That contemporary phenomenon, the commercially-sponsored academic survey, can normally be relied on to reiterate whatever the received idea of the moment happens to be. It might be the general hopelessness of men, or the death of childhood innocence, or the frightfulness of modern Britain. This week, though, an unpromising little study, commissioned by a wine company from a social behaviour unit at Sussex University, has stumbled upon an interesting development in our social life.
The traditional dinner party is on its way out, apparently. Modern-minded folk opt for evenings with a “relaxed dress code”, where the food is “ethically sourced and home-made”, and people can help themselves at the table. There has been “a shift from passive guests to active guests” (didn’t you hate those passive guests?) while parties at which guests are expected to cook a course are becoming more popular. The traditional host is out, replaced by a “a dinner-party facilitator”.
It all sounds like good news. Dinner parties have become associated with tedious formality, small talk, social climbing and pretentiousness. The image is of a grim occasion, at which every minute spent listening to braying conversation about property prices, or how brilliantly the kids are doing, can feel like an hour.
The truth is a little more complicated. With the decline of the semi-formal dinner party, a strong element of social slobbishness is at work – a reluctance to make the effort to move outside one’s own domestic comfort zone. Dinner parties are like football matches or West End plays: it is worth sitting through the grim ones in order to experience a real cracker. At their best, they bring together a group of people, only some of whom are close friends, to produce a social and conversational mix which can be startling and unexpected.
If dinner parties have become dull or difficult, it is because that basic ingredient of good conversation, an interest in other people, is being eroded by the tide of self-obsession.
Today, almost everyone is in marketing, and the product pushed is the self. One result of lives and careers being led through the screen of a computer is that talking about oneself has become the predominant form of communication. Those absurd FaceBook and MySpace questions – “What are you doing right now?” “What’s on your mind?” What’s your mood at the moment?” – have made self-absorption not just respectable, but almost obligatory. Those “passive guests” mentioned in the survey are, one suspects, are those who prefer not to talk about themselves.
Add to this lack of curiosity a new nervousness about causing offence and a general uneasiness about the correct manners to be used on semi-formal occasions, and soon the reason for the decline of the dinner party becomes plain. We are becoming insular, preferring to stay within our own little cells and social circles. The food may or may not be getting better, but the conversation is likely to be more predictable.
These are not small things. In an evolved society, the social and intellectual mix of people who may surprise and outrage one another over a meal is important. The facilitated modern dinner party so admired by the survey sounds suspiciously like an excuse for social laziness.
The dinner party needs to be re-branded, liberated from clichés involving Penelope Keith and Abigail’s Party. It is part of civilised social life, a stay against the gradual slide into easy domestic torpor.