The Talk Of Host And Hostess At Dinner

Sydney Smith, by all accounts a great master of the social art, said of

himself: "There is one talent I think I have to a remarkable degree:

there are substances in nature called amalgams, whose property it is to

combine incongruous materials. Now I am a moral amalgam, and have a

peculiar talent for mixing up human materials in society, however

repellent their natures." "And certainly," adds his biographer, "I have

seen a party composed of materials as ill-sorted as could possibly be

imagined, drawn out and attracted together, till at last you would

believe they had been born for each other."

But this role of moral amalgam is such a difficult one, it must be

performed with such tact and delicacy, that hostesses are justified in

employing whatever mechanical aids are at their command. In

dinner-giving, the first process of amalgamation is to select congenial

people. Dinners are very often flat failures conversationally because

guests are invited at random. Choosing the lesser of two evils, it is

better to run the risk of offending than to jeopardize the flow of talk

by inviting uncongenial people. When dinners are given to return

obligations it is not always easy to arrange profitably the inviting and

seating of guests. But the judgment displayed just here makes or mars a

dinner. A good way out of the difficulty, where hosts have obligations

to people of different tastes and interests, is to give a series of

dinners, and to send the invitations out at the same time. If Mrs. X. is

asked to dine with Mrs. Z. the evening following the dinner to which

Mrs. Z. has invited Mrs. Y., Mrs. X. is not offended.

To see that there is no failure of tact in seating guests should be the

next process of amalgamation. To get the best results a great deal of

care should be bestowed upon the mixture of this human salad. Guests

should be seated in such a way that neighbors at table will interest

each other; a brilliant guest should be placed where he may at least

snatch crumbs of intellectual comfort if his near companions, tho

talkative, are not conversationalists of the highest order; the

loquacious guest should be put next to the usually taciturn, provided he

is one who can be roused to conversation when thrown with talkable

people. Otherwise one of the hosts should devote himself to the business

of promoting talk with the uncommunicative but no less interesting

person. A wise hostess will consider this matter of seating guests in

connection with selecting and inviting them. It is, therefore, one of

the subordinate and purely mechanical processes of the real art of


If hosts forget nothing that will tempt a guest to his comfort, they

will remember above all the quarter of an hour before dinner, and will

begin the actual conquest of amalgamation while their friends are

assembling. By animation and cordiality they will put congenial guests

in conversation with each other, and will bring forth their mines of

things old and new, coining the ore into various sums, large and small,

as may be needed.

In some highly cultured circles, men and women are supposed to be

sufficiently educated and entertaining to require no literary or

childish aids to conversation. Every dinner-giver, however, knows the

device of suitable quotations, or original sayings, or clever limericks,

on place-cards, and the impetus they give to conversation between

dinner-companions as the guests are seated. But the responsibility of

host and hostess does not end when they thus furnish dinner-companions a

conversational cue. "This is why," as has been well said by Canon

Ainger, "a dinner party to be good for anything, beyond the mere

enjoyment of the menu, should be neither too large nor too small. Some

forgotten genius laid it down that the number should never be less than

that of the Graces, nor more than that of the Muses, and the latter half

of the epigram may be safely accepted. Ten as a maximum, eight for

perfection; for then conversation can be either dialog, or may spread

and become general, and the host or hostess has to direct no more than

can profitably be watched over. It is the dinner party of sixteen to

twenty that is so terrible a risk.... Good general conversation at table

among a few is now rather the exception, from the common habit of

crowding our rooms or our tables and getting rid of social obligations

as if they were commercial debts. Indeed many of our young people have

so seldom heard a general conversation that they grow up in the belief

that their only duty in society will be to talk to one man or woman at a

time. So serious are the results of the fashion of large dinner parties.

For really good society no dinner-table should be too large to exclude

general conversation." At a banquet of thirty or forty, for instance,

general talk is impossible. At such banquets toasts and responses take

the place of general talk; but at small dinners it is gracious for a

host and hostess to lead the conversation often into general paths.

