Lucy Kellaway: Ego + power = boredom. User’s guide to a better dinner party.

The FT’s top columnist, Lucy Kellaway

About a decade ago the editor of the Financial Times invited me to a dinner party at his house along with a dozen important people. I was slightly dreading the evening, but no sooner had I sat down than I started to enjoy myself – the conversation zipped along agreeably with the men on either side of me.

But then my boss spoilt it all. He tapped a knife against his glass and declared that as there was so much wisdom at the table it would be good to share it in a single conversation.

I don’t remember the topic he chose – possibly something to do with the EU – but I do remember how I felt about it. I sat there saying nothing while one guest after another held forth, often at cross purposes with the previous person. A small part of me was bored; a far larger part was humiliated by my own silence.

Wasn’t that fun, my husband said on the way home.

No, I replied. It was horrible.

At the time, I blamed myself. It was my fault for having nothing clever to say, and for being a wimp about talking in public.

In the past 10 years I’ve been to lots of dinners that turn into competitive seminars, and I still hate them. But I no longer take it personally – most of the women present seem to hate them too. Each time eating iron touches glass the male half of the room perks up while the female half shuts up.

In my conversational preferences, I am guided by two principles. First, I will only talk in public when I know what I’m talking about. Men seem to have no such inhibitions. Second, the joy in a conversation is in inverse proportion to the number of people who take part. Two is the ideal, 12 is no conversation at all. But for many men, the more the merrier.

I used to think these differences between men and women were minor and would disappear as women became more powerful. Then either women themselves would change. Or these events would. But neither seems to be happening. This variety of showing off is as vital a part of success as ever and women remain feeble at it.

In the past there was a genius solution to the dinner party problem: women would retire after dessert, leaving the men to discuss the EU competitively over the port and freeing themselves to have more interesting, intimate conversations in the drawing room. While this remedy is no longer socially acceptable, we crave it as much as ever. And the bizarre success of single-sex book clubs proves it.

Traditionally these have been an all-women thing, but last week I talked to a CEO who had recently set up an all-male one. For some time he had observed his wife’s club, envied how they talked about literature, but deplored how they went about it.

Proudly, he explained that his club has no kerfuffle over catering: meetings were held in a private dining room at a restaurant. The evening began with a presentation (usually competitive in nature) given by the member who had chosen the book. Members (all of whom work in the City) were then invited to mount a robust challenge; even though he admitted that some of them are keener on talking than listening, he assured me that a lively discussion (chaired by himself) always ensued. Small talk, he said, was permitted for the first five minutes, and outlawed thereafter.

Unwittingly, this CEO has designed a leisure activity that is just like a typical board meeting. Someone else does the catering. The sessions are chaired, and competitive. The rules were made by a man, for men.

With the book group, the lack of diversity doesn’t matter – but with a board it does. Now that women, thanks to quotas, have infiltrated boards in non-insignificant number, you might have expected the style of discussion would start to shift away from the alpha-male book club. But there is little sign of this. Instead there is every sign that the new female club members have simply learnt to play a game whose rules they would never have invented if left to their own devices.

Not long ago I went to a dinner for female directors of FTSE 100 companies. The only man in the room was the host, he runs a hedge fund, and was paying for the night in order to flaunt his enthusiasm for diversity. Half way through the meal, he couldn’t restrain himself. His knife went to his glass and all 20 women were forced into a desultory group discussion on the economy. As usual, I kept my own counsel. But then I noticed something interesting. The more senior the woman, the more willing she was to bang on confidently – and drearily – about interest rates.

Afterwards, I found myself getting my coat at the same time as the female CEO who had been the most vociferous.

Did you enjoy that, I asked her.

She gave me an enigmatic smile and said nothing at all.

* Lucy Kellaway is a columnist with the Financial Times of London. You can email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @lucykellaway

(c) 2015 The Financial Times Ltd.

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