The (Lost) Art of Dinner Party Patter

We were going around the Thanksgiving table last week giving thanks when one of my in-laws seized the opportunity to

We were going around the Thanksgiving table last week giving thanks when one of my in-laws seized the opportunity to grandstand about the plight of Native Americans. The table fell into a dead silence.

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Conversation is often perilous at meals. But at this time of year, when gala dinners, luncheons and holiday meals dominate the social landscape, it’s more like a triathlon in a minefield–something between an obstacle course, a relay race and a blood sport. Some people hog the ball. Others elbow you out of a conversation with the obliviousness of the man who gave our president a fat lip playing basketball last week. Others don’t pull their weight. Then there are the people who ask personal questions that make you want to call foul or timeout. Still others poach your topic and run with it.

I was recently at a table where a woman turned a conversation I’d started about Jerry Brown’s election victory into an indictment about his involvement decades ago with a religious order whose leader happened to end up convicted of pedophilia.

“How did we get from Jerry Brown as governor to that?” I asked.

“You’re right,” the woman said. “So let’s talk about you. What do you do?”

At that point, it was all I could do to keep from either telling her I was a pedophile or leaving the table. Why would I want to tell her anything about myself at all?

Another meal, another mess. How do you deal with the drunk plus one, who is on a slurring tirade? What about the snob seated next to you who is so engrossed in her conversation with a minor celebrity that you might as well be across the street?

“I was at a dinner in London last spring with a woman who wouldn’t talk to me because Nick Cave was on her right,” a publishing person I know told me. “I spent half the meal looking at her back, and thought, ‘He’s not David Bowie, for God’s sake.'”

But then, it isn’t just musicians who carry on like rock stars these days. At a seated luncheon recently for the Algerian film Outside The Law, a hard-charging author would not stop talking about his travels there and to Afghanistan; a well-known social figure would not stop talking about her beauty business; and an editor in chief could not be bothered to turn from the political correspondent on his left to say a word to me. So I sat with a frozen smile for a good half-hour. Of course, it was probably my fault for not figuring out how to sing for my supper or bring something to the table, as it were.

But it’s not as if Sean Connery was with us. He’s a guest who would have special celebrity dispensation to soliloquize all he wants. He once showed up at a small dinner at a friend’s house in Los Angeles in a loquacious mood. But each time he tried to tell a story in his intoxicating Scottish brogue, the woman next to him chimed in. Perhaps she was just trying to ensure balance at the table. All she did was annoy everyone.

“I remember the time I was shooting a Bond film in Tokyo,” Mr. Connery would say, only to have the woman gleefully interject that she’d once been to Tokyo, too.

“I wanted to tell her to shut the hell up,” the hostess told me.

Fortunately, she didn’t have to because the annoying guest left early.

“But I hope that doesn’t mean we have to leave, too,” Mr. Connery said.

Of course not. Sometimes justice is served right after dessert.

The (Lost) Art of Dinner Party Patter