Oscar Wilde once said: "After a good dinner, one can forgive anyone, even one's own relations." Fingers crossed that's true – especially now, as the holidays approach.
Every year, around this time, here at Damage Control HQ, we can tell folks are starting to rev up their social schedules because we get a flurry of questions from people wrestling with their ability to "forgive anyone, even one's own relations," after being exposed to rudenik behaviour from dinner guests.
And this year is no exception. A few examples: "Dear Dave, We had a dinner party recently and one couple showed up two hours late – and they were supposed to bring the appetizer!" "Dear Dave, We have friends we always invite to dinner, but who never invite us back." "Dear Dave, Our friends cancelled: Later we found out it was to go to a swankier party." And so on.
So we thought it would be fun, rather than tackle each question on a piecemeal basis, to supply you with a one-time-only, all-purpose, no-expense-spared Damage Control Omnibus Guide on How to Handle Less-Than-Perfect People (i.e. everyone) When They Come to Your Domicile for Dinner.
Now, two things: 1) I'm not an etiquette columnist. People tend to conflate advice and etiquette columns, but it's a mistake, especially in my case. My job is to step in when etiquette has completely – perhaps even spectacularly – failed you, as the term "Damage Control" implies. 2) I'm no expert. In fact, dear readers, if you ever catch me smoking a pipe, wearing a cardigan and claiming to be some kind of "relationship expert," you have my permission to tiptoe up behind me and bean me on the dome with a sock full of horse manure. (I might be a little shocked at first, but later will thank you for saving me from buying my own PR.) But I have a passion for the topic. I've loved dinner parties since my early 20s. When others were mixing it up in mosh pits, jumping off the speakers at concerts, "crowdsurfing" and then grabbing a "street dog" at midnight realizing that, apart from a handful of vending-machine peanuts, it was the first thing they'd eaten all day, I was stirring bouillabaisse in the kitchen of my tiny apartment and lighting candles in the living/dining/bedroom/study area as I waited for guests to arrive.
To me, dinner parties are the litmus test of civilization. You can have your restaurants (where I can't go any more anyway because I always feel ripped off). You can have your loud venues, where you have to shout yourself hoarse to be heard. You can pop your wheelies and climb your Kilimanjaros. To me, nothing beats a dinner prepared with love, washed down with fine wines (which you can suddenly afford because you save on restaurant costs), with a few choice friends and/or family members.
But sometimes people, insufficiently civilized for whatever reason, will fail this litmus test. Here is my guide to handling some of the more common scenarios.
1. 'Questionsulters' and 'Insultimentalists'
Some people, even when they're supposedly trying to be nice, have an innate need to point out the perceived flaws of others. Consider the "questionsult" (question + insult = "questionsult"): "Is that how you always handle raw chicken?" "When are you going to get married?" "Have you found a new boyfriend yet?" "How often do you wash your dog?" I suppose you could put them on the spot by saying, "Why do you ask?" But that seems like needlessly sinking to their level. Rise above! Just answer as if they were normal, well-intentioned questions and ignore that passive-aggressive nugget wrapped in cotton candy.
The same goes with "insultiments" (insult + compliment = "insultiment"). Real-life example (addressed to columnist): "Hey, I like your new glasses." "Thanks." "Yeah, they really offset all the weight you've gained recently." In the same vein, just say "thanks" as if it were a normal compliment, then moonwalk out of your tête-à-tête with this passive-aggressive freak show at the earliest possible opportunity.
2. Ball-Dropping Non-Engagers
It's amazing how often at social occasions one might encounter someone who has nothing to say, and in fact doesn't seem to feel much like chatting at all (admittedly, this happens more toward the end of the holidays, when people start acting like burned-out volcanoes). Sometimes it's because they're not trying, which can be dispiriting – in the words of Nirvana, guests who show up and are all like, "Here we are now, entertain us."
But it also pays to remember some people are shy and/or have a hard time connecting. Pay particular attention to the wallflowers, I say. Hit them with your best material and when that runs out, ask questions. You may find yourself richly rewarded. Attention seekers already get enough attention.
Interruption is all part of the cut and thrust of social interaction. Part of the fun. But a "derailer" is someone who interrupts your anecdote or observation with some tangential comment, then shows no sign of wanting to return to what you were saying. For example: You: "I was just about to tell my wife about my affair with the nanny when the oysters arrived, and …" Derailer #1: "Oooh, I love oysters!" Derailer #2: "I can't eat them, I'm allergic to shellfish. Funny enough, though, I can eat shrimp." Derailer #1: "Are shrimp considered shellfish?" Derailer #3: "It's so hard to find a good nanny these days," etc., etc.
It's a symptom of our age, perhaps, but these gnat-like-attention-span "derailers" are conversational poison. If it were up to them, the talk would flit around as if it were a trapped bat all night, never landing in one spot. It's up to the host – or anyone within earshot, really – to say something along the lines of, "Sorry, Dave, what were you saying about your nanny?"
This is rarer, but it happens: couples who arrive ridiculously late, and are utterly and unfathomably unapologetic.
First, check the offenders for signs of stress. Pale? Red eyes? Sniffling? It may be they've had a fight, a really bad one, in which case I'd apply the Proctologist's Code (a coinage in circulation among my group of friends, after something a real proctologist said at a party): "I find when I come across an inflamed area, it never pays to probe too deeply." Leave it alone.
But certainly you are well within your rights, after, say, an hour or so, to serve dinner without them. If it happens more than once or twice, you should say something. It's pretty basic: If you're invited for "7-ish," try to show up as close as possible between 7 and 7:30. Let's get this party started.
5. Surprise, We Showed Up Early-izers
To my amazement, it continues to happen: guests who breeze through the door half an hour before the designated time: "Hey, traffic was better than we thought, so we're early! What's up?"
