Whatever happened to ‘No, thank you’? 

It was early evening, the air was warm and sweet, and a friend of mine was sitting with some acquaintances on the roof deck of her house. On the wicker table, the jug of iced tea was empty, with only a puddle of condensation at its base.

Aware that the sun had passed the yardarm, my friend turned to her guests: “Such a lovely afternoon. Can I get anyone a glass of wine?”

“Oh,” said the guests, taken aback. “We don’t drink.”

“Oh,” said my friend, taken aback, “OK. Well, would you like something else?”

Things moved on, but my friend was nonplussed. There had been a tone of reproach in the words; a suggestion, even, that she was rather louche to offer such a beverage.

Susan Yager had a searing and not dissimilar experience some years ago when she invited her father-in-law, his girlfriend, her son and his wife to dinner. She knew that two of her guests were dieting and one was a vegan, so she took care to prepare an especially delicious low-calorie, animal-free meal.

As Ms. Yager recounts in “The Hundred Year Diet,” her forthcoming account of America’s passion for weight loss, she roasted eggplant for a casserole, “made a big green salad, sliced some additional heirloom tomatoes, chopped garlic for a simple olive oil and basil pasta, baked some biscotti, and had a lot of fresh peaches, plums, and nectarines ready to grill for dessert.”

Yet when her guests arrived, two of them “looked at what I was cooking with a combination of panic and horror, and sorrowfully announced that there was not a thing they could eat – not a single thing. They needed meat.”

Her guests were on the Atkins diet, that carb-free fad that swept the chattering classes half a dozen years ago and caused otherwise sensible people to chew through great piles of bacon and steak while starting away from the bread basket as if it contained snakes.

The point of anecdotal commonality is the disconcerting explanation of why something can’t be consumed – and its remedy.

As a hostess, you think ahead (or think quickly) and offer the nicest thing you can muster at the moment. It may be an impromptu glass of wine or a Lucullan spread.  

As a guest, you don’t have much time to react, and in an increasingly casual society that’s probably why so many people seem to blurt out startling intimacies of their diet and digestion. “Shrimp gives me hives!” or “Spicy food stings on the way out the next day, if you know what I mean!”

How much better it is to deploy bland yet polite remarks. Bland replies are always in style. They are the little black dress of conversation; people don’t notice what you’re wearing (as it were), they notice only that you are appropriate.

When a mother of young children tells you she’s expecting again, the only correct answer is: “Congratulations!” When a hostess offers you wine, which you don’t drink, or absinthe, which you suspect will drive you as mad as it did Vincent van Gogh, you need only reply: “No thank you.”

And if you turn up at a dinner party and it’s all the wrong food, must you really explain to the hostess why her dishes are inedible? Can you not, for the sake of good manners and her feelings, either pretend not to be hungry or choke down a few hated carbohydrates and make it up the next day?

The answer is: You can. The puzzle is that so many seem unwilling to do so.

Examiner columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon is a former foreign correspondent and a regular contributor to the books pages of The Wall Street Journal.

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Meghan Cox Gurdon

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