The Skillful Dinner Conversationalist

“That which chiefly causes the failure of a dinner-party,
is the running short—not of meat, nor yet of drink, but of conversation.”
~ Lewis Carroll

There are many components to a successful dinner party – a welcoming invitation, warm and friendly hosts, engaging guests, delicious food served elegantly, and a beautiful and inviting dinner table. Those are the elements that will draw guests to a gathering. But, the dynamic that sets the occasion afire and keeps people talking about it long afterward is the conversation, good or bad.

Sparkling conversation is the magnet that draws people together, whether you’re attending an ultra-formal sit-down dinner at the home of the university president, an informal Oktoberfest party on the neighbor’s lawn, or a dinner date. And, witty conversation that prompts laughter and delight is the best kind.

The question is, what constitutes sparkling and witty dinner conversation? What are the appropriate and scintillating topics? The answer is that it depends on the venue. At a formal sit-down affair, you will be conversing for a longer period with fewer people; at a stand-up or more casual event you likely will be mingling with many people for shorter periods each. Thus, appropriate topics will vary in content and depth.

To become a skilled conversationalist and sought-after dinner guest, following are a dozen basic guidelines to follow:

  1. Preparation – Be prepared to bring up or respond to various topics. Learn something about your hosts and guests (which major did Jane settle on, how does Brad like his new job, was Leslie’s volunteer stint in Vietnam everything that was expected, etc.). Reading daily and weekly newspapers, blogs, newsletters, magazines and other publications; keeping up with news about your college, company, major or industry; and scanning the pages of USA Today to reference quickly a variety of current news stories all can provide good conversation openers or responses.
  2. Topics – Conventional wisdom says to avoid discussing politics and religion and stick strictly to non-controversial topics. However, sparkling conversation is never bland, and topics that are appropriate to discuss depend on the group of people involved.  Conversely, conversation need not be controversial to be exciting and enjoyable, and can include the latest in books, arts and entertainment, sports, education, fashion, business and the professions. Just remember not to hog the conversation, engage in gossip or reveal confidential information.
  3. Ice Breakers – Compliments, a joke or humorous remark and polite inquiries about a guest’s occupation or relationship to the host can jumpstart a conversation. Just make sure your comments are sincere, your joke is clean and really funny and your questions are respectful.
  4. Breaking Up Couples – At formal sit-down dinners, it’s customary to seat couples apart from each other because they make much more interesting dinner companions than when they are seated together. Couples who have been together a long time sometimes fall into a rut conversationally, with one letting the other do all the talking; couples who are dating or haven’t been together long tend to be self-conscious.
  5. Conversation Partners – At a sit-down affair, depending on the size of the table the hosts and all the guests might be able to converse together; more likely, however, you’ll wind up speaking with the guest to your left and / or the guest to your right. Every guest has an obligation to initiate or respond to conversation with the guests nearest to him or her. Change conversation partners only when your partner has also changed, as you never want to leave anyone high and dry.
  6. Posture, Body Language, Facial Expressions and Gestures – Sitting and standing up straight gives the impression of intelligence and sophistication, which makes people genuinely want to hear what you have to say. Slouching produces the opposite impression and result. Leaning in slightly toward the person speaking shows attentiveness and respect. Make eye contact (but don’t stare and remember to blink and look at your food occasionally); and smile, nod and indicate interest with your facial expressions at appropriate intervals. Avoid playing with or tossing your hair and don’t fidget. And, while it’s fine to gesture gracefully with your hands or head while speaking to emphasize a point or add some interest to your comments, do refrain from gesturing wildly, inappropriately or to the point of distraction or alarm.
  7. Elbows On and Off the Table – Between courses at a sit-down dinner, it’s okay to place your elbows on the table to lean forward toward the person with whom you are conversing (but don’t cup your chin in your hand!). When food is on the table, however, your elbows must be off. Just remember that it’s food on/elbows off and food off/elbows on.
  8. Interjection Vs. Interrupting – The rule of thumb is don’t interrupt when someone else is speaking. However, it is permissible to interject to indicate that you’re engaged by occasionally murmuring responses – along with those nods and smiles – such as “yes, I see,” “I didn’t know that,” and “how interesting.” Interjections are also permitted when someone needs the salt or rolls passed (“May I?”), if a server is pouring more champagne (“Oh, no, thank you.”), or another tray of knockwurst is passing by (“Over here, please!”). The point is to avoid any serious disruptions to the flow of the conversation. When you are interrupted for any reason, don’t return to your point or story unless you are asked to do so, or it’s easy or natural; remember that it’s merely a conversation, not a debate, contest or speaking engagement.
  9. Being a Good Listener – If you don’t feel like conversing or can’t get a word in edgewise – that happens sometimes – remember that people are frequently remembered as good conversationalists when they were in reality simply very good listeners! People who love to talk especially appreciate good listeners and tend to remember them fondly.  But, you really have to listen; don’t risk being caught off guard by drifting off!
  10. Voice Tones – Use voice tones and inflections that are polite and reflect your respectful interest, amazement and appreciation at another’s comments; never let tones of sarcasm, doubt or scorn slip in. Avoid speaking too loudly or too softly. Steer clear of whispered side conversations, which are rude and divisive. Be sensitive to those who are hard of hearing or might not be proficient in understanding your language.
  11. Speech – Grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary and diction are obviously very important in conversation. Brush up on these skills before your next dinner party. And, remember to take small bites and sips so your mouth is clear when you need to talk.
  12. Stepping on Lines…and Toes – Avoid stepping on the punch lines of, or trying to one-up, another’s story or joke. Even if you’re a better joke or story teller, and although you might have better ones up your sleeve, leave them there and pull them out on another occasion.

Until next time,


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