The Guest Requirements

A recent conversation with a Parisian grande dame was enlightening.

She frequently hosts Parisian soirees that include a train-wreck of guests from all walks of life. The list of attendees runs from the owner of the local tabac who has had two books of poetry published to the odd French government minister with an artist and a fashion designer thrown in for good measure. One party allegedly included a prominent fugitive from justice, who was not going to let a misunderstanding with the law interfere with enjoying an evening of sparkling champagne and just as bubbly conversation.

I have come to learn that my French is insufficient to warrant inclusion on the guest list, and I’m fine with that. It motivates me to learn more, faster. Over coffee at a cafe in the 1st arrondissement, I did inquire about what she looks for in a good party guest.

For a woman who so often is projects an attitude of slight boredom with much of what goes on in the world (she’s seen a lot, apparently, and has an uncanny knack of knowing how things are going to turn out in the end), she had a particularly strong and definitive set of preferences.

She liked people who were elegant. Not only in the way they dressed, but in the way they thought and spoke. For elegance required a certain amount of consideration, of thought, and of refinement, which she defined as taste without effort.

She required her guests to be educated. This could include the academically accomplished or the street wise. Awareness was a key ingredient here. The absence of dogma was essential. Opinionated was fine. Absolute certainty was amusing, but not for long. Being well read was a given.

Her final requirement was the very French concept of ‘egalite’: equality. She explained this as placing equal value to each human life and the value of each opinion within a society. Condescension is, I have come to understand, her prerogative alone. She practices it regularly and usually with good cause, but won’t tolerate it in her guests. This is very contradictory, very French, and very amusing.

As I made mental notes of these requirements, I wanted to confirm that she had presented these in reverse order, with the concept of equality coming first, education second, and elegance third.

‘Oh, no,’ she replied. ‘In just to order I told you.’

Mais oui, mademoiselle. Mon erreur.

  • BGT

12 thoughts on “The Guest Requirements

  1. The description of this particular conversation sounds priceless and provides considerable food for thought. Your acquaintance’s system for determining dinner or party guests makes some sense. My own experience over the years suggests that, at least here in Middle America, few give much thought at all to a guest list when planning a gathering. Other than to invite anyone and everyone they might know with little thought as to how different people will mix. Or not as the case may be.

    I’ve largely given up on accepting invitations to dinners and parties, much to my wife’s chagrin and annoyance, because so many in the academic sphere, while they can hold forth ad nauseam about their narrow subject, are more challenged when it comes to general (and, frankly, more interesting) chit-chat. In a word, it is excruciating and sometimes difficult to avoid or escape once these types attach themselves to you early in the evening.

    My wife has posited that this degree of social awkwardness stems from the fact that so many now orbiting within, through, and around academia self-selected into it because they were more comfortable sitting in an isolated archive somewhere writing dissertations (and later articles) than they were seated around a dinner table in the company of others while enjoying a delightfully prepared meal that transcends mere sustenance. It’s possible.

    In any case, the default topics of conversation these days often seem to be either children, pets, or the weather. Really. Genuinely interesting, engaging, and entertaining conversation — while I am sure it exists somewhere — is a rarity regardless of the social situation. When you encounter it, interesting conversation shines like a beacon in the night. And let’s not even broach the issue of elegance in appearance, thought, taste, or speech.

    You’ll pardon my frustrated state of deep-seated social ennui I hope. It was very different outside of Philadelphia where I spent my formative years and young adulthood although I failed to recognize it at the time. It’s that dirty word ‘privilege’ I suppose.

    Best Regards,

    Heinz-Ulrich von. B.

    1. I sometimes share your despair, but one has to carry one. There’s an engaging and engaged mind, just around the corner. We must believe that. Thanks, HUvB. – BGT

  2. “This world is so hard and so stony;
    That if a man is to get through,
    He need have the courage of Nelson,
    And plenty of Job’s patience too.”

  3. It seems many aren’t aware of the work that goes into being a good conversationalist and dinner guest.

    Defaulting to family, work, TV shows, the news and the weather is easier than reading, understanding and forming an educated and interesting opinion about well written work.
    Oh, and involving your listeners with sincere, interesting questions. (Otherwise it’s a monologue or lecture)

    That takes critical thinking skills, and let’s face it, that’s not generally taught, and it takes years of practice.

    It’s called the art of conversation for a reason!

  4. There’s an expression among women, for other women who are more elegant than cultured: “Sois belle et tais-toi” (be pretty and shut up). Not sure whether the grande dame is more likely to be the user or recipient of such words.

    1. Classic! And so French. Not so sure if la grande dame would ever speak like that, but, then again, I have heard her grumble about her family’s younger generation. Thanks, JL. – BGT

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