After the last two posts in January about formal table settings, our friend Ben Reierson down in Australia asked a timely and appropriate question: "What kind of conversation would be good or at least safe to talk about at a billionaire's table?"
There's a whole lot to say about this, Ben, but I'll try to be concise. After all, trying to converse at the same time you're trying to eat is a tricky affair. There's few things more frustrating than when someone asks you a question at the exact moment when you've just put a fork load of food in your mouth, right? There's an art to how all this is done, and here's a few tips:
To whom are you responsible for conversation?
If it's a small party of five or six people, you'll probably be expected to interact with everyone at the table. But if it's a larger party, say fifteen-to-twenty people, then you're only responsible to speak with the person on your right, on your left, and the person directly across the table from you. In fact, it would be rude to try to carry on a conversation with someone at the other end of the table.
Above all we don't talk about ourselves or try to dominate the conversation. In addition, politics, religion, world order, health issues, death, and bereavement are not welcome. These topics are best left to the bar area before the meal or the drawing room after - if even then. But at the dinner table we're trying to ingest and digest without agitation, right?
The natural topic at a formal table is about the food being served. There's usually chatter and comments on the flavor and ingredients of each course that's brought out - which leads to other conversations like a new chef in town, the best caterers to deal with, a new restaurant that's just opened up, or mentions of a similar dish someone had in Europe or Asia - which opens the conversation to travel, international cuisines, and fine hotels.
Try to think of table conversation as a volley ball game - except with a balloon. You must be careful, observant, and then gently toss out a topic or question - but not to someone who's mouth is full of food. The time-honored rule of not talking with your mouth full can create some awkward moments in getting an answer to an ill-timed question.
At large dinner parties around here there's usually a general hum of several different conversations going on at the same time among those sitting next to each other. Occasionally there might be an outburst of laughter which draws everybody's attention - and the reason for that laugh is expected to be repeated so that everyone at the table can join in the laughter as well. (Celebrities seem to be especially fond of this tactic, to gain attention.) In between courses the host or hostess might take the opportunity to make an announcement or redirect the topics altogether, like a new winery they've just visited - which might change the topic to fine wines when everyone goes back into their private huddles.
In Victorian times when a dinner lasted for five or six hours, there might have been more thoughtful and intellectual topics thrown out during the meal, which were tossed around, discussed, and developed at length during a sixteen or twenty-one course meal. But nowadays table conversation is expected to be light, crisp, and not requiring deep thought or consideration.
In America we're especially fond of getting laughs for our trivial table chatter, and there's nothing wrong with that. The same might not be so in more conservative societies. But we are as we are here in the States - with no plausible apologies I can think of.
I hope this has shed some light. Thanks for dropping in, and thanks again Ben for suggesting the topic.