On Being a Good Dinner Guest
In his great essay on the subject, CS Lewis writes that the essence of chivalry, the fundamental difference making it “an ideal distinct from other ideals,” is best captured in the eulogy for Sir Lancelot from Malory’s Morte d’Arthur:
“And thou were the most courteous knight that ever bare shield. And thou were the kindest man that ever struck with sword. And thou were the goodliest person that ever came among press of knights. And thou were the meekest man and the gentlest that ever ate in hall among ladies. And thou were the stearnest knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest.”
The chivalrous man, according to Lewis, is defined by this “double demand” placed upon him by his code: that he be both 1) physically ferocious, a formidable opponent on the battlefield, and also 2) gentle and courteous, a fine guest at the dinner table. I want to focus this week’s letter on the second part of the double demand—the chivalrous man as a guest at dinner.
The dinner table is the school of civilization, of manners, of conversation, and the custom of preparing a table and dining rather than merely feeding expresses one of the most essential differences between our species and all others. As such, an invitation to such a supremely human interaction is the perfect opportunity for a young man to put his gentlemanly courtesy to work—aiming both to do well by his hosts and to distinguish himself.
Here are a few thoughts on how to be the kind of guest whose hosts will be eager to have him over again.
Dress sharp. This doesn’t require formal wear, but something proper to convey that a man appreciates the invitation into his host’s home and respects his host enough to not show up looking like a chump. The variables of company, region, season make it difficult to be overly specific with this advice, but where I’m from some kind of collared shirt and non-denim pants, at the very least, send a good message.
Bring something. This gesture shows a gentleman’s eagerness to contribute. Even if the host instructs him not to bring anything—some will even insist—a gentleman takes care to avoid showing up empty-handed. Flowers used to be a go-to, though they are perhaps overkill today. A man who’s adept in the kitchen might want to showcase his skills by bringing a dish or dessert he’s prepared. The easiest, safest, and surest bet is a decent bottle of wine.
Bring good energy. The guest’s duty to contribute extends beyond a bottle of wine. With the host going to good trouble to prepare a meal—a not insignificant investment of time, effort, and money—a courteous guest also takes it upon himself to contribute to the conversation so as to make the evening more enjoyable and varied than it would have been without his presence. This is the his main purpose. Of course charm and good anecdotes go a long way to making a good conversationalist, but a man’s attentiveness, good cheer, interest in what others have to say make his presence more memorable than scintillating takes on the issues of the day. In case it wasn’t clear, this requires first and foremost that he put his phone away during the meal. Do not—I repeat, do not put your phone on the table during dinner.
Mind manners. This follows from the requirement above. Though we live in the most informal age, it’s still the gentleman’s job to pay attention to his conduct at dinner, being careful to draw no bad attention to himself—only the good kind. Manner are not idle formalities, but the outward show of thoughtfulness and quality. Here are a few things to think about:
Do not be the first to sit down to the table and dig in. Wait for cues from the host for that.
Upon sitting, the first thing to do is place the napkin in your lap.
Don’t place your used utensils directly on the table or even on the placemat, but on your plate instead.
Try to avoid putting lip-smudges all over your drinking glass. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, of course, but it is a small matter in which a thoughtful man can distinguish himself. A dab of the napkin to the lips before taking a sip is a good idea.
Find a way to compliment the host/meal/cook. As I’ve noted previously, a kind word goes a long way, and the failure to muster a few complimentary words at dinner is an occasion for awkwardness. The failure to say something says something. This doesn’t require that a man lie; at the very least, he can and should note the host’s kindness in having him over and his gratitude for the meal.
Eat heartily. Opinions might differ on this one. Victorian-era etiquette guides tend to recommend absolutely moderate consumption, and not without reason. But in my experience a chef almost always appreciates a man who eats heartily, within reason of course. Obviously, we must refrain from being savages about it and eat at a dignified pace—but nevertheless a man’s enjoyment of his meal is a good way to compliment the host.1
Make a graceful exit. A gentleman should cultivate this skill of never overstaying his welcome. Never an exact science, the graceful exit is more a matter of paying attention to the tone and energy of the evening and anticipating the proper moment for calling it a night. Such an exit shows thoughtfulness, grace, and maybe most importantly decisiveness. You are your own man, and you know better than to force the awkwardness upon your hosts of having to throw hints your way that it’s time to go. That said, dining and dashing can be just as bad as overstaying one’s welcome. Certain etiquette gurus say it’s proper to stay at least an hour after dinner. Again, situations vary. It’s the gentleman’s job to read the occasion.
Send a thank you. Opinions will vary on the best way of doing this in such an informal age. A handwritten note is obviously classy, and more gentleman should take to this habit. Others will say that an email or a text will suffice. Either way, the gentleman must make some gesture of gratitude for the invitation—it is the least he can do.
Which leads to an important principle of being a good guest, which probably wouldn’t have been an issue in previous decades. Before accepting the invitation the gentleman must clarify any matters of diet that could be a concern. A thoughtful host will usually ask, too. Either way, once he goes over there, it’s too late to tell the host that you don’t eat anything that contains or has touched canola oil or soy; it’s too late to do anything but eat; the failure to do so is a failure of courtesy.
This can be tricky in an age of Fake Food, when Globalist Food Corp seems hellbent on putting industrial engine lubricants and other noxious compounds into as many items in the grocery store as possible. Rather than being a prima donna in explaining his dietary restrictions to people who might not get it, a gentleman might find it prudent to beg off or decline an invitation—politely of course—if he anticipates a real divide between his habits of consumption and those of his potential hosts. He will do so with a sense of sadness, of course, mourning the ability of nasty corporations to put distance between people who would share a meal.