The Dinner Party is an exception to the British Mahram rules, sanctioned by society. It is one of the rare occasions when intimate one-to-one conversations, between people of the opposite sex who are not married to each other and are outside the permitted degrees of relationship, are not only permitted but encouraged.
Although dinner parties are much less formal than they were, some of the old rules of etiquette still pertain. This is all the more the case when some of the older guests remember well old rules that are now falling into disuse.
Etiquette demands that the most important female guest be seated on the right of the host, and the most important male guest on the right of the hostess.
This, in turn, determines the pattern of conversation. It is good manners to talk to the guest on your right and on your left. At more formal dinners it is usual for the ladies to talk first to the man on their left and, at a given point, to turn to speak to the man on their right. The “turning” takes place often at the end of the first course – the starter or entrée – and often at the end of the main course guests will be asked to move around the table for pudding.
The turning of the table is accomplished by the hostess, who merely turns from the gentleman (on her left probably) with whom she has been talking through the soup and the fish course, to the one on her right. As she turns, the lady to whom the “right” gentleman has been talking, turns to the gentleman further on, and in a moment everyone at table is talking to a new neighbor. Sometimes a single couple who have become very much engrossed, refuse to change partners and the whole table is blocked; leaving one lady and one gentleman on either side of the block, staring alone at their plates. At this point the hostess has to come to the rescue by attracting the blocking lady’s attention and saying, “Sally, you cannot talk to Professor Bugge any longer! Mr. Smith has been trying his best to attract your attention.”
We attended a very enjoyable dinner party on Saturday evening, with fourteen guests, and I was fortunate to have rewarding conversations with three men, two of whom I had not met before, but was glad to have met.
There was, however, no starter. Instead canapés were served to us as we stood with drinks before the meal. I talked with a small group of people at this time, and one man in particular – a retired doctor – whom I found to be very kind. I was seated next to him at the dinner table (he was on my left), so counted my conversation with him over drinks as the first course. During the main course I enjoyed talking with the man on my right. Before the pudding some of the men moved, and my right hand man was replaced by another, whilst my left hand man remained the same. So I talked to the new man on my right, turning to the man on my left to finish the evening when coffee was served at the table. There is a point to these old-fashioned rules. Everyone knows how to behave and nobody is left out.
Our conversations were good humoured, light hearted, but informative. I learnt about the difference between different types of nuclear reactor and how fuel arrives and leaves (or not) our local nuclear power station, about the new commissioning of hospital services by general practitioner doctors, I learnt about car dealerships from a man who ran ninety of them, and I learnt first, how school league tables can be manipulated by schools that value their students less than their outcomes, and, secondly, how some A levels (18+ exams) are graded higher than others and how university admissions tutors are never taken in. We talked about sailing, rowing, mountain biking, being rooted in a community, being selfish and unselfish, taking time away from the family, the loss of status when you retire from work whether because of age or because you’ve had a baby. Lots of things. I really enjoyed myself. I didn’t tell my canal boat stories once.
Often I suspect that the men round the table would wish to vary the rules so that they talked instead to other men. At less formal dinners or if the dining table is sufficiently narrow, conversations between small groups of guests are possible as are conversations across the table. Sometimes it is clear that the men seated on either side of me have no wish whatsoever to talk to me, which makes the evening a waste of time, though usually they can be persuaded to talk about themselves.
Dinner parties are not about food but about conversation. They are small windows into a wider world. For those who do not work, they are one of the few windows into a wider world. How disappointing then, to waste an evening sat next to a guest who has no interest in you and whom you dislike after only a short encounter.