Ignoring a host and hostess through the various courses of a three

hours' dining, which I have already mentioned, can as easily be the

fault of the host and hostess themselves as it can be due to inattention

on the part of guests. A host and hostess should no more ignore any one

guest than any one guest should ignore them; and if they sit at their

own table, as I have sometimes seen hosts and hostesses do, assuming no

different function in the conversation than if they were the most

thoughtless guest at the table of another, they cannot expect their own

guests to be anything but petrified, however instinctively social.

The conversational duty of a host and hostess is, therefore, to the

entire company of people assembled at their board, as well as especially

to their right-hand neighbors, the guests of honor. It is the express

function of a host and hostess to see that each guest takes active part

in general table-talk. Leading the talk into general paths and drawing

guests out thus become identical. It is this promoting of general

conversation which is the backbone of all good talk. Many people,

however, do not need to be drawn out. Mr. Mahaffy cautions: "Above all,

the particular guest of the occasion, or the person best known as a wit

or story-teller, should not be pressed or challenged at the outset, as

if he were manifestly exploited by the company." Such a guest can safely

be left quite to himself, unless he is a stranger. As drawing out the

people by whom one finds one's self surrounded in society will be

treated in a forthcoming essay, I shall not deal with it here further

than to tell how a famous pun of Charles Lamb's gave a thoughtful host

not only the means of swaying the conversation of the entire table to a

subject of universal interest, but as well the means of drawing out a

well-informed yet timid girl. Guiding his talk with his near neighbor

into a discussion of the pros and cons of punning, he attracted the

attention of all his guests by addressing some one at the further end of

the table: "Mr. White, we were speaking of punning as a form of wit, and

it reminded me that I have heard Miss Black, at your left, repeat a

clever pun of Charles Lamb's--a retort he made when some one accused him

of punning. Miss Black, can you give us that pun? I'm afraid I've

forgotten it." In order that her host and all the table might hear her

distinctly, Miss Black pitched her voice a little higher than in talk

with her near neighbors and responded quickly: "I'll try to remember it,


"'If I were punish-ed

For every pun I've shed,

I should not have a puny shed

Wherein to lay my punished head!'"

Thus Miss Black was not only drawn out, she was also drawn into the

conversation and became the center of an extended general discussion on

the very impersonal and interesting subject of punning. As the talk on

punning diverged, the conversation gradually fell back into private

chats between dinner-companions.

A host or hostess will know intuitively when the conversation has

remained tete-a-tete long enough, and will once more make it general.

When guests pay due attention to their host and hostess, the talk will

naturally be carried into general channels, especially where guests are

seated a little distance away. Even in general conversation a good

story, if short and crisp, is no doubt a good thing; but when either a

host or a guest does nothing but "anecdote" from the soup to the coffee,

story-telling becomes tiresome. Anecdotes should not be dragged in by

the neck, but should come naturally as the talk about many different

subjects may suggest them.

It is the duty of the host and hostess, and certainly their pleasure, to

make conversational paths easy for any strangers in a strange land. It

does not follow that a host and hostess are always well acquainted with

all their guests. There are instances where they have never even met

some of them. An invitation is extended to the house-guest of a friend;

or some person of distinction temporarily in the vicinity is invited,

the formality of previous calls being waived for this reason or that.

