DEAR MISS MANNERS: You (and others before) have made it clear on how to politely conduct a dinner-table conversation at a party: The rule is to first speak with the person on your left, followed by the person on your right.
But of course, if I speak to “Mr. Left,” and he, too, is speaking with HIS left partner (not me), and so on -- how does this work? Likewise, when I speak to “Miss Right,” she must necessarily ignore me if she is speaking with HER “Miss Right.” I find this does not work very well at all, due to so many swiveling heads, and it’s quite difficult to carry on two different conversations at once!
GENTLE READER: You are quite right. And the thought of everyone whipping around in the same direction, only to be confronted with the backs of heads, is likely to cause not only silence, but whiplash.
The fault, Miss Manners realizes, is in the laudable modern tendency to remove gender as an automatic factor in the interest of fairness. For example, we etiquetteers now instruct people to hold doors open for one another, not just gentlemen for ladies.
But sometimes that is overzealous. In this case, it should have been specified that the traditional rule is that the hostess turns to the person on her right, and the other ladies at the table do the same.
But what (you may ask) if it is a host who is presiding? And if the guests are not distributed around the table in alternating genders? And what if there are other gender factors involved?
You see the problem. So let us restate the rule:
The person giving the dinner turns right, whereupon alternating guests should do the same. Does that help?