Dessert Pressure…Etiquette Angst…Dinner-Party Disaster

Q: My girlfriend and I eat so often at a neighborhood restaurant in the Village that the chef-owner loves us, and the last six times we’ve been in he’s sent us obscenely elaborate desserts on the house—even though we protest that we’re dieting. How can we politely convey that his generosity is unwanted—without hurting his feelings and eroding the goodwill we’ve accrued?

A: Look, he’s a businessman, not your grandmother. Buck up! If a good friend attempted to foist fatty desserts on you, you’d be casually blunt and decline, right? You’d be like, “No, seriously, we can’t! We’ve sworn off carbs. What are you trying to do, make us fat?” No matter how rewarding it is to achieve favorite-customer status in New York (and no matter how much you don’t want to screw that up), he works for you! You’re entitled to not be bullied into eating something you don’t want to eat. Next time, look him in the eye with a smile and say, firmly, “We’re so flattered and we love your food, but we absolutely cannot accept dessert. We’ve got to stick to our diet.” If they still bring the dessert, sweetly decline it again. If they leave it on your table, just don’t eat it. And relax about hurting his feelings; so long as you keep coming in, he’ll be happy.

Q: I work at a white-shoe investment firm and am sometimes required to go to dinner with clients. However, I am not the most feminine woman and I admit I feel like a cow in a china shop. Do they still have finishing schools? You know, those places you can go to learn about salad and dinner forks, when to cross your legs, and whether diamonds can be worn at any time of day?

A: We certainly hope your firm isn’t white-shoe after Labor Day! Also, no diamonds before dusk, unless you are Madonna or Missy Elliott. Beyond that, as faux pas continue to exist, so do charm schools. You might try the aptly named The Right Fork (212-665-5081), which offers seminars on “personal skills for a professional world”; or the Judith Ré Académie (203-330-9199). But if you’ve already come this far as a cow in a bull market, you may be just fine. A bit of self-deprecating humor about your Iowa-farm upbringing will go a long way toward disarming the etiquette police.

Q: A friend and co-worker invited me, plus a guest, to a dinner party via group e-mail. I hit REPLY and immediately RSVPed for myself and my boyfriend. But when my co-worker sent around a follow-up e-mail, I actually paid attention to the other CCs and spotted the address of a guy with whom my co-worker once attempted to set me up. The guy and I had one date six months ago, before I met my boyfriend. I later heard that the guy was smitten with me and was profoundly disappointed that I weaseled out of a second date. Beyond the awkwardness of seeing him again, the idea that he would have to see me with my new boyfriend seems cruel. Should I cancel? Or am I being a baby? If I do cancel, do I owe my co-worker an explanation? And wasn’t it insensitive of him to invite me and my boyfriend and my would-be suitor?

A: Oh, give your co-worker the benefit of the doubt. Dinner parties can be nightmares to plan, and even the most conscientious host is likely to blip on certain interpersonal entanglements. (At a dinner party I recently helped throw, I almost seated a rock star and his girlfriend next to his ex. I had no idea! In fact, it proved quite difficult to seat anyone next to him with whom he hadn’t already slept.) Just tell your co-worker the truth and say you need to cancel. You’d be doing him a favor; no good host wants to make his guests squirm at the table. Of course, for all you know, your rejected suitor could be bringing a date himself, in which case you can un-cancel. Maybe the four of you will hit it off and end up having Pictionary nights at one another’s apartments! Or not.

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Dessert Pressure…Etiquette Angst…Dinner-Party [...]