DEAR MISS MANNERS: Please advise on how to converse in three (or more!) COVID “pods.” One couple is seated in each pod -- socially distanced, masked and alfresco -- but with no chance to circulate, except by changing seats with the other in the same pod.
As a host, I find that three separate conversations can take place simultaneously within three pods, and as guests must speak loudly to make up for the distance, the resulting sound levels, confusion, cross-talk and distractions are stressful and not enjoyable. I prefer that one person per pod speak at a time, with all others remaining silent, and the “baton” move from pod to pod as conversation flows.
When hosting, I encourage guests to speak and I remain silent while they are speaking. When a guest, I yield to the hosts and to other guests.
Needless to say, my wife disagrees and feels that guests should not be “controlled,” including by good example, if that penetrates their general obliviousness. She feels the noise level is a metric of sorts for the “success” of the event, and that I yield too readily to others.
Perhaps conversations at circular dining tables provide some lessons.
GENTLE READER: Hospitable people often have the mistaken idea that it would be an affront to offer guests any guidance.
Nonsense. Look at the way they hang bashfully around a private buffet table (there are no such inhibitions about a commercial one) until the host has to keep repeating, “Please go ahead” and handing the nearest guest a plate. Or if there is no seating plan, the way they stick to their own spouses, as if parties were a good time to discuss their problems with their computers or their children.
It is only when a social routine is well known to all participants that instruction does not seem necessary. (But Miss Manners has been kept busy with complaints about those who break the rules -- such as hosts who are vague about time and degree of formality, and guests who don’t give, or keep, definitive commitments.)
However, the socially distanced dinner party is a new form, in need of some order. It does bear resemblance to the round dinner table, where there is generally one conversation, but without the occasional opportunity for soft, side-by-side talk. And while a party of eight would be fine if seated together, more than six now would require a lot of acreage and handheld microphones.
It is not impolite to suggest that keeping to one conversation will make this work, and to ask if anyone would care to begin, or, for that matter, if one of the guests would like to lead it. If not, the hosts should be prepared with some opening lines. And along the way, they will have to keep reasonable order, with such prodding as, “I think Jenna wants to say something about that,” “But what do you think, Adam?” and “Just a second, Andy; I don’t think Chris is finished.”
Gentle guidance will save you from an unpleasantly chaotic evening punctuated by shouts of “What?”