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The done thing at dinner

Kitty Finstad
A nightmare dinner party guest reminds our etiquette maven of the importance of manners, now more than ever

Of course, what I should have said was: “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!” But as the consummate hostess I instead came out with: “My pleasure, thank YOU! What a fun evening!” Waving goodbye to the Worst Dinner Party Guest ever to darken my door, I smiled – insincerely – and didn’t let my inner sweaty, judgmental self break the surface.

Because – and I say this with full awareness that the Hypocritical Police can throw the book at my rational-atheist head for even thinking it – what goes around comes around.

Do unto others, one good turn, etc. And all those other kindness homilies that God-fearing people live by and conscientious parents trot out to their children when faced with the dilemma of transgressing the threshold of good manners and saying what they really think. Now is the time to step things up to a ‘do as I do, not as I say’ approach. Which is why I’ve consciously chosen to lead by example when it comes to human behaviour – preferably of the thoughtful, civilised kind.

Of course we are all of us flawed – deeply – and I suppose one could blame overcrowding and urbanisation and stress modern life for those occasions on which we simply fail to notice that someone else was in the queue ahead of us, or that we’ve been shouting down our mobiles while seated in the quiet carriage (reservations required). And can you really be expected to clock a standing pensioner with a walking stick on the bus when you’re importantly tweeting your observations of the day?

DIY Debrett’s

At the turn of the good old 20th century, people’s behavioural peccadilloes were concerned with such piffling matters as when and how to curtsey or accept an invitation, the ins and outs of calling cards, and that deadliest can of societal worms, ‘present-giving’. All of which, through today’s lens of equality, democracy and flattening social classes (not that you’d notice the latter in some of England’s homogeneously white and wealthy home counties), seem terribly quaint and inconsequential.

But despite La Belle Epoque generation’s obsessions with how to ride a bicycle in petticoats and what size/type of sandwich (with or without crusts) to serve at a wedding lunch of the middle classes, there were rules. One knew where one stood (which was usually to the right or left of someone’s mother, depending on the occasion). How to behave in polite society – and I do use the adjective advisedly and sparingly – was something that was taught, because it was something people wanted to learn. No one wanted to be the person who got it wrong.

I’m not talking Pygmalion-style elocution lessons here. I don’t care if your accent’s from Essex or Arkansas. But I do care – deeply – about the quality of quotidian life: the pleases and thank your and smiling hellos from shopkeepers and baristas and colleagues and neighbours that pledge our commitment to going about our business in the most considerate way possible.

So while the Worst Dinner Party Guest broke every rule going (late, empty-handed, a bit drunk on arrival, among other MUCH worse acts that I’m too polite to divulge for fear of publicly outing him), I still vow to (almost) always practise what I preach in the good-behaviour stakes, so that in future someone else might surely do unto me.

And yes, I am still hosting dinner parties. Smile!


I don't care if your accent's from Essex or Arkansas. But I do care - deeply - about the quality of quotidian life



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