly, trudges into subject that render one incapable of polite participation?

  3. I don't go to benefit dinners anymore -- ever. (On very rare occasions, I'll send a check. Unfortunately, that only seems to encourage them.) Life is just too short to meet people who are, almost always, people who one would never care to see again. (I realize this is old age talking, and that young people, or ambitious people, or those dreadful "networking" people may have different criteria for a happy night out.)

    That doesn't mean, however, that I don't throw parties, or go to them, or that I don't run into problems. For example, at one recent party I was seated between two women -- to my right, an exceptionally beautiful artist of a certain age, and to my left, a formidable older woman of the battle-axe school. Conversation with the artist went well enough, despite the fact that she was always touching me, which I found mildly disturbing. (I kept shooting furtive glances at her husband, who was paying no attention at all.)

    Then it came time to turn the table, and here all my troubles began. For one thing, I had not properly caught the woman's name when we were first introduced. I had got it slightly wrong. And then there is the fact that I am mildly deaf in my left ear -- a Sixties' casualty of the music wars. So half the things she said to me I couldn't quite understand, and I was forced to start throwing out vague murmuring phrases of assent, some of which were apparently very misplaced. She got louder (and possibly mildly indignant), and started telling ancient stories about dead politicians. This came as something of a surprise, as I wondered how she might possibly have known such people. (Meanwhile, the beautiful artist to my right had scooted her chair over next to mine and began eating off my plate with her fingers.)

    Finally, and mercifully, the dinner came to an end. It was only when I was in the car that it was explained to me that the woman I had taken for the widow of a long-dead country music star was in fact the billionaire owner of a newspaper chain who had long been active in Democratic politics.

    There's no moral here, but it has occurred to me that I should buy an old ear trumpet and take it with me to parties. (Though I am probably not as brave as Evelyn Waugh, who when bored by a conversation, would simply put his own ear trumpet down on the table.)

  4. brohammas --

    Nowadays the usual social ploy is to decline, saying you're on antibiotics. I've seen this used by tea-totalers and rummies on the wagon alike, and no one ever says a word about it.

  5. If there is a hint of a grandchild, particularly a new one, you will have an excellent conversation direction and your dinner partner will find you charming.

    If your dinner partner is newly married or engaged, asking how they met is usually good for a few minutes.

  6. I'm a reader and I find that questions like "What are you reading now?" and "What's in your book pile?" work. I've been known to ask perfect strangers what they're reading. It's a neutral topic that will open endless discussions.

  7. I usually ask women how much they weigh and men how much they make. Of course I don't get invited back, unless I promise to bring the blow.


    Excellent suggestions, Reggie. I've found that most people really do enjoy being asked about themselves.

  8. Ah, the social contract. Ah, conversation. Two pillars of our shared culture. And ones which the modern world would do not to discard. You, Reggie, of course, are a paragon of both. Smooches from California.

  9. I want to sit next to Patsy!

  10. Fabulous fun post. Nothing worse than getting stuck with a boring dinner partner. Luckily I don't have to go to many functions but I'm with Baker Martin - I usually ask about what they're reading or perhaps if they've seen any good films lately. And laughed out loud reading Patsy's comment.

  11. I, too, want to sit next to Patsy!

  12. Dear Reggie, Just a note to say thank you. Read your post this morning and had a very important dinner party to attend tonight. I was a bit nervous. Thank you for reminding me that 'and then what did you do'? and 'then what happened'? are magic! Well, I feel good tonight, in a very large part due to you. Best wishes always, Joyce

  13. Ah, the benefit dinner...what a bore. I once hosted a table at a benefit dinner in NYC where my date was seated between my boss's wife and me. She proceeeded to monopolize him for the entire evening and towards the end she even had her hand on his knee! Now that is a problem. Said date never spoke to me for the rest of the evening. That was indeed more of a problem for he was a wonderful "benefit escort". Now I ask you, dear Reggie, what would you have done had you been me????

    Like you, dearest Reggie, I can talk to a doorknob which is very unfortunate for I am always the sacrificial lamb and end up seated next to the Evening Bore. Now, whilst I am a big believer in the social contract and have danced the dance for many years, I have recently decided enough is enough. People like that are often excused as "shy" and it is simply not fair to the rest of us. If they want to be "shy" so be it. Let them sulk in their own misery. It's been my experience that after you leave them alone for a few minutes, someone across the table will come to the rescue and sometimes that does the trick.

