Avoid lulls at dinner parties

Skip the centerpiece, separate couples and other tips.

Q My girlfriend moved in with me and we're starting to have our friends over to eat. Now we have a bunch of people who don't know each other. Conversations start and then slow down and then nothing. There are solutions, right?

A The first party my husband and I had when we moved in together was a total nightmare. The entire night I kept wishing I were a guest so I could leave. We didn't think ahead except for the food. We didn't figure out how to introduce people so they had a link to each other and something to talk about.

Here are some strategies learned since then:

Follow the rule of eight: Four people besides you two who don't hit if off will lean on you both to make things work. Add another two people and you have buffers. Of course, first think who's going to enjoy meeting up. Make part of introductions those little things you know about your friends that could forge connections.

If the group is eating together around a table, think out the dynamics of personal chemistry so you can work up a seating plan. This may sound like something your grandmother would do, but who rubs shoulders with whom sets the whole tone of the party.

Speaking of rubbing shoulders -- crowd the table a bit; it helps conversation. Forget centerpieces if you can't easily see over them. Have some low candles on the table and soft, warm lighting (no blue or green tones -- they make us edgy) and nothing bright and overhead. Think a circle of soft light, like a campfire, to get people together.

Separate couples. Pair up your girlfriend's friends with your friends. Have people with common interests next to each other. Seat generous, engaging types who like to draw others out next to shy ones. Pair up outgoing, potential scene-stealers who love to talk. They'll work all evening at enthralling each other, while giving the table just the right measure of entertainment.

Victorian manners had another solution. Etiquette dictated you talked to the person on your right through the first half of the meal and the one on your left during the second half. Pretty civilized. Then again, you could be cross-eyed with boredom if the host didn't think out a great seating plan. It's best to follow your instincts.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper hosts "The Splendid Table," Minnesota Public Radio's weekly show, www.splendidtable.org. Send questions to table@mpr.org.

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