DEAR MISS MANNERS: My wife and I invited longtime neighbors to an informal dinner party, called for 6:30 p.m. The evening progressed nicely until after 10 p.m., when my wife was washing dishes in the kitchen and the guests were all seated in the dining room.
Finally at 11 p.m., well after the table had been cleared, one of the guests decided to excuse himself for the evening, and the balance of the group decided to call it a night. Is there any protocol that you would suggest for politely ending such a gathering at a time convenient for the hosts?
GENTLE READER: Guests who do not take the hostess's washing the dishes as a blatant indication that she has had enough of their company are as unsubtle as she.
Moving guests away from the table after dinner -- for coffee in the living room -- should plant the idea that the evening is approaching its end by giving them a passing view of the exit. If not, it is an enjoyable progression in its own right.
It is also a good idea to ensure that one of the guests is a close friend who can be relied upon to stand up, stretch, and say what a lovely time it was, but it's late and time to go. Too many people are (unnecessarily) embarrassed to leave first. In extremis, Miss Manners has known hosts to plead an outside commitment -- accompanied by profuse apologies -- although this may require some creativity at 11 o'clock at night.