Unless a hostess can feel perfectly safe in delegating to some one else

the entertaining of a stranger, it is wise to seat this guest as near to

herself as possible, even tho he is not made a guest of honor. She can

thus learn something about her new acquaintance and put the stranger on

an equal conversational footing with the guests who know each other


In their zeal to give their friends pleasure, a host or hostess often

tells a guest that he is to take a particularly brilliant woman in to

dinner, and the woman is informed that she is to be the neighbor of a

notably clever man. To one whose powers are brought out by being put on

his mettle this might prove the best sort of conversational tonic; on

the other hand it might be better tact to say that tho a certain person

has the reputation of being exceptionally clever, he is, in truth, as

natural as an old shoe; that all one has to do to entertain him is to

talk ordinarily about commonplace topics. In ninety-nine cases out of a

hundred this is so. Some one is responsible for the epigram: "A great

man always lives a great way off"; and it is true that when we come to

know really great people we find that they are as much interested as any

one else in the commonplaces of life. Indeed, the more intellectual

people are, the more the homely things of life interest them. When

Tennyson was once a passenger on a steamer crossing the English Channel,

some people who had been assigned to seats opposite him in the dining

saloon learned that their neighbor at table was the great poet. In a

flutter of interest they listened for the wisdom which would drop from

the distinguished man's mouth and heard the hearty words, "What fine

potatoes these are!" This particular point requires nice discernment on

the part of host and hostess; they should know when they may safely

impress one guest with the cleverness of the other, and when it would be

disastrous to do so. Suppose the consequence is that each guest waits

for the sparkling flow of wit from the other, and to the consternation

of the host and hostess there is profound silence between two really

interesting people on whose cleverness they had counted to make their

dinner a success!

It is also the province of a host and hostess tactfully to steer the

drift of general table-talk away from topics likely to offend the

sensibilities of any one guest. Hosts owe not only attention but

protection to every person whom they ask to their home, and it devolves

upon them to interpose and come to the rescue if a guest is disabled in

any way from doing himself any sort of conversational justice. Swaying

conversation round and over topics embarrassing to any guest requires

the utmost tact and delicacy on the part of a host and hostess; for in

keeping one guest from being wounded or embarrassed, the offender

himself must not be made to feel conscious of his misstep. Indeed he may

be, and usually is, quite unconscious of the effect his words are having

on those whom he does not know well. Any subject which is being handled

dangerously must be juggled out of sight, and the determination to

juggle it must be concealed. Tho it is quite correct for one to say

one's self, "I beg pardon for changing the subject abruptly," nothing is

worse form than to say to another, "Change the subject," or, "Let us

change the subject." To do this is both rude and crude. Directing

conversation means leading talkers unconsciously to talk of something

else. Any guest, as well as a host or hostess, may graciously steer

conversation when it touches a subject some phase of which is likely to

offend sensitive and unsophisticated people. At a series of dinners

given to a circle of philosophic minds religious intolerance was largely

the subject of discussion. The circle, for the most part well known to

each other, was of liberal belief. A guest appeared among them, and it

was known only to one or two that this man was a sincere Catholic. As

the talk turned upon religious discussion, one of the guests so directed

the conversation as to bring out the information that the stranger was a

Catholic by faith and rearing. This was a very kind and appropriate

thing to do. It acquainted the hostess with a fact of which she was

ignorant; and it gave all present a feeling of security in whatever

they might say.

A hospitable host and hostess will not absorb the conversation at their

table. They will render the gracious service of furnishing a background

for the cleverness of others, rather than display unsparingly their own

brilliancy. Indeed, a man or woman does not have to be brilliant or

intellectual to succeed in this most gracious of social arts. The host

or hostess who possesses sympathy and tact will surpass in dinner-giving

the most brilliant person in the world who selfishly monopolizes

conversation at his own table. If guests cannot go away from a

dinner-table feeling better pleased with themselves, that campaign of

hospitality has been a failure. When the self-satisfaction on their

faces betrays the subtle art of the host and hostess in having convinced

all their guests that they have made themselves interesting, then the

acme of hospitality has been achieved. One of the most good-natured but

most inane of men was one day chuckling at having been royally diverted

at a dinner-party.

"He was at Mrs. X's," said some one.

"How do you know that?"

"Indeed! Don't I know her way? She'd make a raven go home rivaling the


To be able to make your guests better pleased with themselves is the

greatest of all social accomplishments.

"An ideal dinner party," says a famous London hostess, "resembles

nothing so much as a masterpiece of the jeweler's art in the center of

which is some crystalline gem in the form of a sparkling and sympathetic

hostess round whom the guests are arranged in an effective setting." It

would seem quite as necessary that a host prove a crystalline gem in

this masterpiece of the jeweler's art. To be signally successful at

dinner-giving, care to make the talk interesting is as necessary as care

in the preparation of viands. Really successful hosts and hostesses take

as much precaution against fatalities in conversation as against those

which offend the palate. While attending carefully to the polishing of

the crystal and to the preparing of the menu which will make their table

a delight, they remember that the intellect of their guests must be

satisfied no less than their eyes and their stomachs.

Power Of Fitness Tact And Nicety In Business Words What Conversation Is And What It Is Not facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail