Many years ago I planned out my ideal dinner party guests. Except it wasn’t really a dinner party because a) I can’t cook, b) I loathe dinner parties (more later) and c) I really only eat chocolate biscuits.
But I did enjoy the mental exercise or choosing my absolute favourite people to invite. I limited myself to actual real living people, so the Fonz, Colonel Wilma Deering from Buck Rogers and K-9 were out, as sadly was Bill Hicks shortly thereafter (although if I ever did one of those dreadful ‘famous person I’d have a one-to-one phone call with’ adverts from a few years ago, it would be Hicks. I’d tell him to get his pancreas checked way early. And do more Goat Boy routines).
So my revised dinner party guest list is currently: comics godfather Stan Lee, martial arts legend Jackie Chan, comedian and TV pioneer Eddie Izzard and Stephen ‘Oh Alan!’ Fry. Though I’m tempted to drop Fry, not only because he seems to have been adopted by the entire nation when he used to be the secret special friend of we chosen few (see also the pre-Office Ricky Gervais) but mainly because I suspect he wouldn’t be able to go a whole evening without tweeting his every thought at the table, which I consider to be a social vulgarity of the first order.
I’m looking forward to my dinner party, not because of the food, God knows, but because I know, I absolutely know, I’d have something in common with each and every one of them. I would certainly have plenty to say to each of them, even if it’s no more than a stream of stuttering, fawning adulation bordering on the stalky, but hey, the onus to get a court order would be on them, not me. As far as I’m concerned, the evening would be a roaring success.
Not so dinner parties in real life. At least not in my experience. Here’s a fictional, hypothetical, just-suppose dinner that took place fictionally, hypothetically, just-supposedly last night:
Herself has been invited to a workmate’s leaving meal thing at a pub and has asked if I can come along, in a charitable act of getting me to meet more people. She has realised, I think, that I kind of stopped making new friends some years ago, about the time I realised I could legitimately call myself a grumpy middle-aged person and could frankly no longer be arsed to put up with people I don’t get on with (see: the vast majority of the human race). But being a more balanced and socially adept individual, she took it upon herself to introduce me to her friends / workmates / people she kind of knows at work. Which is lovely of her. But.
I have never met said workmate before, though I am informed I have met one or two of the others at previous similar occasions, but I cannot quite remember them. They are all called Nikki, as far as I can tell. And yes, they are all women. This may have some relevance to my subsequent experience, but not in the obvious way.
Also, they all know each other. They all work together. I am the only friend / sig. oth. / +1 present. For a normal, rounded outgoing sort of cove, this would not present a problem, but I am acutely aware of my differences to real people at the best of times; spending time with a number of (let’s call them proper actual) women who already exist as a social group can sometimes make me feel more different than similar. Ironically, after all my many and various personal modifications over the years, I still often feel more at home with a bunch of bearded wargamers than I do breasted wombmongers. It’s to do with background and shared history, I suppose.
OK, but let’s put my personal whiny difficulties joining in with mono-gendered social groups to one side, and examine the more general pitfalls of the dinner party. Surely I am not alone in considering these events to be littered with difficulties?
Firstly, being the only friend / sig. oth. / +1 present. You don’t know anyone! And they all know each other! You’d have to be a darn sight more outgoing and/or interesting to others than me if you want to do anything more the entire evening than continually lean over to your partner and whisper “Who’s Jackie again?” and “Was that Vicky who had the thing removed?”*. It’s like watching an episode of a long-running soap without knowing any of the character names or back histories. Also it’s a boring real-life soap about real people with hardly any murders, amnesiac twins or secret vampire lovers.
So last night I attempted to engage the nearest non-partner at the dinner table in conversation about food intolerances, as I had just caught a passing comment about her ‘not doing wheat’. Pretty firm ground for me I thought; I can talk my way through an entertaining anaphylactic anecdote or two. And yes, we did have a nice little chat about gluten and goat cheese, as you do, but I swear the second the chat reached a bit of a lull, she turned back to talk to her real mates at the other end of the table. At this point I realised I had mainly been doing all the talking – it wasn’t so much a chat as a faintly manic monologue directed at a single unwilling victim, like a long-postponed ‘catch-up call’ from a parent.
