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Didi’s Manners & Etiquette: Conversation Etiquette

Thursday, August 27, 2015


The etiquette of how to make conversation in a social situation, especially when you're stuck in the middle, and what to call an undocumented worker, were top questions to Didi Lorillard at NewportManners this week.

Stuck in the middle with two

Q.  When I'm at a dinner -- no matter how formal or informal -- and find myself stuck in the middle between the man on my right and the man on my left, whom are talking past me in rapid fire conversation leaving me totally out, what should I do? I've tried asking questions, but they usually blow me off and go on talking between themselves while I'm as caught as the monkey in the middle.

I never know how to correct the situation gracefully and become part of the conversation. They don't seem to be aware of the fact that they should be bringing me into the discussion -- not leaving me out. I understand that everyone has a right to an agenda, but do agendas really belong in social situations?   Alice in Wonderland, Manhattan

A.  The good host places guests with similar interests, or something in common, together at the same table. For instance, if you are single, one or the other, if not both, should be single; or one or the other also attended college in Oregon; while one or the other works in risk management -- or also spends summer weekends on Fire Island.

You were meant to fit in -- and actively add to the conversation -- which is why you were seated next to the person on your right and the person on your left. You merely have to listen patiently for the cue to the common thread in order to jump in with confidence.

There are exceptions to the personalized seating, when the dinner is, say, a corporate event or benefit where guests are seated alphabetically. Meaning the first letter of the last name of most of the people at your table will be the same as yours. Mr. Corbett, Ms. Cowley, and Mr. Corbin are seated one after the other, probably male-female-male-female whenever possible.

As a guest, your job is to be self-sustaining, standing your ground in any conversation even if you only ask questions or show interest in learning about what they're discussing. Take the challenge.

Listen carefully for a clue to piecing the puzzle together. It could be as obvious as an accent. "You must be from Boston." Interesting vocabulary. "That's one of my favorite words, and yet I never hear anyone using it." And then there is the subject you know about, or wish to learn more about.

Finally, albeit less tactfully, there is the agenda-ridden objective to seating two of you together, which makes it more than likely that one of you may end up the odd person out in the conversation. Especially when a sales pitch is involved.

The time to diffuse is when there is a lull in the conversation. Chime in -- ask a question -- preferably one that bridges a gap from what they've been talking about to a topic of interest to you. Once you try bridging and see how gracefully it can work, you'll bridge with ease.

Basically, conversational bridging is aiming for a topic and smoothly segueing into that topic -- away from the discussion at hand. An example might be: the discussion segued from business to business luncheons to food. Most of us enjoy talking about food, sharing food news and locations of hot new restaurants.

On my way to an event I usually think up one or two questions I want to ask other guests, usually for my own amusement, but it is also a way of bringing up subjects I wish to learn about.

As you guessed, it takes a certain amount of skill, concentration, and patience to get out of your own world and into that of your left and right seatmates. Being on top of the latest news at home and abroad is not only useful but de rigueur to know. There are websites such astheskimm.com that send daily email updates at no charge. The Skimm happens to be written by seasoned media news writers for women by women, so when getting cold feet before your next dinner party, skim the current daily news from The Skimm.

Then there is the obvious, finding out ahead of time who your host is seating you with and googling them. When that's not an option, before leaving in frustration and going home early, check out your seat mates' names on your cellphone in the restroom -- after memorizing their place card or name tag -- and go back to the table with fresh ideas.

I asked a great conversationalist what she would do in a situation such as yours and she said she would rudely interrupt them to say, "You two are having such a wonderful time talking, why don't I switch places with one of you?"  


Undocumented workers

Q. What is the polite way to refer to an undocumented worker? Someone who is living in this country illegally, because they don't have working papers.  B.D., Providence

A.  Whatever you do don't describe them as 'illegal immigrants.' Or illegal anything. 'Immigrants' is as passe as 'wetbacks.' The  kindest and therefore the most polite expression to use is 'undocumented workers.'  ~Didi

Do you have a dilemma about love, family and life in general for Didi? Go ahead and "Ask Didi." If your Question is used, we can withhold your name and/or location.


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