I was talking to a friend last week about the etiquette of an English dinner party. In the old days there used to be fairly rigid rules about how to behave but in the 21st century, where we’re all much less formal, you’d think that when someone invited you to dinner, it was just dinner and you would turn up and eat and that was all there was to it. But the more we explored it, the more there still seemed to be unwritten rules and rituals around the English dinner party. Here’s a list of things my friend and I came up with as essential etiquette when you’re invited to or giving a modern English dinner party:
1. These days you’re usually invited by email or telephone. Gone are the days of hand-written letters by fountain pen for your run-of-the-mill dinner parties. And with that, much of the over-formal formalities.
2. Most people ask what they should bring and are usually told: nothing, just yourselves or red or white wine. A Chinese young man newly arrived in England brought a bottle of sherry to a dinner we were both invited to although I specifically warned him ahead to bring wine (”Oh, I like sherry,” he said) and then spent the whole evening beating himself up that he’d brought the wrong thing when he handed over the bottle and the host had looked bewildered.
Even if you are told to bring nothing, you should always bring something - the best bet being a bunch of flowers or a box of chocolates. At the more casual end among good friends, you might be asked to bring dessert - we reckon that anything gooey and indulgent from Marks & Spencers should do the trick.
3. At dinner, the host usually has an idea in their mind of a seating arrangement even if there are no name cards for the table. The idea is to get a good mix round the table of people who don’t know each other but who might get on well, splitting up couples so they don’t end up next to each other or opposite each other while being not too far away from each other (diagonal seems to work best, we decided). In the old days, the host would also have to worry about seating boy-girl-boy alternately but in these modern times of girl-girl and boy-boy couples, that rule is by necessity much less rigid.
4. The old adage “no sex, religion or politics” still applies. The most painful dinner parties I’ve been to have usually been the result of someone unaccustomed to dinner parties ranting on about one or other of those topics. Everyone ends up feeling bruised and exhausted.
5. The idea is to be amusing, witty and entertaining, keeping business talk to a minimum. The objective is to end the evening with a warm glow from the food, wine and company. The rest of the world can be out there battling it out over sex, religion and politics and you’ve got the grind of making a living and whatever difficulties may be challenging you at that point. But for a few hours one evening, the world is that convivial dinner table and you can laugh with some friends and delight in a good meal and feel that life is good.
Pic: thanks to allposters.com