I recently bought a copy of the incredibly fascinating The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser, which is all about the origins of our customs surrounding dining and meals in Western culture, and I have great plans to share bits and pieces from it over time.
A tiny thing that Visser mentions is an intriguing piece of etiquette, which in my experience can be very controversial, the “rule” that at dinner parties couples (married ones, traditionally), should be split up in the seating arrangement. Previously my understanding of the reasoning for the rule was that couples talk to each other all the time and that it’s more fun for them to get to talk to other people for an evening (which, I think, is a totally fair interpretation of the rule).
However, Visser says that:
It has always been a rule of politeness that people in groups should show no favouritism. There must be no whispering in corners, no sharing of private jokes or blatant preferences for particular company; attention should be given to everyone present, as equally as possible. This is the reason why it is customary to separate engaged and married couples at table. Etiquette manuals remind us that dinner parties are for opening out towards other people; pairs or groups who do not want to do this should stay home.
Now, I’ve been to events where this was practiced, and been seated with the “outsider” (to the hosting group) spouses, and honestly, I think being separated from one’s partner really does make one stand on their own feet and have a conversation of their own rather than simply listen to their partner talk. Of course, this absolutely demands that everyone acknowledge the social contract of the dinner party to really give it your all in making conversation and trying to draw everyone in speaking distance into the conversation and not leaving anyone out. And as a somewhat anxious person (who has literally turned around at the door of an event and gone home because of nerves), I totally understand the urge to cling to the one person you know. But it really is a useful skill to be able to make “dinner party conversation” with anyone, on your own, because these situations do come up!
It should be noted that hosts also have the obligation to seriously look at their guest list and try to match up people who will have a good time talking to each other and hopefully will be able to draw useful social and business connections from the meeting. (Though the New York Times says that that particular kind of dinner party is dead and buried.)
Tell me in the comments if you’ve ever been separated from a partner at a party!