I think we can all agree that being that one person left out of a conversation at the dinner table is really uncomfortable. It’s happened to me plenty of times when I’ve tried to jump into conversations happening to my right or my left, and, after a few unsuccessful attempts, retreated back to my wine. This is nothing I get too frustrated at, but it can be stressful.
You know what’s more stressful, though? Appointed conversational start and end times with assigned partners. Which is what we had to apparently do at formal dinners in the 1920s. It was called the “turning of the table” and it sounds awful. Emily Post writes:
“The turning of the table is accomplished by the hostess, who merely turns from the gentleman (on her left probably) with whom she has been talking through the soup and the fish course, to the one on her right. As she turns, the lady to whom the ‘right’ gentleman has been talking, turns to the gentleman further on, and in a moment everyone at table is talking to a new neighbor.”
That’s right, some time before the fish you are required to stop talking to the person which whom you’d been talking, and start talking to someone else. God forbid you try to talk to someone across the table, or with more than one person, etc. A few people have made the argument that elaborate centerpieces at formal dinners 100 years ago often made speaking to the person across from you impossible. However, elaborate formal place settings would probably make the person next to you equally distant. I imagine people communicated solely by the tones you make when you rub the rim of your crystal water glass.
We’ve mentioned before that the point of etiquette is making people feel comfortable, which this definitely tries to accomplish. It’s a good idea to make sure everyone has someone to talk to! You don’t want your guests to feel lonely! But this is an example of when slavish devotion to a rule (Emily Post called this an “inexorable rule”) obstructs the actual idea behind it. For example, this is what is recommended if a guest is so engaged in conversation that they do not want to switch partners:
“At this point the hostess has to come to the rescue by attracting the blocking lady’s attention and saying, “Sally, you cannot talk to Professor Bugge any longer! Mr. Smith has been trying his best to attract your attention.” “Sally” being in this way brought awake, is obliged to pay attention to Mr. Smith, and Professor Bugge, little as he may feel inclined, must turn his attention to the other side. To persist in carrying on their own conversation at the expense of others, would be inexcusably rude, not only to their hostess but to every one present.”
Oh, and do you hate the person sitting next to you? Too bad. You’re encouraged to do something like recite the times tables to each other to make it look like you’re talking.
I hate rude people as much as the next person (maybe more, since I co-founded a website about etiquette), but publicly shaming your dinner guests seems a little extreme. Granted, we live in a time where it is highly unlikely that you’ll be dining this formally, and the prevalence of circular tables at fancy occasions makes various triangulations of conversation much easier. So let’s toast to the fact that, no matter where we eat, we can generally converse with whom we want, and about more interesting topics than the times tables.
Come see Jaya speak more on this topic at TED-y Talks next Tuesday at the Branded Saloon in Brooklyn. Facebook event with time and address here!
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