  14. Wonderful post, Reggie! Glad to see there's another William Hamilton fan in the crowd!

  15. Dear Reggie, You are absolutely right in that there is no such thing as a free lunch or dinner, there is most certainly an obligation on the part of the dinner guest to be representative of, what I should term, 'good value'. In my view, people are rarely interested in what one has to say about oneself and so, it is incumbent upon one to keep asking questions centred upon the person whom one is addressing. If all else fails I find that mentioning the demerits of a substantially younger husband [ which is but a myth, but I can sound very convincing] usually works a treat in engaging interest.

    Having said all of this, I now feel that I have reached an age where I do whatever I please and avoid any event that may be boring or too much like hard work.

  16. Perhaps it was a hint, but my husband gave me Margaret Shepard's book The Art of Conversation a few years ago. Like your post, the book gives the reader an excellent primer in the 'how' of 'what' to do at a party or event.

  17. I'm with Baker Martin- I've always found that "what are you reading?" or "what movies have you seen?" are a great way to break the ice. It's also a truism that most people are utterly fascinated by themselves, and asking about their houses, travels, experiences will keep the conversation flowing, although taken to its extreme, this can be an excercise in masochism. The older I get, though, the more I side with Ancient. I am in a service/sales business where I have to make pleasant talk - both big and small all day long with people I like, people I don't care about and people I actively dislike. The idea of getting home, feeding the dog and heading out again to repeat the process with random party goers whose only commonality is that they too paid for a ticket to an event, is positively painful. I increasingly resort to sending my regrets and a check. Not to focus on the negative, but the last benefit I attended was too typical of what can happen. I was reluctant to go, but the event's organizer called me to tell me that he would make certain that I had "the best seat in the house". It turned out to be smack between two very well known "socialites". One spoke in that breathless, Jackie O whisper adopted by a number of society types of a certain age and of uncertain lineage. I couldn't hear a word she said and, Ancient style, resorted to nodding and smiling. I "breathed a sigh of relief" when the table turned, only to find that the "socialite" on my left was messily and argumentatively drunk. Pleading an early morning meeting, I fled as the dessert was served- and cursed myself for not staying home and having dinner on a tray in front of The Real Housewives of New Jersey.

  18. Dear Reggie, So timely! I am attending a small dinner party this evening. I do not know the honored guests but know everyone else in attendance and it will be quite a mixed bag. I have been worried all weekend about those untimely conversational pauses........but your post has given me the confidence I think I'll need this evening! Your suggestions are perfect. In this group there are two sister-in-laws that do not particularly "love" each other and are a bit competitive. Both of these women seem to up their volumne and competitiveness at the second glass of wine. One of these two women is bringing her sometimes-charming son (he has those fake teeth he pops in and out and pretends to be someone else,oh my!) who thinks he is a comic when no one else does. The two honorees are from NYC and this party is "down South" so it should be an exciting dinner - don't you think? Wish you could be sitting on the crown molding watching! Wish me luck!

  19. Karena: Yes, gardening is an excellent topic for conversation I find.

    Brohammas: In the rare times when Reggie chooses not to drink, he finds spending an evening with others of the imbibulous sort rather tedious, and progressively so as the evening progresses. He commends you for your patience.

    Ancient: Reggie, too, finds his willingness to attend benefits has diminished as he has matured, and quite happily so. And he also believes that your advice to Brohammas is excellent, as such an explanation for one's abstemiousness cannot then promote shouts of encouragement by the happy drunks at table to break one's resolve to abstain.

    Sister and Baker Martin: Those are worthy subjects, indeed.

  20. Patsy: You get the award for the best comment here! Hilarious.

    Anon 4:40: Why thank you! I hope the party went well.

    LPC and Lindaraxa: There are times it is appropriate to break the contract and let one's fellow guest have it. Stay tuned for a follow on post where Reggie reveals when he did so out of sheer exasperation at the lunkishness of a fellow guest at a party one evening.

    Kitten: Thank you for your comment, and welcome to RD.

    Edith Hope: Most amusing, indeed.

    Voicetalk: I am sure that if you were to sing at table it would inspire LOTS of conversation for the rest of the evening.

    Magnus: Marvelous post, Reggie is beside himself trying to figure out who these ladies might be . . . and he believes the contrast with the preferred company of the RHONJ is too delicious.

    Anon 3:04: Spending an evening trapped with wine-fueled, volume-challenged, dueling sisters-in-law sounds rather grueling to Reggie. He hopes that you and other like-minded guests were able to retire to another room and make your own, more pleasant party until the storm blew over, or at least until one of them passed out on the sofa.

