The new rules of dinner parties

From incessant flirting to incessant texting, these are the modern equivalents of elbows-on-the-table

Dinner parties have come a long way. A century ago, they were civilised affairs – sophisticated soirees where guests were expected to dress up and wittily quip their way through dinner. Even as recently as the Seventies, when culinary advancements opened up your menu options, a dinner party was the pinnacle of society meets.

But today, dinner parties seem a little less refined. The shine has disappeared – along with most of the correct cutlery – and these gatherings are lawless affairs, filled with cheap wine, cheaper chat and none of the sense of occasion that made old dinner parties great.

So we turned to William Hanson, the UK’s leading etiquette coach and expert, to help put the pep and panache back into the dinner party. So listen up, dress up and take in what Hanson has to say…

Don’t touch your tech at the table

The new rules of dinner parties

“If someone has invited you for dinner they want to spend time with you and not your phone,” says Hanson.  “Switch both your phone and smart watch to ‘do not disturb’ mode so you are not tempted to check them when you feel them buzz in your pocket or on your wrist. 

"They want to spend time with you and not your phone..."

“If you need to just check the world hasn’t ended, then the place to do it is when you excuse yourself from the table to purportedly use the lavatory.  That said,” he adds, “there is always a moment at a dinner when you feel that showing a photograph or video on your phone will help illustrate an anecdote you’ve told. 

“It is fine to do so, but make sure you do this at the end of the meal after all courses have finished. Also – one way to ensure your hosts mentally curse you is to ask for the wifi password within the first moments of the party.”

Undisclosed dietary requirements can ruin an evening

The new rules of dinner parties

“Everyone has some sort of allergy these days,” observes Hanson. “It’s amazing that so many continue to even attempt to host. But remember, a dietary requirement is not a food preference. I’m not wild about a lot of fish but if I went to a friend’s house and they served it to me I could happily cope without saying anything. 

“Dietary requirements are foods that you cannot eat due to medical or religious beliefs. As a guest it is your responsibility to tell your host upon accepting the invitation. If you fail to say anything – due to forgetfulness or your assumption that they have remembered all your culinary quirks – and you are presented with beef Wellington on the night – when you are a committed vegan – then tough.

“Eat the vegetables and don’t make a scene,” he adds. “Because it’s your fault! For hosts today, I’d advise them to keep a list of dietary requirements of friends and also to ask guests – even repeat guests – if they eat everything when extending the invitation.”

Flirting is not entertaining for others

The new rules of dinner parties

“For singletons, a dinner can be a good way to meet like-minded people who may also be looking for romance,” says Hanson, before adding, “but it is not a date and your flirting should not distract any other guest or the host from the party itself. 

"It is not a date and your flirting should not distract any other guest..."

“Make a good impression, by all means, but arrange to meet for a proper date a few days after the dinner.  The smart thing to do is still to ask your host for the contact info of the other guest. Finally, when it comes to flirting, remember to keep it appropriate. Gentleman have had gained a bad reputation of late – although the guilty men in question were certainly not gentlemen. 

“Try to avoid being too tactile, and if you do use the sense of touch to build rapport then make sure you only briefly touch arms, elbows and shoulders. But, if in doubt as to what to do, just use your words to connect with them.”

Accept that conversation is a two-way street

The new rules of dinner parties

“Although many hope to be in that elite league of guests who always come with an armoury of anecdotes and witty tales – like messrs Wilde, Coward and Fry – it is equally as important to be a good listener. 

“If everyone was as bombastic and attention-stealing as the aforementioned, dinners would become very tedious. A gentleman will always listen and ask about the other guests before embarking on a story involving himself. Good manners are self-less, not selfish.”

If you’ve accepted an invitation, extend one

The new rules of dinner parties

“In this something-for-nothing age, a gentleman should be aware that you do not accept an invitation to dinner – either in a restaurant or in a private house – unless you can pay back in kind.  The old rule was that you had six months or so to host in return, but in today’s quicker paced world it’s probably best to keep it to four or five months – if you want the friendship to survive, of course.

"The old rule was six months; today, it is four..."

“Remember, it’s like for like. So, if you are invited to a dinner then you are expected to invite your hosts back to a dinner. You can’t just throw one big cocktail party and think this will pay off your social debt in one evening – as fun as that may be…”

Got all that? Good. Next, why not learn the rules of becoming the ultimate godfather…

Further Reading