Sunday, November 10, 2013

When Things Go Terribly Wrong at a Lovely Dinner Party

I went to a lovely dinner party one evening some time ago where I was reminded that indeed there are times when we must muster up all of our best restraint and always take the high road. Whether hosting a dinner or attending as a guest there are certain rules one follows – hopefully. This evening drew my attention to two of the most basic of faux pas. I have always advised to not bring along uninvited guests. Imagine the turmoil created when suddenly a table, beautifully set for eight people, suddenly needs to be switched out for nine? As we all know a seated dinner party requires a lot of planning, as we want to make the evening special and memorable. Deciding where our guests will sit is part of this planning process, and to be forced to accommodate an unexpected guest is inconsiderate and also requires rejigging the seating plan, sometimes extensively. As far as I am concerned this is even more of an inconvenience and sign of disrespect than showing up carrying an arm full of unarranged flowers, expecting the host to be able to drop everything and arrange them in a suitable vase on the spot! Add to the situation that the new guest has a big personality and must be strategically seated so as not to overwhelm or irritate anyone, and it’s easy to see why this situation is very awkward. Make no mistake about it; the invited guest was at fault, not the surprise date. At least have the common courtesy to phone ahead and ask if it’s all right to bring a date.

The second potentially volatile episode occurred in between the main course and dessert. Half the people had gotten up for a bit of a stretch and the few of us who remained changed conversation partners. Before I knew it, I was being warned about the dubious quality of work performed by another person at the table who was well within earshot of these remarks. Needless to say, I was taken aback, to the point where I leaned over and in a whisper, asked him if he was talking about the person sitting next to me. He said he was. I suggested that perhaps we could talk about another subject. With a bit of a confused look, he acquiesced.

The point of sharing these two incidents is to illustrate a couple of important principles we need to keep more in the forefront our minds. In the first example, the principle of boundaries and respect is challenged. I don’t care how casually we think we live our lives, have respect for other people who may do things a bit more traditionally. This whole incident could have become an incendiary were it not for the seasoned host who showed true grace under fire. A good host always accommodates surprise guests whenever possible, even if it means stretching the food and wine.

The second situation illustrates the principle I discussed a couple of weeks a go in this column. It is one of Stephen Covey’s core principles, namely to speak about people who are absent as though they were present. In this case, the intention was obviously malicious because the person wasn’t absent. Displaying such behavior in someone else’s house is ill advised. It can be extremely embarrassing and damaging, as most gossip tends to be. Using alcohol as an excuse is over used and rather pathetic. There is never any good reason to wake up in the morning regretting something spoken the night before.

If we do find ourselves in a situation where an apology needs to be made, and some forgiveness needs to be shared, then so be it. Call or send a note and make a heartfelt apology. Express a lot of gratitude for the hospitality extended. Ask for forgiveness if necessary. Sincerity has a way of clearing the air and makes a smoother path for forgiveness to be extended. Some hosts can be most forgiving, especially those of us who have behaved badly in the past ourselves. As human beings we are going to behave regrettably upon occasion. We’re complicated and often ill equipped to gracefully handle some of life’s challenges. Compassion for us and for others is important to incorporate into our lives to help smooth some of the rough times.

This little party on balance was great fun. I use it only as an example of how our behavior can influence the lives of others both in good and in bad ways. It happens in our social lives, and it happens in our professional lives. Most importantly, these behaviors dominate our lives at home and of those with whom we live. If we want a kinder and gentler world, we need to begin by having a kinder and gentler community, and that begins at home.