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first person

Illustration by Rachel Wada

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In the post-hug, post-kiss era created by social distancing, virtual dining lets you get as close as kissing the screen if you want to – or even coughing freely, if you really insist. It allows us to stay safe and stay close, face reality in good spirits and reduce contamination and loneliness in a single act.

However, for a virtual dinner party to be as successful as a non-virtual one, there needs to be rules of engagement.

I was invited to my first virtual dinner recently. Even though the host didn’t have to cook for me, it didn’t make me any less grateful. When he cancelled at the last moment, I felt cheated, as if the virtual nature of the dinner had been extended to the commitment, too.

I’m sure his excuse would be that the unreal nature of a virtual dinner allows it to be cancelled without warning or apology. True, I hadn’t travelled across town to be told on the doorstep to go home, but still, my time had been disrespected and my excitement quashed.

From that experience, I understood the first rule of virtual dining etiquette:

Just because it’s virtual, doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Friends on a screen are not avatars that can be switched off or deleted.

The next day, I decided to turn the other cheek and with a cheeky plan at that – I would remedy the insult by inviting myself for dinner virtually with him and his wife. A self-invitation with good friends was a tradition of mine from the traditional non-virtual world, and the lack of physical presence today of course makes it much less risqué.

It was agreed we’d have dinner at 8:30 p.m. “precisely,” which brings me to the second rule of virtual dining:

Just because it’s virtual, doesn’t mean you can show up whenever you want. Don’t think that because the other person isn’t cooking for you, their own food won’t get cold.

By now, I had recovered from being stood up virtually – or to be more precise, stood up in reality for a virtual event. In fact, I got so excited by the approaching event that I invited others to join in, with one person responding, “Delighted to. I’m not exactly going out this evening am I?”

Acknowledging they didn’t have a conflicting virtual invitation, but expecting these soon to be flooding in, I coined the next rule of virtual dining:

Respect prior virtual engagements just as you would if they were not virtual.

When I called the first friend to say more guests would be turning up, he was surprised I had taken the lead. My defence was that by inviting myself to dinner I had become a quasi-host and, besides, we were all eating in our own homes, so what did it matter who the host was?

He had a good point, however. I had morphed from being virtual guest the day before, to virtual gate-crasher and now to virtual host. I had hijacked his dinner party without thinking. So, I formulated another rule of virtual dining:

The host is the host. You cannot invite whoever you want just because no one has to cook or clean up for them.

The exception, of course, is if the event started off like friends who meet at a bar. Such a host-less situation in the physical world can translate perfectly well into the virtual world.

Etiquette extends beyond attitudes to what we serve and how we dress. It doesn’t work if one person has made the effort to dress up and the others are in their pyjamas. It will never feel like you’re all in one room together. Likewise, if one person is standing at a barbecue and another is eating off bone china, it won’t feel like one event unless variety was the theme, which brings me to the next rule:

There should be consistency in food and fashion. The rhythm of the evening also should be co-ordinated: It doesn’t gel if one person is having a four-course meal and the other a snack.

Now I come to the state of your home for the virtual party. Don’t spare the candles. While friends will only see the area that is being broadcast by your camera view, that will also be exactly where their focus is. And so, the sixth rule of virtual dining:

Prepare your home for those who won’t be arriving. Make no less effort than you would have done in the past since that signals you’re making less effort now.

We must not forget conversation, the essence of any dinner party regardless of the parallel universe you’re in, and which should never be eclipsed by the food. With conversation at the top of the menu, there should be fewer interruptions during a virtual meal than a physical one. This calls for the next rule of virtual dining:

Don’t come and go as you please: Disappearing from the table to cook the meal because you didn’t bother beforehand will not make for a good conversation.

Conversation, which is the ultimate delicacy to be shared, needs to be protected and savoured. One drawback of a virtual conversation is that it’s more difficult for friends to interrupt or talk over each other without breaking the flow. Repartee is all but impossible, which means we need one final rule of virtual dining etiquette:

Only one person should speak at a time, but that shouldn’t become an excuse to deliver a monologue. Keep it brief so others can jump in without speaking over you.

Do I really need to add that texting others during a virtual meal is even ruder than at a non-virtual dinner, while texting those at the table is like whispering in someone’s ear in the non-virtual past?

Even if you used to be a popular guest in the pre-physical distancing era, that doesn’t guarantee you won’t be declared persona non grata in the virtual. If you disregard these rules, you may never be invited back.

Mark Dixon lives in London.