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A Graceful Exit 

When to leave a dinner party, and how to tell your neighbors they're jerks

Wednesday, Sep 15 2004
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Dear Social Grace,

I was invited to a dinner party. The hosts, an elderly man and his wife, invited me and two of my friends. The man and I get along very well, but really the hosts are my friends' friends. We stayed too long after dinner, but I felt that it was not my place to make the announcement that I/we should be leaving. The only female guest put her napkin on the table, an obvious sign that she was ready to go. (She later tells me that it is polite to wind up the conversation within 15 minutes and then leave.) I waited for someone to say they were going or to just get up, but nothing happened. Well, we wound up staying for quite a bit longer, and the female guest later said that we didn't leave in a timely manner because I "opened up" another conversation. Maybe I did. So, from this description, what would have been the best way to leave and who should have made "the move"?

Thanks,
Via the Internet

Dear Lingering Sir,

I've never heard it proposed that a polite person should leave a dinner party within 15 minutes of finishing his meal -- and I find this a rather distressing notion. We call it a dinner party, not "a speedy intake of nourishment." What about brandy and bridge? Sherry and charades? Port and persiflage? Some sort of postprandial beverage and entertainment? What about hating to "eat and run"?

And let's clarify another point: A guest lays his napkin on the table only after his hostess has done so; this is how she signals that dinner is over. A few minutes later, the hostess can either stand and invite people into another room for the rest of the evening's entertainment, or she can set about preparing the table for the next stage (even if the next stage is simply more conversation around the table), at least by clearing some plates. She should generally be the first to stand from the table. (There was a time when ladies and gentlemen would separate for 30 minutes or so after dinner, but most modern people will encounter this practice only in Edith Wharton novels or film adaptations thereof.)

Now, there really is no set time period that a guest must stay at a dinner party. A good guest stays "just long enough," and I'm sorry there's no more exact way to state it -- circumstances can vary widely. So you shouldn't leave until a decent amount of time has passed (for instance, until a satisfying conversation has been enjoyed). And you must keep an eye on your hosts, watching for signals that they seem ready to wrap things up (they may, for instance, serve coffee, initiate a discussion about "doing this again sometime," or begin telling guests how much they have enjoyed the evening). In the past, a guest of honor had to leave a dinner party before anyone else properly could; nowadays, any guest can initiate a simple leave-taking with some sort of expression of gratitude: "Thank you for a wonderful evening." If one member of a group that's traveling together is much closer to the hosts than anyone else, he might take the lead.

Dear Social Grace,

I was hoping to find advice on how to handle the situation of neighbors who warehouse their unsupervised and untrained dogs in backyard pens. The dogs may bark, for hours at a time, at a volume loud enough to be heard inside my house with windows closed. The barking (usually of short duration, although it may last for hours in response to a stimulus such as thunder or unfamiliar people in an adjoining yard) is loud enough to cause a "startle" reaction; and, at night, to waken us despite our wearing earplugs. The owners are often, but not always, home during barking episodes. They merely ignore the dogs. At times, we feel that our home has been moved to "Barking Dog Hell." We have spoken to the owners, politely requesting that they do something to control their dogs' barking, with no results.

Although to us this situation truly infringes on our right to quiet enjoyment of our home and garden, perhaps others consider it merely annoying. There is no risk of direct physical harm, since the dogs are not running loose. But, indirectly, my health is being adversely affected due to repeated stress responses and reduced ability to sleep at night. Based on the number of other ways one set of dog owners is showing disrespect for their neighbors, we question whether getting the authorities involved would solve anything or merely make them angry.

In your opinion, is my expectation to not be disturbed by either long-term or repeated but short-duration loud barking reasonable? We have lived in this neighborhood (which includes many families with dogs) for more than 20 years, and this problem started only 1 1/2 years ago. Otherwise, we have a generally great group of neighbors.

Thank you,
Karen

Dear Karen,

Your fundamental question is one that a polite person must constantly ask herself: Am I facing a real problem (that needs to be addressed somehow) or a mere annoyance (that I must somehow bear)?

It sounds as though the problem in your neighborhood is real enough. The world can be a noisy place, sure, and in order to enjoy the pleasures of living among other people, we have to put up with the noise those people (and their pets) occasionally make. That's one part of being a good neighbor. But another part is doing one's best to maintain a reasonable level of quiet, and it doesn't sound as though your neighbors are holding up that end of the good-neighbor bargain. (I'll add that they don't seem to be conscientious pet owners, either: An incessantly barking dog is usually an unhappy, neglected dog.) When a new neighbor's behavior is adversely affecting your health, it is, I'd say, time to act.

My next step might be to ask other neighbors whether they, too, are disturbed by the barking. (If no one else is, you may want to revisit your dilemma's fundamental question.) Perhaps you could then discuss the issue with the dog owners as a group of concerned neighbors -- several people on the pooch possessors' front porch may demonstrate the gravity of the problem more effectively than one can.

If that doesn't work, you can call the authorities (your local SPCA should have information on whom to contact). Your neighbors are bullying you, and bullies are best dealt with by the law. (If this seems like a step too far, then once again you may need to reconsider that fundamental question.) Yes, you'll probably make them angry, but unless you take this logical action, they'll have won. The bullies can't be allowed to win every time.

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