Business talk can take the fun out of dinner parties and conversations

By Sally Quinn
Thursday, January 14, 2010

Many years ago I was at a dinner party at the home of one of the fabled Georgetown hostesses, Oatsie Charles. It was a very formal and glamorous affair. In those days five courses and accompanying wine were de rigueur. Turtle soup with sherry. A fish course with white wine. The main course with red wine. The salad and cheese course with port, and dessert with champagne. And of course liqueurs and demitasse were served in the drawing room after dinner. That's a long time to make conversation with your dinner partners. It was particularly long because my two dinner partners (one of whom was not from Washington) spent the entire evening talking business to each other as if I didn't exist. I mean "business." Like stocks and bonds and mergers and acquisitions. This was not exactly my specialty.

Every time I tried to change the subject or ask a question, they simply dismissed me. By the end of the meal, I was catatonic with boredom. And probably a little tight since there was nothing to do but drink.

After dinner I was standing with a group when the out-of-towner came rushing over to me. "I just learned that you are Sally Quinn," he gushed. "I would love to talk to you."

"It's too late, Buster," I replied.

I tell you this story because a friend of mine suggested last week that I should write about how much business talk is too much business talk at a dinner party.

Washington is a company town and conversation invariably ends up being about government, politics or journalism. Invariably, too, there are always those who are not involved in those fields and have only a passing interest in or knowledge about them. Most people watch or read the news, so the story of the day is a safe bet. But it will take you only so far.

It's really tricky, particularly as a hostess, to try to bring everyone into a conversation, especially if you have guests who are in the same field and really want to have a serious conversation about their work. I'll tell you what's a real killer: scientists. The only way you can handle them is to keep them away from each other at the table or get them to talk to the whole table about what they are working on. And then change the subject.

I try to put people together who will have something in common. That always makes them feel comfortable, and they have much better conversations. But I also try to mix it up a little by having someone on their other side who might be out of their comfort zone but may have new insights.

The other night I hosted a dinner and I seated a novelist, a national-security expert, a member of the D.C. government, a yoga teacher and a theater director all on one side of the table. After some business talk, I brought up music and we ended up talking about Johnny Mathis. Two of the younger people had never heard of him. The older ones remember him as the one singer you couldn't have a romance without -- in other words this was the greatest make-out music ever -- and then someone burst into song with "Chances Are," one of his greatest hits.

At a dinner I went to last summer, we started talking about religious music, and everyone starting singing their favorite hymns or chants. No, you don't have to be able to sing to attend Washington parties. God gave me such a terrible voice that I was exempt from mandatory glee club.

The essential thing for a host or a guest in terms of conversation is to take into consideration those around you. This is about kindness and respect. It is simply rude to deliberately talk about things that you know others around you won't understand or be able to participate in. Everyone wants to leave a party feeling happy, appreciated and smart. Guests don't feel smart if they are left out of the conversation. I try to honor all my guests by asking them about themselves and by showcasing them. I want everyone to shine.

I had a dinner once where the conversation came around to movies, and the secretary of the Treasury, who clearly hadn't seen one in years, didn't know who Tom Hanks was. He actually got really embarrassed when everyone started hooting at him for being so out of it. I quickly asked him what kind of impact the movie industry had on our economy, and he immediately relaxed and was really thoughtful and interesting on the subject. Nobody knows about everything.

I'm not talking here about business conferences where everyone is in the same field and will be discussing the same issues. I'm talking about everyday entertaining with people from different fields, backgrounds and interests. The rule here is that you must put yourself in the other person's position. How would you feel if others around you were talking about something you didn't know or understand? You'd be bored or angry or feel inadequate. The bottom line is that it is just plain rude to carry on a conversation in front of someone who you know will feel left out. If you have something important to say to someone, get their contact information and continue the conversation the next day.

Changing the subject, though, can occasionally get you into trouble. I once went to a dinner party at the British Embassy. I was seated between the ambassador and Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), who was on the Armed Services Committee. They spent the entire evening talking over me about some arcane issue in a bill that was coming up for a vote. It was so tedious that I finally decided to lob a grenade into the conversation.

"Do you think you would know if someone really famous and powerful in Washington was having an affair?" I asked blithely. Dead silence.

I didn't find out till later that the ambassador's wife was having an affair at the time, and so was Hart. That was definitely a conversation ender. Back to business.

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