Conventional wisdom dictates (how very undemocratic of conventional wisdom!) that certain topics must be avoided at the dinner table. Aside from obvious incendiary subjects (excluding the cherries flambé), such as the hostess’s poisonous pot roast, or what a freeloader Uncle Harry is, not to mention Junior’s apelike table manners, chief among discouraged discourses are religion, politics and sex. Two of these topics are sure to inspire passion among intellectuals (which rules out sex, for the moment).
Religion and politics create a slippery slope, not unlike the gravy-stained table linens, but are far more difficult to expunge from the memories of the diners. One misplaced word may follow the guests to the grave, whereas a smattering of ptomaine might only make it as far as the hospital emergency room. Therefore, season your conversation as carefully as you would your duck, lest your guests end up in the hands of a quack.
If religion is food for the soul, is it not better to send the guests away wispily wanting rather than bloated and bickering? Theology is a dish best served chilled with a side of rum-soaked fruitcake (the better to induce stupor and avoid flying cutlery).
Politics is a precarious subject because of its polarizing effect. Statistically, half of your guests will chortle with fiendish glee at the foibles of any incumbent administration, while the other half will feel compelled to fling dinner rolls in protest. In the interest of bipartisanship, simply wait (four to eight years) and invite the same group back, at which time the flingers will become the flingees and the overturned flambé will end up setting your tablecloth on fire, ultimately uniting the adversaries in a bucket brigade.
With the volatile combination of religion and politics dismissed, the lively art of conversation is likely to take a wrong turn past the powder room. Send it back toward the table directly beneath the nude fresco.
Which brings us back to the subject of sex (what doesn’t?), and why it is an unfit topic for civilized repartee. This is a deceptive argument, for who is to say that sex is an unfit subject, (besides conventional wisdom, propriety, Emily Post, and society at large)? It is a fine topic if handled delicately, among intelligent company (which rules out members of your immediate family and anyone within your vast social circle). Indeed, sex in the wrong hands… perhaps I’ve said too much already.
In conclusion, it is not so much what you say as how you say it, when it comes to avoiding controversy. If someone mentions sex, look bewildered (a cinch for you!) and playfully mispronounces words (another given). The ensuing confusion will lead to charades, an appropriate game for guests of all ages.
Regarding politics, distraction techniques work best. Try submerging your head in the punch bowl where your most shocking opinions will be safely muffled. And when choosing sides on religious issues, you can always defer to a higher authority, presuming your bookie is among the guests.