If a distant acquaintance asks “What’s the capital of Iceland,” the correct response is “Reykjavik”. If they then ask you to come to their dinner party, the correct response is “no”.
That’s if you know what’s good for you, anyway. While every so often you’ll have a fun gathering – a night where the conversation flows like a sunlit stream, and leads straight to friendship or sex – for the most part going to a dinner party is a lot like going to jail. A jail with strange, and vaguely threatening, cellmates, and no hope of an early parole.
The food, of course, can be worse, especially if it involves exotic, overly experimental soups.
Thankfully, however, spirits tend to be broken by the soup stage: we no longer really care. This is because, by that point, we’ve put in a good hour of talking. And talking. And talking. And talking.
In the Middle Ages, guest were expected to bring their own knives to a banquet; these days we must bring banter. We need a ready smile, an infectious laugh, and a genuine interest in the person sitting next to us, however boring they may be. (“You’re a bank teller? How absolutely fascinating!” “A tax auditor? Tell me more!”) You can be sat next to anyone at a dinner party. But just like a lottery, there are few winning tickets.
“Ask a lot of questions,” is one US writer’s plan of attack, for when she finds herself next to a bore. “People love to talk about themselves and often will think you are a great conversationalist if you talk about them and not yourself.”
But will the result be a great conversation? All too often, the answer is no. Just because Joseph P Bloggs happens to enjoy talking about himself, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll enjoy listening. Do you really care where he likes to go on the weekend? Is there any great need to learn the names of his kids?
But maybe you’re just not asking Joe the right questions. Other people say that good conversation involves bypassing day-to-day details, and getting all up close and personal. “I can’t stand small talk,” says “Hollywood hostess” Kathy Preston, “so I’ll turn to a table and say: ‘Let’s talk about something that we can all learn about from one another. What do you think is the driving force in your life?’”
If, like me, you’ve just made a mental note to avoid Kathy Preston, maybe the key is to get less personal? To ask Mr Bloggs questions that are more open-ended – or, better still, more hypothetical. “If you could travel to any time in history, where and when would you go?” “Would you rather have X-ray vision or be able to fly like a bird?” “Would you give up cheese for the rest of your life if the alternative was losing one little toe?” “If you had to change one thing about the human face, what would that thing be?” Don’t get me wrong, you’ll get odd looks. But they’re generally preferable to someone’s life story.
Post continues after video - possibly the most awkward dinner party of all time.
Option four is to risk a few hostile looks, by steering the conversation towards religion or politics. “How would you get the peace process back on track?” or “Who’s more likeable, Abbott or Shorten?” It’s just not true that these things are no-go zones; they’re fine provided you show respect and don’t rant. We tend to forgot that the first “idiots” were those (free, male) citizen of ancient Athens who took no part in public affairs. An intelligent person, for the Greeks, was an political person, and I’d say the same thing about an intelligent conversationalist.
What to do if all four options fail? My advice is feign illness and leave.
Good small talk topics
Bad small talk topics
Unforgivable small talk topics
Last night’s dream
Your children’s diet / sleep schedule / general, all-purpose amazingness
Real estate / renovations / mortgages
Trouble in bowel country
Eamon Evans is the author of five vaguely funny books and will publish a sixth in September this year. His website is at eamonevans.com.au and he would love to come to your dinner party.
Click though the gallery below for the best one-liners from dinner party expert, Downton Abbey's Dowager Countess.