The dull questions you should never ask at dinner parties

‘As far as I can judge, name cards are for champions of social pole-vaulting or failed networkers’
Image of David Tang

A reader has asked if I am a deipnophobic. I am not. But I fast become one when crashing bores sandwich me at dinner. We are so often asked the same old mundane questions from strangers: “So what do you do?”, or “Where do you live?”, or equally tedious “Do you have any children?” Can you imagine springing these idiotically lazy questions on Albert Einstein or Charlie Chaplin, who once dined together in Hollywood?

Another reader professed surprise that I went on a budget airline. I don’t often go on them but I have no aversion to them. On easyJet, I was particularly pleased to be taught by Tracey Emin about “speedy boarding” which really got my adrenalin going, as I prepared myself, racing across the tarmac and up the mobile stairs, to bags the front row, which offers the best space for leg exercises, which I need to do for my occasional oedema.

Several readers expressed their dismay over my contempt for the liberal distribution of name cards at receptions. As far as I can judge, they are either champions of social pole-vaulting or failed networkers, for both of whom I have no sympathy. Worst of all, the ritual of palming off cards is perfunctory and never humorous. I once decided to play a practical joke on someone by having 100 cards printed with his email address and mobile number under my name. I then merrily handed out these cards, encouraging recipients to get in touch. It made the dispensing of business cards rather fun for a change.

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I am in a state of anxiety as I have been unexpectedly invited to a lush social event where I know there will be no placement. I am usually placed below the salt – my overall standing is considered démodé, mostly on account of the fact that I work for a living and other things (over 60, single, female, with no garden, debatable pictures but nice furniture). What to do when faced with plonking myself thigh-to-thigh with the high and mighty, the achingly cool and, God forbid, the über-intellectual?

You must first sit yourself down at a table and see who would join you. If you end up with those with whom you are satisfied, then stay. If not, get up and grab your glass and migrate to another table because those who have sat down next to you would think you were just perching in limbo. You might then try your luck again by choosing a table already filled with a couple of acceptable targets. So as not to be too obviously unctuous, sit a couple of seats away from them and try catching their eye, half-smiling and nodding to pretend that they should know who you are. Then pray for either of them to get up politely and sit by your side or to ask you to join them. That would be your lucky day.

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The Japanese obsession with the hanami picnic ritual is actually driven by deep pathos and, contrary to your observations, these picnics are rarely genteel. The fleeting appearance of the delicate blossom each year poignantly reminds them of their own vulnerability in life, resulting in seriously large quantities of alcohol and a distinctly boisterous party atmosphere.

Everything is relative, and I would contend that Japanese behaviour is always genteel compared with, say, the Brits. You only have to observe a football match in Britain, and you would regard Japanese boisterousness as kindergarten stuff. I was once told – wrongly – that the best way of getting to Stamford Bridge was by Tube. Imagine my horror when I got to the platform and saw and heard the menacing chants of both Chelsea and Liverpool fans. Before I could change my mind, I was bundled into a carriage with Chelsea fans at one end and Liverpool fans at the other. That became, for me, the perfect moment for keeping my head down with the heightened alert of “don’t establish eye contact with any stranger”. Then all hell broke loose as the fans from each side began making war noises as well as gesticulations.

It was reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange when Alex’s gang loses control. I thought if there were to be a fight, I would summon up my dusty third-grade karate and side with the Chelsea lot if only out of respect to geography. Thankfully the tension eased as we arrived at the station and the sliding doors released the bottled-up steam. Yet at a Japanese picnic, no matter how tight everyone becomes, their “boisterous behaviour” is usually confined to their own group and none of them ever behaves like a typical hooligan or bovver boy.

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