  21. Dear Reggie, Just wanted to report back from last night's dinner party. All-in-all it went very well. The wine flowed and the sister-in-laws were separated at table, Mr. NYC honoree was seated beside me (someone said he likes pretty blondes??) and he was a delightful dinner guest and very easy with conversation. During the entire evening I let everyone I spoke with talk entirely about themselves and it is the way to go! How are your grandchildren(she had 10, that took a while), how is your knee (oh! you have to have surgery?), did you travel this summer? - just easy questions and patience. Lots of patience. Everyone just wants attention! I will say that near the end one sister-in-law did get a bit loud and pound the table about "no music and art in the public school systems"--- but it passed quickly. Love your articles and read them every day. Reggie Darling you are just divine!

  22. Reggie-

    Just started following your blog and have really enjoyed what I have read so far. Wonderful job ! Wonderful thoughts on how not to be the boring man at the next party you attend... I think I shall take your advice to heart , and try not to be so ..well, unapproachable. But alas, this leads to my next concern... What to do when your company is perfectly boring ? and you are stuck with them for the evening ? Short of drinking heavily...or imagining that they are all insects... it can be difficult... People these days... it seems all they want to talk about is Dancing With The Stars or college football...

    For context a few confessions are in order... I am a Southern Man..think what you will about that exclamation, but it is true...and so my events and gatherings relate less to Princeton and Yale and more to The University of Alabama and Sewanee... Don't be hatin' on me just yet... Some of these "public" schools down South, have marvelous traditions, etc etc... and although the stadium in Tuscaloosa may be filled with 100,000 cargo short and tshirt wearing baffoons, there are many rather impressive traditions and folks about as well...

    So, my girlfriend and I will be attending Parent's weekend at her son's school (Sewanee) in a few weeks..We attended last year and..well, it was terribly boring... Small school but neither of us are 3rd generation Sewanee legacies so we aren't exactly part of the "in crowd" there... so it seemed we found ourselves sitting in the room with the Indian transfer student and the blind guy with his cane...(think Animal House rush scene..)

    This year I hope to bring some of the crowd to us... We have reserved a decent cabin (lodgings in the area are sparse) and hope to bring along china, silver, linens and libations to create our own little gathering for her son, his girlfriend, her family and perhaps a few others ?

    Any thoughts or suggestions ?

    Again, kudos for your wonderful blog... I look forward to reading more when I can find time...

    Southern Man

  23. Dear Southern Man: Thank you for your delightful comment, and welcome. Reggie is highly respectful of the South and its great traditions. His mother's side of the family were southerners (grandfather went to the University of Virginia and grandmother went to Sweetbriar, plus lots of male relatives went to VMI). Also, many of his friends are Southerners, too. In fact, his closest friend outside his marriage is a Southerner (South Carolina boy) and attended Sewanee, where I spent a very pleasant long weekend once, ambling through the memoried halls of that great institution. I must admit, Reggie never saw so many bow ties worn in one place as he did there outside of a debutante ball. As far as what to say to boring people, Reggie believes that it is incumbent upon people NOT to be boring in the first place. But if one is confronted with such bores and cannot graciously exit such company post-haste, one must--I am afraid, buck up and pursue a line of questioning that elicts responses that then lead to further questioning of the "do you really think so?" sort. And if said bore remains a dud, then Reggie advises skedaddling away as soon as possible and finding more like-minded companions. And if that doesn't work, well, then hitting the bottle and making one's own party is the only thing one can do, isn't it? As far as your plans for the Sewanee weekend, I think making your own party as you describe it sounds marvelous, and Reggie's only regret is that he will not be there to enjoy it with you for he knows he would have a good time and would certainly have lot's to talk about, too.

  24. Anon 10:19: Reggie is pleased to learn that your dinner party was a success and not a train wreck of shouting, drunken, dueling sisters-in-law. But he is shocked that one of them angrily pounded the table, since he does not consider such vehemence to be ladylike or appropriate party behavior. However, if she was upset that such classes are not being offered in public schools then he believes her anger was well placed, and will cut her some slack here. If, on the other hand if she was upset that taxpayer money was being (supposedly) wasted on such classes, then Reggie would have had a hard time not angrily pounding the table himself, as he strongly believes that teaching of art and similar courses should be part of every child's education. And Reggie thanks you very much for commenting here not once, but twice!

  25. If I were lucky enought to be seated next to Patsy, I would certainly ask "How old are you" to which I think she might have some sort of quick witted retort. I always manage to have a fun time at events, no matter if I am seated to what my husband and I call "heavy furniture."
    I rather like when hosts advise guests to change seats in between courses.
    Cheers to lively dinner parties at home and at social functions!

  26. "I believe we've meet in a tattoo parlor?"
    Guaranteed to ignite conversation.

  27. Dear Reggie,

    you seem to be

    just that

    a darling...


  28. I want to know Patsy's weight? Or if she wants to only reveal her BMI I am okay with that.

  29. I simply love this blog post and will be posting a link to it on my own blog tomorrow - I hope that is OK with you


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