Whether it’s the get-together with friends you’ve looked forward to for weeks or a regular weeknight family meal, use these simple table-talk tips to keep all participants engaged. 

By Sarah Baird
September 25, 2019
Photo: Alison Miksch; Food Styling: Cat Steele; Prop Styling: Lindsey Lower

At one point or another, we’ve all found ourselves with a case of the “dinner party doldrums.” Perhaps the conversation continues to stall at the table, leaving awkward silences and gritted teeth among guests. (It’s never a good sign when the sound of forks clinking against plates is the loudest thing in the room.) Perhaps someone won’t stop talking about their vacation to Aruba—monologue-style—from the appetizer to dessert course, or gaggles of people have syphoned off into their own conversations, leaving the more introverted at the table staring into their soup.

The “dinner party doldrums” are a frequent concern of dinner party guests, but at your next gathering, you can make sure everyone has nothing to worry about. Below are several tips, tricks and ideas for ensuring the conversation flows at your next dinner party, and every guest has the chance to feel as nourished and stimulated by the discussion as the food.

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Just say “no” to talking about work: “So, what do you do for a living?” might be the most loathed, bland question at cocktail and dinner parties across the country. Stay away from it—and any other question that requires a person to give a stock, interview-style answer. Instead, direct conversation to topics that don’t focus on any sort of biographical information, but instead, encourage opinions about the big, wild wonderful world. New science or larger cultural discoveries are always great for stirring up discussion (Did you hear that scientists have tripled the shelf-life of macaroni and cheese for space travel?) and often lead to other, funnier questions. (If you could take one food to space with you, what would it be?) One of the best dinner party hosts I know asks that people read the same piece of journalism or short story in the days leading up to the meal, so everyone is prepared for a lively discussion on the same topic.  

If you feel people need to mingle and do the classic “getting to know you” questions before dinner, considering having an optional cocktail hour before the meal begins.

Avoid letting cliques form. Good dinner parties are able to keep everyone at the table engaged on the same topic. This means seating people in such a way that best friends, work colleagues and the most gregarious of the bunch aren’t clustered at one end draining the conversation. When planning for seating, think about dinner guest personalities, as well as the shape of your table and the number of people attending. If you’re hosting more than eight people, it’s probably best to split tables into two so no one has to say, “What? I can’t hear you!” all night long.

Make it playful. At the family dinner table, a kid silently sulking about having to eat peas can put everyone on edge. Instead, make the opening activity for each meal a funny “either/or” game. The classic “would you rather?” (Would you rather be an elephant or a whale? Why?) approach works well for this, with each member of the family asking the opening question on a different day of the week. With such an engaging game, who knows, maybe a few peas will actually be eaten.

Just say “yes” to family-style. Instead of the traditional dinner party food service style—where everyone gets the same thing, but served individually on separate plates—opt to make the meal “family-style” instead. This ensures that when people are passing bowls, reaching for the salad tongs or slicing off a hunk of crusty bread from the communal loaf, they’re making eye-contact with other guests and are better able to engage with one another and the food. (I also love a potluck dinner party, which automatically allows people to feel like they have something to talk about that they’re sharing with the group.) 

Oh, and one final thing—no cell phones at the table. Sounds harsh at first, I know, but whether you’re gathered with friends or at the family dinner table, cell phones are one of the biggest obstacles to good conversational flow. If you want to make a production out of it, you could formally collect them at the beginning of the night, or go lower-key, and just trust that people keep their tiny screens tucked away in their pockets. Afterall, who can keep up with the banter if their busy checking email or scrolling Twitter? 

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