Don’t forget your
(dinner party) manners
by Kim Wadsworth
Ah, the dinner party. It once was the highlight of entertaining and sophistication — and hostesses spent days planning the menu, crafting the table setting, curating the guest list.
Modern protocol has shifted. People still love socializing with friends, but formal place cards and sterling flatware have been pushed aside in favor of more relaxed affairs. Manners, however, still matter.
Planning a dinner, whether formal or casual, requires significant preparation – so when that invitation arrives, be prompt with your RSVP. Ask ahead of time if it’s OK to include a plus-one, and alert your host to any food allergies or dietary restrictions you have. No one wants to scramble for alternative meals at the last minute when a specialty crab cake conflicts with a shellfish allergy.
Hoping to contribute to the meal? Great! Offer to bring something that works with the theme or occasion, perhaps an appetizer or dessert. Even if hosts decline the offer, try not to show up empty-handed. A quality bottle of wine is always a good way to say thank you, but think beyond the cork. Boxed specialty chocolates, croissants from a local bakery, flowers already in a vase, a gourmet olive oil, or potted herbs from the farmer’s market are creative and thoughtful alternatives that will delight any host.
For casual dinner parties, guests sometimes play fast and loose with arrival times, but there are limits. The golden rule: Never arrive early or exactly on time. If you’ve ever entertained, you know there are always last-minute finishing touches before the first doorbell rings. Keep your arrival within 15 minutes of the invited time. If you’ll arrive any later, give your host a heads-up because serving that first course or main dish could be predicated on when you walk through the door.
Be mindful of dinner-is-ready cues. If seating is casual, be brave and sit with someone new even if you came with your spouse, to encourage fresh conversation. Once you’re seated, wait to begin eating until your host sits down. Male guests should stand until a hostess is seated. Often a host will raise a glass to toast the evening, but in lieu of that a guest can always jump in with, “Compliments to the chef!” or “Thank you for having us!” to initiate the meal.
It’s good to review basic table decorum easily forgotten at home. Placing your napkin on your lap seems like a no-brainer but is frequently ignored in social settings. Lay it back on the table only when leaving your seat, and never put it on your plate. If you’re a picky eater, ignore whatever you don’t like – don’t push food around your plate in an effort to make it go away. Eat what you like, but if asked be honest. It’s OK to tell your host you’re no fan of lima beans, but be sure to add how much you loved the roasted potatoes. And nothing is more distracting than someone trying to slice steak with the side of a fork; use your knife when meat is served.
Gathering at a table is a special time to share ideas and discuss engaging topics, but steer clear of politics and religion. Be a good listener, too. Habits are hard to break but cell phones are never appropriate at the table unless there’s a legitimate reason that you’ve shared with your host. And never set your phone on the table. If there’s a phone emergency, excuse yourself.
Know when it’s time to go. Allow an hour for cocktails and two hours for dinner and dessert. Don’t overstay your welcome, no matter how much fun you’re having. Your host has a solid hour of cleanup when guests depart. But if your offer to help clear and clean is accepted, then by all means stay!
And last, don’t forget to drop your host a post-party thank you note. Whether by postal mail, email, text or phone, your words of appreciation resonate more than you know. Reciprocate by including your hosts in a celebration where you’re the host doing the most.
Kim Wadsworth has been a source of etiquette protocol for 20 years. Hear her most recent podcasts on Mind Over Manners at WHRV.org/MindOverManners.