Good Food Blog
The etiquette policePosted at 12:02PM, 28 January 2011 by Stuart Walton - Food and wine writer
When the Conservative peer Baroness Warsi recently referred to something called the 'dinner-table test', she unwittingly set off a wider debate about conversational etiquette at dinner parties.
A self-appointed etiquette tsar soon weighed in to announce that, like the pub landlords of yesteryear, he forbade his guests from touching on religion, money or sex. (The last was an odd addition in that he lives in Brighton, where nobody ever talks about anything else.)
I'm tempted to wonder what would happen to you if you broke the rules - would you be yanked from your chair halfway through the seared scallops and frogmarched out the door? Except that I wouldn't knowingly go to any social occasion that came with a gagging clause in the first place.
Isn't conviviality supposed to be precisely about letting people be themselves?
Fair enough, no host wants to see what is intended to be a convivial soirée descend into a shouty row and threats of fisticuffs. Christmas is over, after all. There are boundaries of propriety, as there are in all polite company, over which most of us wouldn't trespass. And there's no shortage of advice for the wary. But beyond that, isn't conviviality supposed to be precisely about letting people be themselves, including the airing of opinions? Or do the etiquette police want us only to compliment them on their cooking and otherwise shut up?
There was a period when all dinner party talk, notoriously, was of property values. In the last few years, a lot of it has been about the financial crisis. These may be important enough topics in themselves, but are as numbingly boring to most of us as listening to other people going on at great length about their jobs. If you have the rotten luck to be sharing a table with someone whose job actually concerns the financial crisis or the housing market or both, you'll soon wish you'd stayed in and ordered a pizza.
I don't know about you, but I don't really want to listen to details of other people's holidays either, especially when the only places they ever go are Florida or Thailand. Or skiing. Nor do I want to hear blow-by-blow accounts of frustrating encounters with call-centres. 'Then I got through to one of those damned phone-menus.' Yes, every single phone call any of us ever makes is about queues and menus and muzak, so it isn't interesting in any way.
Talking about food seems a safe enough option, unless it appears to be a veiled criticism of what you're eating now. 'We had lovely scallops at a country pub last weekend' too easily translates as 'Nothing like these overcooked rubbery horrors'. (Clue: they only need a couple of minutes .)
It's true that passions can get inflamed when the talk turns to religious or political issues, precisely because these are the things that people are most likely to care about. So the ideal dinner party topic is something that doesn't matter at all, but isn't boring. Which leaves one perfect candidate - sex.
Who isn't interested in who's getting it on with who, whether it be among celebrities or one's nearest and dearest? If your own physical life doesn't feel newsworthy enough, make it up. Or else declare controversially that there's too much of it about, and people would do well to learn some self-restraint. That'll guarantee a rattling good argument, which - let's face it - is what we're all there for.