Jul 11

Attached is a new New York Times column (“The Life (and Death) of the Party:  Mastering the Art of Dinner Party Conversation“) by JET alum Bruce Feiler (Tottori-ken, 1989-90), author of Learning to Bow, The Council of Dads, and several books on the Middle East including Walking the Bible, Abraham and Where God Was Born.

To read prior columns, please click here.

Bruce’s new book GENERATION FREEDOM:  The Middle East Uprisings and the Remaking of the Modern World has just been published.  You can see some of his recent media appearances by visiting www.brucefeiler.com.


This Life

The Life (and Death) of the Party


Published: July 8, 2011

I CALL it my insufferability test. It came about like this: A number of years ago, I was seated at a dinner party next to the celebrated C.E.O. of an American brewery. I was the lesser player here, so I began asking him questions about his beer.   Fifteen minutes passed, then 30. He didn’t ask me a single question.

As dessert approached, I began slumping in my chair from trying to come up with query after query about organic hops and fluctuating wheat futures.   Finally, I started dropping in teasers from the year I spent as a circus clown. “My friend the human cannonball …”; “That reminds me of the time I once got into a cage with nine tigers.” Surely these would pique his curiosity.   Needless to say, I never told a story about the circus that night.

To me that encounter was a warning shot. I was like a rookie pitcher being plastered in his opening outing in the big leagues. If I hoped to avoid similar dinner party fiascoes in the future, I had to raise my game. So what is the best formula for handling a loudmouth, know-it-all, bore or clam?

With summer entertaining season upon us, it seemed like a good time to brush up on my techniques, and perhaps pick up some new tricks. So with the help of some veterans of the tablecloth trenches, here are some tips for navigating dinner party pitfalls.

EAT AND GREET In ancient Rome, senators hired nomenclatorsto follow them around and introduce them to people. These days, each of us has to be his own nomenclator. A good host often performs this role. “A lot of dinners I throw often have a specific point to them,” said Sunny Bates, a former Silicon Alley headhunter turned networking guru. “I make everyone go around and say who they are, where they’re from and what they most need.” Other starter questions I’ve seen work: “If you could change one thing about the human body, what would it be?” and “What about you, physically, is perfect?”   Knowing something about all the other guests is more than good manners; it can also come in handy if you’re seated next to a dud and need to seek relief in someone a few seats away. If I’m at an event with no host at the table, I’ll go so far as to walk around and briefly introduce myself to the other guests. Think of a dinner party as being like a crime scene: plan your escape route.  

REMEMBER TO DO-SI-DO At some point, every dinner party faces a fork in the table: one giant conversation or lots of smaller ones. While each route poses its own risks, the fact that there’s always a bailout option can prove helpful.   Daniel Menaker, a former editor at The New Yorker and Random House and the author of “A Good Talk,” said he has long viewed a dinner party invitation as a prison sentence. “You’ll be there for at least three hours,” he said. “It will not be up to you where you sit. It is like being in a small, windowless cell.” His tips for surviving one-on-one exchanges: Compliments are nice, as are open-ended questions like “How do you spend your day?” or “What’s new in your world?” He particularly likes talking about what he calls third things, “not me, not them, but something else.” When all else fails, he said, try to engage the table at large. “A dinner party is a bit like a do-si-do,” he said. “Everybody joins hands and meets in the middle, then goes back to their own partners.”  

DON’T BE AFRAID OF CONFLICT I, for one, like pushing a dinner conversation to the edge. I’ve been known to ask dining companions to describe their relationship with fire, or confess what they’ve done in their lives to prevent them from being nominated to the Supreme Court. Politics and religion are welcome at my table. Ms. Bates also adheres to this high-risk approach. “I don’t think there should be any no-fly zones,” she said.   But others recoil at the thought. “A lot of people confuse dinner parties with seminars,” said Rocco DiSpirito, the host of “Rocco’s Dinner Party” on Bravo. He compares conversations that put people on the spot to watching gladiators fight in ancient Rome. “I fiercely protect my guests’ right to be happy.” He surely wouldn’t be happy with my friend who distributes what he calls “The List,” a tally of prepared questions on both domestic and foreign affairs, from TMZ to NPR. When I asked my friend for a question he might use this summer, he said, “How many of Michele Bachmann’s 23 foster children will vote for her for president?”

GO PERSONAL Mr. Menaker said the goal of any conversation should be to make a connection, which he said can be enhanced when one participant offers up an uncertainty or insecurity – “not deep, not embarrassing, just a move in the direction of intimacy.” Kathy Freston, the healthy living enthusiast, Hollywood hostess and author of “Veganist,” said she, too, favors questions that elicit personal revelations. “I can’t stand small talk,” she said, “so I’ll turn to a table and say: ‘Let’s talk about something that we can all learn about from one another. What do you think is the driving force in your life?’ ” Other questions that prompt revealing conversations, she said: “What do you think is the biggest obstacle you’ve not been able to overcome?” and “Is food a purely taste experience for you, or is it a health or ethical issue?”

THE BIG SHIFT But what if none of these work and you’re still trapped next to a narcissist or a drunk? My panel proposed a number of suggestions, from strategically helping clear the table to offering to pour wine. Ms. Freston said she preferred to step away for a few minutes. “As an introvert, I take a little time to myself, go to the powder room, jot something down in my notebook or take a walk outside.”

Ms. Bates takes a more-direct approach. “You know, it’s been really nice talking to you, but there’s somebody I really want to talk to over there,” before going to squeeze in between others.

Is this really O.K.? “If you’ve told your circus story,” said Mr. DiSpirito, “you’re an hour in, and you’re not feeling the love, there’s nothing wrong with saying you want to catch up with someone.”

AN ALPHA SITUATION There’s one final scenario I had to confront. What if more than one guest has honed these techniques and tries to choreograph the conversation. Or as one friend put it, what if there’s more than one Bruce Feiler?

“Such people can actually rescue a situation and often do,” Mr. Menaker said.

Ms. Bates said: “If it looks like it’s going to be really great theater, you just go with it. If not, say ‘You two talk among yourselves.’ ” One tip I heard: If you know you’re inviting two alphas to a party, sit them in the middle, across from each other, so they draw the conversation toward the center of the table instead of diffusing it toward the poles.

Good conversation is as central to a successful dinner party as good food, wine and flowers. Yet it’s the area that gets the least planning and thought. Whatever style you prefer, a successful conversation requires multiple parties – a shifting alliance of talkers and listeners, performers and audience members, alphas and betas. If you’ve spent more than one course playing only one of these roles, odds are you’re upsetting the harmony. Get the balance right, you’ll dine free for life. Get it wrong, you’ll be confined to the last refuge of the insufferable: You’ll be dining alone.

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