When I’m at a dinner — no matter how formal or informal — and find myself stuck between a man on my right and a man on my left, whom are talking past me in a bloody streak leaving me totally out, what should I do? I’ve tried asking questions, but they usually blow me off and go on talking between themselves while I’m caught as the monkey in the middle.
I never know how to correct the situation gracefully and become part of the conversation. They don’t seem to be aware of the fact that they should be bringing me into the discussion — not leaving me out. I understand that everyone has a right to an agenda, but do agendas really belong in social situations?
–Alice in Wonderland, New York, New York
About conversation étiquette.
The good host places guests with similar interests, or something in common, together at the same table. For instance, if you are single, one or the other of your seatmates, if not both, should be single; or one or the other also attended college in Oregon; while one or the other works in risk management — or also spends summer weekends on Fire Island.
You were meant to fit in — and actively add to the conversation — which is why you were seated next to the person on your right and the person on your left. You merely have to listen patiently for the cue to the common thread in order to jump in with confidence.
There are exceptions to the personalized seating when the luncheon or dinner is, say, a corporate event or charity benefit where guests are seated alphabetically. Meaning the first letter of the last name of most of the people at your table will be the same as yours. Mr. Corbett, Ms. Cowley, and Mr. Corbin are seated one after the other, probably male-female-male-female whenever possible.
As a guest, your job is to be self-sustaining, standing your ground in any conversation even if you only ask questions or show interest in learning about what they’re discussing. Meet the challenge.
Listen carefully for a clue to piecing together the puzzle. It could be as obvious as an accent. “You must be from Boston.” Interesting vocabulary. “That’s one of my favorite words, and yet I never hear it used.” And then there is the subject you know about, or wish to learn more about.
Finally, albeit less tactfully, there is the host’s agenda-ridden objective of seating two of you together, which makes it more than likely that one of you may end up the odd person out. Especially when a sales pitch is involved.
The time to diffuse is when there is a lull in the conversation. Chime in — ask a question — preferably one that bridges the gap from what they’ve been yapping about to a topic of interest to you. Once you try bridging and see how gracefully it can work, you’ll bridge with ease.
Basically, conversational bridging is aiming for a topic and smoothly segueing into that topic — away from the discussion at hand. An example might be: the conversation segued from business to business luncheons to food. Most of us enjoy talking about food, sharing food news and locations of hot new restaurants.
On my way to an event inevitably I’ll think up one or two questions I want to ask other guests, usually for my own amusement, but it is also a way of bringing up subjects I wish to learn about.
As you guessed, it takes a certain amount of skill, concentration, and patience to get out of your own world and into that of your seatmates to your left and right. Being on top of the latest news at home and abroad is not only useful but de rigueur to know.
There are websites such as TheSkimm.com that send daily email updates at no charge. TheSkimm happens to be written by seasoned media news writers for women by women, so when getting cold feet before your next dinner party, skim the current daily news from TheSkimm.
Then there is the obvious, finding out ahead of time who your host is seating you with and googling them. When that’s not an option, before leaving the party in frustration and going home early, check out your seatmates’ names on your cellphone in the restroom — after memorizing their place cards or name tags — and go back to the table with fresh ideas.
I asked a great conversationalist what she would do in a situation such as yours and she said she would rudely interrupt her seatmates to say, “You two are having such a wonderful time, why don’t I switch places with one of you?”
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