Miss Manners: Guests’ expressions will tell you if you talk too much

December 1, 2013

DEAR MISS MANNERS: How can one know if she is talking too much or being talkative? I like to think I’m funny and engaging, that I tell a good story and am an entertaining guest and hostess.

However, at Thanksgiving dinner, my husband said I was carrying on a monologue. I thought I was aware enough of being long-winded to cut myself off, but perhaps the champagne (which wasn’t cut off) blurred my judgment.

Therefore, would you please advise me how to judge whether I’m entertaining people with my stories, or if I’m becoming a bore? A good tip on how to engage other guests would also be useful. Further, if you could include a kind way for my husband to let me know I’m going on too long, I would pass that on to him.

Have I gone on too long again?

GENTLE READER: No, Miss Manners is still giving you rapt attention. Face to face, you would be able to see the bright gaze she has fixed on you.

But there are indeed ways of gauging your listeners’ limits. Faces resting gently in plates are a good sign that you have gone on too long, as are downcast eyes, which nowadays probably indicate the presence of an electronic device under the napkin. In social settings, an appreciative audience usually makes encouraging noises and nods, so silence and immobility are also signs.

To re-engage people at that point, halt the story and offer others a turn by saying something vaguely relevant, such as, “Everyone must have these embarrassing moments,” or “And how did you spend your vacation?”

Unless you hear a chorus of “But wait, what happened to you then?” you may consider that you have yielded the floor, and that no one has noticed that your story wasn’t finished.

But even without this problem, every couple needs a Meaningful Look. Generally, it is a fixed, unblinking stare, accompanied by an upturning of the mouth intended to disguise its real meaning. And that can be anything from “You should probably wind this up” to “Didn’t you tell me that we were going to keep that a secret?” to “Please, can we go home now before I keel over?”

DEAR MISS MANNERS: What is an appropriate response when we invite good friends to our home for dinner, and they reverse the invitation and ask us to come to their home instead?

In some cases, it’s a holiday and they are expecting family and ask us to join them. That’s nice of them, but it’s quite awkward to say their grandchildren are insufferable and we’d rather spend the day in our own company. Obviously we can’t say that we are otherwise engaged, because we obviously aren’t!

In other cases, the invitation is reversed because our friends enjoy amenities we do not have, such as a hot tub. But since our invitation was extended as a gesture of reciprocity for many evenings already spent in their hot tub, we’d really prefer to host this time around.

I’m generally acknowledged as a pretty good cook and enjoy cooking immensely, so when the invitation is reversed, I also miss a pleasant day in the kitchen. Is there a gracious way to respond?

GENTLE READER: Declining counter-invitations should be easy, because people whom you invite need not know that you haven’t already invited other guests. But when you need to insist, Miss Manners suggests, “No fair. I asked you first.”

New Miss Manners columns are posted Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays on www.washingtonpost.com/advice. You can send questions to Miss Manners at her Web site, www.missmanners.com.

, by Judith Martin

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