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Miss Manners: Jump right in during free-for-all holiday conversation

DEAR MISS MANNERS: What is proper holiday dinner conversation when the age ranges and marital statuses are mixed?

I am a single aunt who is outgoing, not introverted at all, but when I go to my sister’s house for a holiday dinner, I feel excluded from the table conversation, as does my widowed mother. It’s all about the kids — and the kids are loud. When I try to introduce a topic, it doesn’t stick. It always seems that family units are just not interested in anyone but themselves and their lives.

What is proper, and what can I do besides not attending? All my single friends have similar experiences.

GENTLE READER: You could probably get a football conversation going among those slumped around the television set. And if you helped dish up in the kitchen, you could get an earful about those who aren’t helping.

And don’t tell Miss Manners that there isn’t a rousing conversation at the table about what foods are evil, and how stuffed everyone feels.

Under other circumstances, it may be possible to talk with some of these people about books or the economy or the meaning of life, but not at a family holiday dinner. That’s when families bond through announcements, questions and observation.

You should be grateful that the children are rambunctious. It at least distracts the adults from demanding to know why you are single.

What you and your mother should be doing is quietly asking less offensive questions of individuals, just to show an interest in how they are getting along. It would be especially nice to do so of any child who happens to be left out of the play.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: My wife and I have been disagreeing on something for a number of years. Your response will not change anything but should clear things up.

When we visit friends or family, my wife says that we are their guests, so we should pay for dinners when we dine out. However, when those same people visit us, she then says that we are the hosts; therefore, we should pay for the restaurant meals.

We end up paying both ways. Is there a protocol for who pays and when?

GENTLE READER: If Miss Manners’s reply will not change anything, and you and your wife will continue to disagree for decades yet to come, why do you ask?

But perhaps she can enable you to move on to more challenging pastimes by declaring that you are both right. Or would that make it worse?

Your wife is right that the host pays. And you are right that paying should more or less even out. The disconnect comes from your agreed-upon, but wrong, definition of the host.

It is not the person who is host to the houseguests, but the person who has issued the dinner invitation. Houseguests often ask their hosts out to dinner, in which case they pay. But if the hosts announce that dinner tonight is at Le Bistro, they should pay, or at least put forth a mild argument if the guests belatedly realize that they should have invited their hosts out.

New Miss Manners columns are posted Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays on You can send questions to Miss Manners at her Web site,

, by Judith Martin



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