In addition to the natural fight-or-flight response we all possess, there are numerous occasions when a person’s rational brain gives way to the gnawing, ravenous forces of the animal brain (for better or worse).
Ever kissed another person? Most likely, you didn’t run a checklist of pros and cons before locking lips.
Ever been punched? Animal brain unhinged.
Did you, like me, try to eat a piece of blackberry pie this morning before it cooled and burn the hell out of your flappy tongue? Animal brain strikes again.
Similar to a mother bear who scavenges campgrounds to ensure her brood is fed, I’m wired, animal brain-style, when it comes to hosting meals. Some of my deepest heart-and-belly satisfaction comes from seeing loved ones gathered around a table.
Likewise, my animal brain goes into warp speed whenever I’m a guest at someone else’s dinner party, constantly resisting the urge to forcibly help and, very importantly, fight the impulse to lunge at the throats of unappreciative (or downright rude) fellow guests.
There can be an uncomfortably fine line between bears devouring moldy bologna sandwiches and humans hovering over a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs. If I’m ever jailed for unnecessary animal brain behavior, it will likely be because I watched someone critique a host’s choice of living room décor or voraciously text over several courses of an intimate meal. Our ability to be upstanding guests at another person’s table is, truly, what separates us from the animals.
Here’s an easy guide to being a gracious, grateful, 100%-human dinner guest.
Come Bearing Gifts
You know you can’t show up empty-handed (right?). Fortunately, there are a lot of great gifts out there for hosts that are cooler than a lukewarm bottle of cheap red. The easiest, sure-to-please alternative is olive oil—it’s a gift that keeps on giving long after the last dish is cleared. Or, for the budget-conscious and crafty among us, keeping a steady stock of homemade edible gifts on tap (vanilla sugar, liqueurs, pickled okra) gives you frugal, in-a-pinch hostess gifts at your fingertips.
Unless it’s a potluck, refrain from bringing any sort of food that’s meant to be consumed that evening, lest you appear to be competing with the creator of your dinner spread. I’m always partial to constructing a dinnertime playlist if I know the general vibe of the party and taste of my host. If they use it during dinner? You’ve saved them a step. If not? They have a nifty, thoughtful collection of songs for winding down. Plus, it’s free. While cut flowers are a pleasant gift in theory (especially for plant lovers), in practice it means extra work for the host (Water! Container! Arranging!) during a time when they’re probably already frazzled. If you’re dedicated to sharing a Secret Garden-style token of affection, either bring them in a vase or send them the following day.
Even if you feel mildly Kanye (i.e., my presence is a present) about being a swell guest, sending a quick note thanking your hosts the next morning is a social grace that can’t be overlooked. No, not even by Kanye.
Unless your child has literally run off to join the circus or a plague of locusts is swarming in the backyard, there’s no reason to answer your phone at the dinner table. Heck, don’t even have your phone at the dinner table. Imagine it’s a rotary phone from the 1950s (how weird would it be to have that thing at the dinner table? Weird. So silence it in your pocket.) Conversations flow with greater ease when everyone is completely present instead of taking photos of their food or (yikes) answering work e-mails.
If you have trouble divorcing yourself from your phone for a meal, stash it far away from the dinner table, which makes even an impulse-text impossible.
Don’t Be the Early Bird
Yes, we all know that being late (say, more than 20 minutes) is completely unacceptable when food is piping hot and on the table. What’s even worse, though, is showing up early in the frantic final moments when your host is trying not to burn the roast, chill the rosé, and select the right mood music (Nina Simone, obviously). The early bird does not catch the worm at dinner parties. Instead, they’re likely to instigate a serious pressure cooker situation for even the least anxious host. If you find yourself to be the first to arrive, get marching orders from your host, who will surely appreciate the gesture.
On the flip side, once you’ve knocked back a few glasses of wine and eaten your fill of gooey brie, don’t linger until the wee hours of the morning—no dinner party should turn into a slumber party.
Talk to Strangers
At its very best, a dinner party is something that’s hopeful; a place where a hand-picked group of people join together to snack, chitter chat, and—maybe—make lifelong pals. In order for the third (and most critical part) of this triumvirate to take place, one must do a very important thing: get out of his or her comfort zone.
I’m no believer in silly icebreaker games or thinking up topics of conversation beforehand, but I’ve also suffered through many dinner parties that felt, well, a little cliquish. A dinner party is not the time to negotiate with your boyfriend about who is going to pick up dog food or huddle with your best friend. It’s time to talk to someone—anyone, everyone!—you don’t know.
In my experience, the greatest question to pose when meeting someone new is to ask them what they like. In this wavy career world, talking about work can be touchy, and who really wants to talk about the office while sipping a freshly prepped cocktail? What someone “likes” can be taken in thousands of different directions, and it allows you to dive into the deep-end with a person relatively quickly.
(Be forewarned: If you ever meet me at a dinner party and flip this question on me, we’re likely going to be talking about 1970s truck driving culture for a half an hour.)