So you and your partner have been invited to a dinner party.  Do you respond with alacrity, eager in the anticipation of an enjoyable evening with friends?  Or does your heart sink at the idea of another evening being polite, listening to jokes that are in poor taste and tolerating opinions that are half baked?  It may be just the parties I’m invited to, but it seems that we have lost the art of entertaining.  


A dinner party is not just about food and drink, it’s a whole nourishing experience;  the atmosphere, congenial company, social grooming and relaxation.  A meal requires a relaxed environment in order to facilitate digestion and when a meal is properly digested this releases chemicals in the body that induce relaxation and contentment.  Psychology and the gastronomy must work together, not too rich, not too dominated by one flavour, a blend and mix that lifts the spirit and nourishes the soul.   


It seems that we are so used to being entertained by television that we have lost the art of doing it for others.  Conversation in our narcissistic age is less about listening and facilitation by relevant observation and pertinent enquiry and more a  competitive desire to make to retain attention through dramatic disclosure, amazing revelation or quirky perspective.  Dinner table conversation is hardly relaxing.  It’s a quick fire rally of one liners, a spicy bit of gossip, the exchange of  bias about The X factor.  And as the evening wears on, the stories become exaggerated, the jokes less funny, the laughter more forced, the noise louder. 


There is a feeling of desperation about it.  ‘We’re having a party.  We must have a good time.’  But really it’s all too much, too much for us and too much for everybody else.  Christmas is a time of excess, and excess soon becomes exhausting. People who are too full of themselves are tiresome, loud and, let’s face it, boring.    .   


Conversation should be measured, a reflective and thoughtful engagement of minds,  leading to creative solutions, new ideas and different perspectives.  It should enlarge us, make us more aware.  All too often it is defensive, a grandiose exercise for the protection of the vulnerable self from invasion and exploitation. We all know the party bore, the one that pins you to the table with their desperate need for validation.  We sense their vulnerability and feel sorry for them, but they can ruin an evening with their insistent demands.  It is so easy to feel trapped at dinner parties. 



So how can you make it more tolerable.  Well the secret to a successful dinner party, I’m sure, lies in the planning.   Good hosts plan the menu, choose the recipes, select the ingredients, work out the times so that each component is ready when it is needed and prepare as much in advance so that by the time the guests arrive, they don’t have to spend too much time in the kitchen.  We are familiar with that.  But few employ the same precision in planning the social aspects of a meal. 


So select your guests carefully. Avoid those that are so needy, they have to dominate the proceedings, and those who are too shy or quiet to join in.  Think about how your guests will work together, how the artist might compliment the physicist, how the gardener and the bird watcher might have a lot to say to each other, how the local politician and the environmentalist might find lots of things in common.  Although it may not be quite acceptable to talk about educational or social background these days, when planning a successful dinner party, it is important to ensure that your guests have sufficient in common to be able to converse meaningfully with each other. 


Do have a seating plan. Ensure that those who might complement each other are sitting next to each other, but also encourage people to move around between courses. 


When your guests arrive, serve drinks and aperitifs in another room and circulate to make sure everybody’s social needs are accommodated.  Put the first course on the table just before your guests arrive so that you can spend time making your guests feel at home. 


Timing is everything, as much for dinner as well as for other aspects of life. Make it clear when your guests are expected.  Don’t leave more than half an hour before gently guiding them into the dining room. Make yourself a time table.  7.30 aperitifs, 8.00 first course,  8.30 main course, 9.30 desserts, 10.15 coffee and liqueurs, 11.00 depart. 


Monitor the success of the meal by the gentle buzz of conversation and b prepared to step in and facilitate or change the interaction.  Do not leave it completely up to your guests,  you might have items or topics that might engage everybody – nothing too gloomy, nothing too controversial. 


Books on social etiquette say you should avoid sex, politics and religion.  My experience is that everybody has an opinion on these topics, but the conversation needs steering, breaking up with questions. To be a successful host, you must adopt some of the techniques of an interviewer.  Encourage your guests to be creative. Bring in people you know might have particular views.  Try to divert those who might have tendency to dominate.  Don’t just leave the conversation to find its own level.  This will encourage heirarchies. Some will dominate, others will be left out.  Be creative, even provocative.  Be prepared to spice up the social mix comedy, a degree of frivolity.  Avoid topics that are too self indulgent, like clever children, last years holidays or elderly parents.  They are closed ended and do not encourage a creative intercourse. 


Encourage the performers among your guests – there are always some – to tell a story, sing a song, recite a (small) poem.  You can never have too little!  Use it as a taster.  Leave people wanting more.  The same principle applies to the food and drink you serve.  Give people enough but don’t offer seconds.  Always control the wine.  Just put enough wine out.  For eight people, you will need four bottles:  two red, two white.  Keep an eye on when glasses are becoming empty and replenish them,  but subtly regulate the supply so that it is even and not excessive.        


And after the meal, serve coffee and liqueurs in comfort in the lounge, ideally in front of  an open fire. 


But the most difficult aspect of  dinner parties is to manage the ending.  Never allow a party to drift on.  Those who love the sound of their own voice will dominate, while everybody else will get bored and feel trapped. You must control the ending. 


When I was a medical student, my tutor used to announce the end of the dinner by appearing in his dressing gown and telling everybody he wanted to go to bed now.  While I would not encourage that – some might take it the wrong way – you need to find some way of bringing the proceedings to an end.  One useful ploy is to ask one of your guests, whom you know well, to announce that it’s late and time to go.  This will allow you to agree and  thank everybody for coming. Remain in control at all times.  Do not replenish the liqueurs and never offer to make more coffee.