And OK sure, I understand that people want to chat to their mates when they’re out, I’ve done that myself enough times, but man, the way she turned away so abruptly was so definite, so very ‘bored now’. As she turned away, I had a second or two to find something to occupy myself with at this now silent end of the table, so I pretended to examine the surface of the dinner table (it was either that or straighten the cutlery out, again) and ended up stroking the smoothly worn driftwood effect with rather more intensity than intended. If any of the others had looked my way at that moment, the scene could not have more surely confirmed my status as the weirdo friend of a friend.
Which brings me onto another thing – seating positions. At a dinner, you’re kind of limited to talking whoever you’re near to. In this case, my choice was a random selection of one or two strangers to my immediate left/right/front and my long-suffering partner / cheat-sheet to the on-going soap opera subplots being rehashed about us. There’s simply no guarantee that these strangers are going to prove interesting to the newcomer or vice versa. What we ought to be able to do at dinners, quite without giving offence, is to just up and shuffle round, maybe between courses, until you find someone with whom you have something to talk about (possibly prepositional positioning or amusing alliterative asides).
This very thing happened to us at a civil ceremony reception a year or so ago; the young man in question at our table, someone nobody had met before, quite without ceremony or conscience just upped and moved to another table where he’d seen some of his younger, prettier acquaintances. At the time I thought ‘how rude’, but y’know, now I think he may have had something.
It would certainly save us from this particular situation: the sweet agony of being able to catch just a few tantalising snatches of A Much More Interesting Conversation at the other end of the table, with no polite way to either move one’s chair down to that end, or somehow join in by shouting interjections across the much closer but less relevant discussions of children/cars/celebrity dancing TV shows that are taking place in the no-man’s land between Interesting Person A and Desperate Loner B.
If we all wore badges that stated our major likes and dislikes at all times, parties would be much more rewarding. And possibly shorter. We really need to be able to mouse-over other folks in real life and bring their profiles up for inspection. Their likes, our mutual friends, the last film they saw. Maybe there’s an app for it.
But back to me. The end result of these various dinneracious difficulties of not-knowingness and seating stasis is that even before the food arrived, I wanted to leave. I wanted to get up, go home and watch telly, which at least had an excuse for not speaking directly to me. This is horrible and rude and unsociable of me, I know. But I was feeling lonely even with Herself right there next to me. These people were nice, but they were not my friends. They had friends already, right there. They could talk about work (which they all did together) or mutual friends (which they all knew) or past incidents (that they had all shared). All I had a story about a dodgy Go Ahead! bar and a burning urge to talk to someone, anyone, about A Game Of Thrones.
That can’t be right, can it? Sitting in a nice pub with what appeared to be nice people having nice food, and absolutely hating it. No-one to talk to. Nothing to talk about. Not their fault – they’re all decent enough people, even the bossy one who complained that her peas were burnt (for goodness’ sake), but I swear I was halfway through texting this very blog to my brother before I found there was no signal on my phone. Emergency Only. Even I balked at the thought of dialling 999 to discuss the weaker casting choices of X-Men: First Class.
So where does the fault lie? Yes me, obviously. Shyness and intolerance and over-awareness of differentness to be sure. But also the whole set-up of dinners and dinner parties, especially for the newcomer or stranger. You don’t know anyone there. They know everyone else. You can only speak to the ones you’re randomly sat closest to. It’s a noisy pub so you can hardly hear anyone anyway (though that may also just be me). There’s no shared purpose save to eat and drink – no band to watch or game to cheer on. No play to critique or film to enjoy. You can’t even mooch off into the kitchen like at a real party or start read the spines of the host’s books in their spare room (surely not just me?).
No, you’re stuck there until the food’s done and at least one other person says it’s time to go (and don’t even get me started on the horrors of ‘just splitting the bill’ with the fatties and the boozers), with only the bare bones of a self-hating blog to sustain you through the evening. I should stop going along to these sorts of things, I really should. But maybe the next one will be OK. Next time I might be sat next to a really interesting person, possibly a renowned cross-dressing martial artist-cum-comic writer. We can but hope.
Tomorrow I go to a comic con. In theory there should be many of My People with whom I can converse and I should have no complaints. In practice I suspect my social inadequacy and ill-concealed misanthropy will produce a different but no less disappointing experience. Watch this space.
* It wasn’t.