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Navigating political debate at a dinner party

Correct dinner party conversation etiquette

This week etiquette expert, Jill Kryston answers a reader’s question on how to handle uncomfortable political debate at a dinner party.

Social events are meant to be fun and uplifting but when you mix the atmosphere with hot topics it can often cause us great discomfort. A lady should know how to handle this minefield, so here are Jill’s tips on how to be gracious, dignified and ladylike in the face of such an awkward situation, and bring about some lightheartedness and social relief for everyone.

Dear Jill,

I have been asked to a dinner party where many people also invited like to debate politics. How can I handle myself with elegance and grace without getting too upset?

With all the global fighting over presidents and exit strategies at the moment I almost want to say I cannot make it. What is a lady to do in a situation like this? One that you are forced to endure for a few hours over several plates of food and glasses of wine with nowhere to escape but the bathroom? Any tips?

Many thanks

How to deal with awkward conversations

How to deal with awkward conversations at a dinner party

Dear Laura,

What a great question. The current climate of hotly debated political differences, that can turn vitriolic on a dime, can cause anyone to want to run for the hills!

While politics is one of the big etiquette no-no in polite conversation, there are times when we don’t have much control over situations and we are forced to navigate minefields. I recommend approaching the evening with an open mind, being aware that conversation about politics is vital to democracy as long as everyone remains respectful.

Perhaps politics doesn’t interest you, but a little pre-event preparation will go a long way in helping you to feel more comfortable. Read up to gather a few facts in case you must say something relevant. However, the least confrontational position is one of curiosity; ask questions of your friends. If you confess that you don’t have an opinion or haven’t made-up your mind, at least you can listen and learn.

Positive body language is a huge consideration when you’re feeling ill at ease. Don’t let your facial expressions betray the anxiety you’re feeling on the inside. A lady knows how to make others feel comfortable in her presence no matter what her thoughts. She smiles, is cheerful, and uses an upbeat voice rather than rolling her eyes and smirking in disagreement. On the other hand, she can use her body language to convey disinterest by averting her gaze.

Many people will resort to multiple glasses of wine thinking it will help them stay composed, but quite the opposite happens. Alcohol inhibits the very mechanisms in our brain that allows us to remain calm; instead of buffering, it magnifies a situation. That can produce some of the most unladylike behaviours!

At the point when a controversial topic arises, the best thing is to change the subject. Often that can be done with a bit of humour, “Ah, come on! I’ve come to enjoy myself - can’t we talk about…?” Or divert the conversation with, “So tell me, what’s new in your life - what’s going well?” The distraction should be a topic that grabs everyone’s attention, “Let me tell you what’s happening in my life!” and begin to tell a story. Of course, if all else fails, excuse yourself to the restroom to take a break!

Warm regards,
Jill Kryston

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