Don't do this! Go have a drink, walk around the block, sit on a park bench and stare into space with a parking-lot-attendant stare. Your host and hostess are frantically scrambling to get it together. Arriving early is like pulling the curtain half an hour before the play is supposed to go on, on opening night. Not a good way to get the best performance.
6. Mendacity-Filled, Dipsy-Doodling, Got-A-Better-Offer Social Butterflies
A.k.a. guests who cancel on you at the last minute in favour of a better offer. Naughty! And so teenage. This goes beyond dinner parties, and "etiquette," and is in fact, in my humble opinion, one of the litmus tests of whether one has truly become an adult – and something I'm always trying to drum into my own teenage sons (and some of my superannuated-teenager friends): Unless there is some sort of emergency, you always honour the prior commitment.
Extreme example: You have committed to play pinochle with your great-aunt on Tuesday night, but suddenly discover scientists found a way to resurrect George Harrison and John Lennon, and there's a secret reunion of the Beatles only you and a few others know about at a tiny venue right around the corner from your house on the same night. You still have to honour the prior commitment, i.e. the pinochle. Otherwise, you're wandering down the primrose path into a moral morass of confusion and lies.
I've had someone come over and say: "Hey, I blew off some boring friends so I could be here tonight. I told them my cat's sick." Everyone laughs, it's flattering, then a couple of months later, you get a call: "I'm sorry, I can't come tonight, my cat's sick." And the caller is spotted at some other festive, glamorous event. (Or, and this has happened, you spot posts on Facebook or Instagram of the fabulous evening they had at the exact time they were blowing you off because of a "sick cat.") Which is less funny and flattering, I find.
Consider cooling off the friendship with these gadfly types. Anyone who'll chase the chimera of glamour over a solid dinner invite to your house doesn't understand the nature of friendship and should be downgraded from "friend" to "someone I socialize with" or maybe even "someone I see around."
7. Finicky Foodies
A few years ago, I might've said something different here, along the lines of "Dietary restrictions are annoying and precious, when you go to someone's house you should eat what they serve." But I've changed my tune – perhaps because I've become annoying and precious myself. Somehow, I evolved into a "nutrition nerd" and, among other things, now eschew wheat. So if a hostess were to serve me a delightful bruschetta, I might pass on it. Yes, I've become that guy!
And I've had enough people come over with a variety of dietary restrictions for a variety of reasons – religious, health, ethical, etc. – that I keep alternate foodstuffs (and drinks) on hand for the vegetarians/teetotallers/gluten intolerant/lactose intolerant/religious, etc. It's no biggie to whip together something quick, and they're very grateful when you do. The husband of one of my wife's friends, when he came over for dinner, saw that I was cooking pork tenderloin and said, "Oh, sorry, can't eat that. I should've mentioned I'm Jewish."
So I whipped him up a quick chicken piccata (easy: Fry it, deglaze pan with wine, squeeze on lemon, throw on some capers). Every time I've seen him since, he talks about it, how it cemented his opinion of me. I can tell he tells everyone what a great guy I am. So: worth it. Keep a backup recipe in mind and a well-stocked pantry.
8. Invitation Non-reciprocators
You invite people over, they don't invite you back. I've been at both ends of this transaction. I wouldn't sweat it. If you enjoy someone's company, keep inviting them. If not, then don't. I know dinner parties are a lot of effort. (And expense. In our case, they terrify me and the costs can run into the thousands because my wife practically has to renovate the entire house before anyone can come over.) But what can you do? It's at their discretion whether they invite you and yours as to whether to invite them. It can't be forced.
As a radio-station program director said to me once (about hosting a radio show), "Try to be memorable enough that people will miss you if you disappear off the radar." Be uniquely yourself and your best self, to the point where if you're not there, everyone says, "Where's [your name here]? It's just not the same without [him/her]." That's your ticket to a lot of invites and invite-returns.
9. Next Day Non-Acknowledgers
I'm shocked – shocked, I tell you! – at how few people take the time to throw in what my mother always called "the bread-and-butter call," the phone call the next day to say, "Thanks, I had fun." Of course, these days it's totally acceptable to e-mail, text or (I suppose) tweet your gratitude – but I'm neverendingly amazed how few people do any of the above.
Yes, technically this is a matter of etiquette, which I said earlier is outside the comfort zone of my skill set, but it's taken on ontological significance for me. It's the difference between stumbling through your existence, thinking things just fall in your lap and quickly forgetting about them, and recognizing that human time and effort (not to mention money) went into providing your evening, and you are grateful enough to take the time to pick up the phone and express your gratitude. Well, maybe that's pitching it a bit high. Maybe better just to say it's nice to get that call/text/tweet/e-mail.
10. And, finally, on being the hostess who really is the mostest
Over all, my feeling is, if you like someone and feel like their heart is in the right place, why not just overlook their transgressions and have them over anyway? Two things we know: 1) no one is perfect; 2) you gotta eat. Why not enliven the taking of nourishment with friends and family, even if their behaviour is a little kooky at times? Forgive everyone, even your relations, their "micro-transgressions" – and, to bastardize a popular expression, it's all micro-transgressions, really, when it comes to dinner parties.
Those are the highlights to get you through this holiday season relatively unscathed, reputation more or less intact. My blessing to you: May your roast never burn, only your candles burn low as you chat merrily into the night. May the wine flow like, well, wine (unless you're driving, in which case drink mineral water or some other non-alcoholic beverage) and the cleanup the next day be relatively painless. Dinner parties can be zinger-filled cringe fests if done wrong, but if done right can bring everyone together, engender fellowship, leave a warm glow and good feeling about hosts and guests alike, and that's what the holidays is really all about, isn't it?