Ungrateful Wretch

Dear Helena,

The other night, my husband and I had his old college friend and his wife over for dinner. As is customary for us, my husband and I put a lot of thought and time into the dinner: We made upscale enchiladas, pinto beans stewed with bacon, spinach salad with citrus fruits, and for dessert, chocolate-raspberry pudding cake. They both cleaned their plates, but at no time during the meal did our two guests, who are both professionals in their 30s (not that it matters, really), say, “This is really good!” or anything to that effect. They said a little generic “Thanks” when we hugged them goodbye, but never sent an email or thank-you note for the dinner in the days following. I was actually angry to the point of saying to my husband, “They are never invited back.” Am I being oversensitive? How thankful should a polite dinner guest be about the meal? And how best should they express their gratitude? —Mexican Dinner Unappreciated

Dear Mexican Dinner,

A clean plate is no replacement for a compliment about the meal. As Raya Dukhan, a New York web designer who likes to entertain, says: “Eating a lot is not enough. It could be you were just really hungry.”

“Thanks for a great meal” is not good enough either. You could say it to anybody who cooks for you. Debby Hoffman, motivational speaker and coauthor of the book Find Something Nice to Say: The Power of Compliments, calls this a “one-size-fits-all compliment.” Such comments are nice to hear, but they don’t make the receiver feel special. All the chefs I spoke to said they like to get a little more validation. Here are some tips on how to best show your appreciation for a meal.

Firstly, be specific. As Hoffman says, the best compliments are “full of details, particular to that person and that event.” They show that you’ve really noticed what you’re eating and that your praise is sincere. “Recently I had a dinner party, and I made pasta with herbs from my garden,” says web designer Dukhan. “It was nice when my guests said things like, ‘You can really taste the fresh basil.’”

Even better: Turn your compliment about the dinner into a general statement about your host. Mark Knapp, a professor of communication at the University of Texas, says, “Research shows that the compliments people like most and remember most are those that seem to have a bearing on their personality and attributes rather than on a specific feature. People like to hear, ‘That hat looks great on you,’ but they’d rather hear, ‘You have great taste.’” You can be specific and generalize about the host’s personality at the same time. For instance, you might say: “You come up with so many great uses for fresh herbs.”

Even after rhapsodizing about the food during dinner, you should thank your host a second time, a day or two later. The first time you compliment him or her, your host might be tipsy and not remember it afterward. Plus, many people are embarrassed by compliments and often can’t fully enjoy them in the moment. So it’s nice to offer your appreciation in a form they can savor, like email or snail mail.

Try not to start with the phrase thank you. If you shun this clichéd beginning, it shows you’ve gone to extra trouble with your note. “It forces you to be creative,” says Regan Gage, a San Francisco HIV researcher who has written many thank-you notes.

If you thank your host by email, it’s best to delay your second thank-you a little. Lenore Tice, a caterer and frequent dinner-party host in Austin, Texas, explains: “If you thank your host the day after, it’s like, ‘I’ll forget it if I don’t do it now.’ If you leave it for a couple of days, it shows you remembered the dinner.” (If you’re mailing a thank-you note, you can put it in the post right away, as it will take a day or two to arrive.)

Use email as your default mode of sending thanks, and save handwritten notes as a way to mark special occasions. If you pen a gushing missive every time someone has you over, you could devalue your thank-you note until it just means plain old thank you.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.