Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Ritual of the Dinner Party

Arrivals:      Kisses, handshakes, the discarding of coats and purses.
Before:         Drinks, snacks, getting to know the other guests, activity in the kitchen. The host(s) moving about while the guests sit together or kibitz in the kitchen.
During:       The table, candlelight, food, drink, conversation.
After:           Coffee, tea, dessert, more talk.
Departures: Kisses, handshakes, the gathering of coats and purses.

The phases of this ritual are designed to prolong contact over several hours. The dinner party accomplishes the simple function of bringing people together around food, but the different stages of the evening also provide natural breaks—points at which diners can change conversational partners or adopt different roles: helping in the kitchen, bringing things to the table, clearing, or jumping into someone else’s conversation to provide the missing details of a story. The familiarity of the ritual provides a comfortable foundation for various forms of risk-taking: the outrageous statement; the risque joke; the concerned but probing question; the tenderly offered confession. The dinner party is neither trivial—as in the case of the cocktail party, where encounters are brief and conversation is often superficial—nor ponderous. The different phases of the evening and the varying roles adopted by the participants keep the evening going.

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