As the queen of etiquette Emily Post once said, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.” Dinner party rules have relaxed over the years, and Post is right — no one cares about your fork usage. But with the casualization of society, certain manners and behaviors have started to slip, leading to awkward situations.
A dinner party is a wonderful way to catch up with old friends, meet new people and even network for business. But there are still certain topics that should be off-limits unless you value you the moniker of “contrarian.” Some are obvious — politics and religion spring to mind — but some are more subtle. Here are some things that may be best avoided.
1. Go on, have a drink
Encouraging a person to drink who has stated they aren’t touching alcohol is very insensitive. “No” is a complete sentence and nobody should be forced to explain why they are abstaining.
They may be the designated driver that evening, or they might be fresh out of rehab. Whatever the reason, it is none of your concern. Asking the question can make the non-drinker very uncomfortable. This same rule applies to dietary restrictions. File both of these topics under: none of your business.
2. How you arrived
Also known as “route talk.” How you made your way to the party, the roads you took, the traffic you hit, the argument you had over directions may be of interest to you, but believe me, no one cares. Only if the car in front of you was abducted by aliens should you ever discuss the monotonous subject of how you made it from your house to theirs.
3. Let me show you a photo…
Smart phones have made it easy to take a photo anytime, anywhere. You can carry your memories around in the palm of your hand. But when it comes to sharing photos with others at dinner parties, be respectful. If you have a cute photo of your dog, grandchild, vacation — whatever it is you want to show them, consider putting those snaps in an easily accessible album or folder.
“Wait…hang on…I know it’s here somewhere…” It’s a time-drain and it’s rude. Because you’ve asked a person to look at a photo, they are now stuck waiting for you to locate the image and may feel obligated to sit in silence until you’re ready. This means they cannot talk to someone else or perhaps even continue eating. If you want to share a photo, have it handy. Or if you don’t know where it is, tell them to carry on chatting and when you find it you’ll circle back.
4. No extraneous swiping
If someone hands you a phone to show you a picture, this isn’t an open invitation to start swiping through their camera roll. You never know what you might find.
A friend of mine recently took some photos of, well, let’s just say an intimate area, to show his doctor. Those photos were just floating around in his photo stream. No one wants to see that at the dinner table, so be sure to value people’s privacy.
5. Your dreams
I don’t mean the aspirations you have for you life and your goal of ending world hunger. Those are dreams I encourage you to discuss. No, the kind of dreams that shouldn’t be brought up are the ones you have at night.
People don’t want to hear about the evening you spent tossing and turning as watery memories of your high school music teacher drifted past your eyes. Not even your spouse cares about this (no matter what they might say).
6. Your health (depending on your company)
This is a bit of a gray area. If you are dining with close friends who are especially concerned about a recent operation or a period of ill health you’ve suffered with, then by all means chat away. If the dinner party is a little more formal, however, try to avoid this topic.
People rarely discuss how great their health is, and talking about your lower back problems is a downer. There are so many subjects to discuss — keep your toenail issues or IBS out of it.
7. When did you come to this country?
I had a Sikh friend in high school who was born at the same hospital I was. But people constantly asked her where she was from. “Here,” she would reply, as she’d never lived anywhere else.
Of course what they were really asking her was where her parents or grandparents were from. This is a tricky one. While some people will love to regale you with tales from the old country, some may find this confusing or offensive. It’s best to let the person you are speaking to set the tone. Enjoy everyone’s company without presenting them with a DNA test.