Dinner Party Status

December 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

It’s just friends sharing great food and good conversation, so why can these soirees be a middle-class minefield?

You think that it’s going to be a relaxed evening out: you’ve been invited to a dinner party at the home of friends, colleagues or neighbours. You’ve been in this sort of social situation countless times before and believe it will probably be a very enjoyable social event.

You put a bit of thought into what to wear — not too formal, not too casual, what to bring — flowers, chocolates, perhaps even a fragrant candle. You wonder who will be there, if you know them, if you will get on, if you will have a lot in common.

You understand what’s expected of you, how to behave — or how you think you should behave — and you’re confident everyone else invited will conform to the unwritten rules of the middle-class dinner party. And yet the evening can so easily go the other way: end up being the type of social disaster that the moment the clock strikes midnight you and your fellow guests flee in relief.

According to Dr Harry Witchel, a psychobiologist at the University of Sussex, who is an expert in non-verbal communication and has studied human behaviour at dinner parties, it’s all very explainable.

He compares the middle-class dinner party to grooming in animals: “Animals share food and pick bugs out of one another’s hair and humans are doing something like that at dinner parties. It’s a way of forming alliances and reinforcing affiliations and social status.”

Dr Witchel points out that as soon as we enter each other’s houses it’s like being under starter’s orders — the gun fires and we’re off jockeying for position with the other guests. We begin by laying out our own stalls — putting markers down to declare our identity and which social group we affiliate with.

At middle-class dinner parties you rely on conversational clues. You prefer Florence to Florida, the pound to the euro, your children are in private, not state, education, you drive a Volvo Xc90, not a people carrier with blacked-out windows.

Once this has all been established the fun really begins. We’re not just jockeying to see who is like us, who gets on with us, but who is best in show, who is alpha in the group.

“Animals will fight for territory even if there is nothing in that territory — if you put two male robins in an empty aviary they will sing at one another until one of them gives up and the other will continue to sing. They will compete for territory for no other reason than they just feel like it. Being alpha is its own reward: it feels great,” explains Witchel.

The middle-class dinner party equivalent of out-singing your companions is to drop into conversation subtle markers of your success: the three-week safari holiday you’ve just been on, the kitchen extension, the second home, how clever your children are and how fabulously successful your spouse is.

Nick Rimmer, a barrister who loves nothing more than a jolly dinner party, says it’s all sport. “The dinner party is a forum for each diner to outdo the other in displays of charm, intellect, humour and flirting. Beneath the façade lies a game of one-upmanship. It is the human equivalent to peacock strutting and preening.”

He points out that striving to rise in the hierarchy infuses everything from body language, wardrobe and cooking.

This is something Georgie Colquhoun, a private chef and part-time teacher at Leiths School of Food and Wine, sees frequently at supper parties hosted by friends or the high-end dinner parties she caters for.

“I’ve certainly had plenty of nightmare moments, especially with women — there’s this massive need for everything to be perfect and give the impression that this is what their life is like all the time. Women get very competitive.”

However, Dr Witchel says that vying for top dog status does not necessarily detract from the enjoyment of a dinner party or make you less liked. After all, plenty of us are happy bobbing along being beta, deferring to the alphas and enjoying the hospitality.

But for those alphas among us, what will affect your popularity is how you make your presence known, whether you choose the sophisticated or brutish route.

The sophisticated allow others to do all the talking, encouraging them with the odd pertinent question until the others reveal their life stories. These sophisticates reveal little about themselves, making everyone feel as if they’re the same as them.

Then there’s the less socially successful brutish approach that Dr Witchel says is more prevalent in males, which is to try to hog the conversation by not letting anyone else get a word in edgeways.

This is a style of dinner party interaction that Toby Young, author ofHow to Lose Friends and Alienate People, admits that he used to indulge in. “Back in my bachelor days I would try and dominate whatever dinner I was invited to. Didn’t matter how elevated the company, I wouldn’t be happy until everyone at the table was laughing at my funny stories. I thought I was the life and soul of the party but, in retrospect, I imagine some people found it pretty trying.”

Clare Brigstocke, an executive coach and enthusiastic cook who divides her time between London, France and hosting dinner parties, recently witnessed a brutish alpha male in action.

“This guy is a physicist and like a lot of scientists not very socially aware. We were talking about a recent film and he stopped the conversation and said ‘I expect no one here but me actually knows about the significance of the Higgs boson particle’ and proceeded to tell us about it loudly, despite the stunned looks on people’s faces.”

Brigstocke says that this guest’s big faux pas was to fail to “lubricate” the conversation which, she believes is a key skill. “Some people, even if they’re bored with the conversation, find a way of drawing people in.”

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