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In Good Taste: Hot Topics At The Table

Dirck Hals, Amusing Party in the Garden, c. 1621
Wikimedia Commons

Dear Etta Kate: Recently I was invited to a casual dinner at a neighbor's home. I was shocked at the dinner conversation. I was always taught there are certain topics never to be brought up at the table – such as sex, politics, and money. Has this changed? Are the rules different based on the formality of the occasion? Please help!

Tastelessly Titillated

Dear Titillated: Matters regarding money, sex and politics have all seemed to morph recently, so your question might better be answered from a standpoint of whether or not that change should have occurred.

To that question Etta Kate responds with a resounding “no.”

She would go so far as to say that life might be more peaceful and pleasant if this set of topics were avoided entirely, including over our media channels (social and otherwise). But that is simply not realistic. It is, however, reasonable to expect to be free of such uncomfortable topics while one dines – whether in a friend’s home or a public restaurant.

From unpleasant to downright unappetizing, certain topics disrupt the calm pleasantries that stimulate proper digestion, so there are legitimate health issues involved. When someone exceeds the bounds of normal discourse, what is a diner’s recourse about the coarse talk?

Etta Kate would suggest a patient smile and perhaps a slight pat on the arm, if the offender is within reach, followed by a worried interjection of, “Oh, my; I fear if we are to discuss that topic, someone will go home wearing the entrée again…” and before a response can be uttered,  interjecting brightly, “So! Who has seen/read the (latest movie/book title)?”

Immediately look away from the transgressor to rob the culprit of the attention he or she desires, and allow another diner to take the cue and respond to the new topic.

Another tactic is to simply lean in and say, “Forgive me, but I’ll pay you any amount you want if we don’t have to drone on about the economy/sex/politics at yet another dinner party.” If you have no means to make good your claim (and few do), simply cast your eyes toward another diner and stage whisper, “The check will bounce, of course, but won’t dinner be more enjoyable?” Then laugh charmingly.

One of three things will happen. If the off-color guest is a complete boor, he won’t notice but will be squelched at least temporarily, while you, Ms. Goodmanners, will have prevailed. If the guest has merely made a simple gaffe, you might temporarily embarrass her but ultimately gain her gratitude for interceding before she does major damage to her reputation. The third scenario is that the offender him- or herself takes offense, and you lose that person’s friendship.

It is Etta Kate’s belief that would be a relief indeed, and that your fellow diners’ appreciation and respect for you will more than offset any loss. They, like you, might have been hoping for a way to bring good table manners back in fashion. If so, they will love you for bravely and selflessly taking the lead.

Dine on!

Etta Kate is the nom de plume of a business consultant who maintains anonymity to protect her clients’ privacy. If you have a question about food and dining etiquette, Etta Kate will be happy to help. You can post your messages in the comments section of this page.