Spectator by Seema Goswami: Breaking bread
Dinner party etiquette can get tricky—especially in the post-Covid era. What are your thoughts when it comes to stepping out for such sit-down meals
With Covid restrictions becoming a thing of the past (mask? What mask?), dinner party season is truly upon us. And after avoiding socialising in large groups for two years, I have begun accepting a few invitations that involve dining with a larger number of people than I am used to.
With every such event, though, I come back feeling just a tiny bit discomfited. It’s not just that I suspect I may have contracted Covid (though that is a constant worry) but that I fear that I have lost the art of dinner-partying during the many months of Corona-imposed solitude.
Here are just some of the questions that keep popping up in my brain:
• How does one decode the timings on invitation cards? It sounds simple but it is anything but. I have arrived on time for a 7.30pm invitation to find that the host himself has yet to reach the venue. Having learnt my lesson, I arrived an hour later at the next party I was invited to, and was crushed to discover that I was the only one holding up the dinner seating. So, what’s the magic formula to decipher which party will begin on time and which will take hours to get going? If there is one, I have yet to crack it.
• Is it still okay to plead pandemic-related paranoia and refuse to shake hands with people when you are introduced to them? I have to confess that I still do that on occasion though my husband frowns upon my ‘germophobia’ and thinks that I risk coming off as rude. So now I have hit upon a compromise. I carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer with me and use it liberally in between introductions. Some of my friends maintain that this borders on bad manners. They believe that I should, ideally, excuse myself and perform my hand-sanitising routine in the privacy of the bathroom. I am not quite sure where I land on that.
• While on the subject of introductions, I have to confess that I find it tedious beyond belief to respond to ‘And what do you do?’ questions from a roomful of strangers. I am often tempted to respond with, “I am a private detective” if only to liven up proceedings a bit. But where does one go from there? Are you then obliged to keep up the fiction forever more? Or should you fess up to the truth before the party is over. I know which option I prefer. But you may, of course, beg to differ.
• If the person seated next to you is completely uncommunicative, then is it your duty to keep the conversation going, even in the face of monosyllabic responses? In my younger days, I must admit, I treated these scenarios as a challenge and tried my best to draw my taciturn dinner companions out. Now, I simply can’t be bothered. Life is too short to struggle to make small talk with someone you likely will never see again in your life. In such circumstances, silence is golden.
• At what stage does it become plain bad manners to inflict your dietary requirements on your hosts. Everyone, for instance, is well-equipped to deal with vegetarians. But you have to make that extra effort for those who profess to be vegan. And don’t even get me started on vegans who are also gluten-free. Frankly, if you are so fussy about what you put in your gob, then simply stay home and eat your nut cutlet in peace. Or if you must come to dinner, then just bring your dinner along in a dabba. Problem solved.
• Is it ever acceptable to leave a sit-down dinner before dessert has been served? The grounds may vary from a) I don’t have a sweet tooth b) it’s way past my bedtime or c) I have a long drive home. I only ask because I see this happening again and again, as the dinner table starts wearing a deserted (I really wasn’t going for the pun; but whatever) look once the main course has been cleared. In my book, this qualifies as rank bad manners, and an insult to both the host and fellow guests. But what do I know? I sanitize my hands after shaking them with people!
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, September 17, 2022
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