The last time I visited grandmother’s house, I spent some time paging through a 1949 edition of Esquire’s “Handbook for Hosts,” which happened to be lying around. While dated in many ways, particularly in its fondness for canasta, it’s a fascinating look into the timeless elements of being a good and gracious host. The times and amusements have changed, but the essentials of hosting remain the same.
There are certain responsibilities beyond setting up the food and turning on the music. One of the underappreciated aspects of hosting a party is encouraging good conversation. I was amused to see that today’s complaints about the degraded state of conversation are echoed in that old handbook. Whereas today the lament centers on cell phones, 65 years ago the culprits were a bit different. According to one Mortimer J. Adler: “People still gather socially, but more and more they turn to the radio or bridge; and if they talk they tend to either talk about trivial things or, if they begin talking about serious matters, they tend to get into bitter and fruitless disputes.”
Well, that sounds familiar.
The good news is that many of the rules for good conversation that applied then still apply today. The bad news is that, if you are playing host, the duty falls to you to guide the conversation and ensure that all participants enjoy themselves, which does not mean avoiding dispute. It simply means channeling disputes so that they are productive, rather than mood-killers. This is sometimes difficult to do when the alcohol’s flowing.
Four Ways to Foster Good Party Conversations
While cell phones are a problem all their own, there are several conversational pitfalls beyond the lure of staring into a pocket computer. Luckily, there are some principles one can fall back on to avoid letting party chatter drag. If you will allow me to paraphrase some of the valuable advice I found in that book:
- You must endeavor mightily that no guest is excluded from conversation. This necessitates a certain amount of conversational skill yourself. Create an opening for quieter participants, or for those who do not have an intimate familiarity with the subject at hand or the players. Give attention to the backgrounds of your various guests and try to nudge the conversation their way, if need be.
- A certain amount of shoptalk is inevitable in these situations, but it can quickly meander away from a source of intriguing insider factoids to a tedious, inscrutable lecture. When you see this happening (look for their eyes to glaze over or flit nervously around the room), put a stop to it and get the discussion back on course by steering it in a more general direction.
- Don’t allow the conversation to embarrass anyone, whether through offensive language or by laying bare their regrettable ignorance. They should have the good sense not to wade too deeply into a topic they know little about, but don’t let someone hold their head underwater.
- Should an argument arise, play peacemaker. Don’t simply short-circuit a dispute, as they can be wonderfully interesting when kept on track. Keep tempers in check. Act as referee. You will know when the matter is exhausted, as the combatants will begin simply restating their position instead of proffering new information.
If your party is large enough to have multiple clusters of conversation, you should take a page from our first president and avoid entanglements. Don’t linger with any one group of people too long. Your presence may be required elsewhere, whether to revive a flagging topic or rescue some poor cornered creature from a speechifying drunk. When the last guest has left, your hosting duties are fulfilled and you can relax. Perhaps with one of these?
Try a Golden Lillet Martini
I found the Golden Lillet Martini in Mittie Hellmich’s “Ultimate Bar Book.” It’s not actually a martini, I know, but let’s not be too dogmatic here. As a fan of Lillet blanc, I was eager to try it with a spirit aside from my customary gin. As it happens, Haitian rum is a very fine alternative. Made with sugarcane juice instead of molasses, Haitian rum is double distilled and aged in oak casks, which gives it a smooth, almost buttery flavor. It goes together marvelously with the citrus and honey flavors of Lillet blanc. To prepare, you’ll need:
- 2 ounces Rhum Barbancourt
- 1 1/2 ounces Lillet blanc
- 1/2 ounce limoncello
- lemon twist for garnish
Add the liquid ingredients to a shaker with ice, and shake until very cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Give the lemon peel a twist, and drop it into the drink. Take a moment to breathe in the aroma of the rum and Lillet together. There’s a lemon-freshness from the limoncello, but the warmth of the rum and the floral notes of the Lillet are quite distinct. The sip is smooth and sweet. Again you pick up honey, along with the added sweetness of the sugarcane. The lemon cuts through it all for balance. I considered backing off the limoncello a bit, perhaps taking it down to 1/4 ounce, as it can be somewhat difficult to get past. Stick with it, though, and the cocktail seems to mellow—as will you, now that the last of your guests has left and you can put your feet up in a bit of blessed silence.