Why DO we women make such a meal of dinner parties

Never mind the souffle. It’s a miracle if women manage to hold a dinner party conversation that rises above total gibberish. At least, that’s the conclusion the geeks at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute have come to, after studying the way female intelligence works in company.

Apparently women, the sensitive fools, are more ‘susceptible to social pressures’ than men, which means that when you put us in a group of people of similar intelligence, such as a dinner party, our IQs drop like a stone because we feel intimidated.

In other words, however bright and interesting we may be on the doorstep, put us round some tea lights, pinot grigio and parma ham en masse and we become cowed dimwits, only capable of discussing schools, shoes and what might happen next in Downton Abbey.

Men, of course, retain their cool, level-headed intelligence, being less prone to peer pressure.

Dinners parties as guest or hosts equal at least one course of neurosis to two courses of fun for most women

Dinners parties as guest or hosts equal at least one course of neurosis to two courses of fun for most women

Now, the temptation here is to scoff at the sheer absurdity of the Virginians using brain-scanners to watch ‘parts of the brain light up’ and then draw silly conclusions about awkward silences over the coffee and biscotti.

But there is no doubt that those U.S. geeks aren’t completely wrong: dinner parties, as guest or host, equal at least one course of neurosis to two courses of fun for most women — in a way that would leave most men baffled.

For starters, there is the problem of what to wear. An invitation to a dinner party can mean anything from a grand dinner to a cosy supper.

It used to be that ‘supper party’ or ‘kitchen supper’ implied dressed down, while ‘dinner party,’ dressed up.

But that doesn’t hold any more.

I have discovered the hard way that some people’s idea of ‘very casual’ is a one-shouldered Lanvin cocktail dress when I thought it meant jeans.

The other women were convinced the hostess was stitching them up so she could look the snazziest, particularly as she was French.

I have also felt silly in a floaty purple thing in a friend’s kitchen because I don’t own those smart non-denim trousers — wafty palazzo pants, or sharp cigarette ones — that ‘supper’ demands. You know it’s all gone horribly wrong when someone says, ‘you do look smart!’.

Women can be left dumbstruck by the whole experience of hosting a dinner party

Women can be left dumbstruck by the whole experience of hosting a dinner party

A man obviously is already ahead, because he doesn’t have this problem, nor the tendency to feel so apologetic about himself. What man would ever — as I have done — change into something dressier in his own house in order to make his guests feel comfortable

Then there’s timing. As a last-minute merchant, I think it’s the height of bad manners to be early. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees with me. As host, you may find yourself with wet hair and an assortment of unappealing clothes on the bed as the doorbell rings.

Successfully navigating the drink and nuts/crisps/canapes part of the evening is often the key. The temptation to hoover up the food because you’re starving and get a few drinks in early to steady the nerves is always a mistake, and probably the cause of many an IQ drop.

I’ve certainly felt mine halve, on occasion, as I seek out the snacks and the Dutch courage.

This also leads directly to the real danger of dinner: that a lively argument might tip into a row.

This, it has to be said, is usually the preserve of men (though women, and married couples, can give it a go.)

For this reason, it is always a mistake to put two unacquainted men of opposing political views opposite each other.

A few early drinks to settle the nerves is always a mistake

The overt male ego is often the cause of dinner party tension.

It might emerge in a number of ways; showing off, or sulking because he thinks another man is using up too much airtime.

I have seen men read their BlackBerry under the table when they think another man is getting too much attention, or look morose and stare into their glass.

Although none of that compares to people who ask rude questions to spice things up — once a man turned to me at a friend’s house and asked in a comedy whisper, ‘do we know anyone else who lives this far out’ Other bad guest traps abound: there is the overly flirtatious girl who wants every man to fancy her. There is the person who feels no need to speak or answers in monosyllables.

The flirtacious female diner is one of severla types who can spell trouble at a dinner party

The flirtacious female diner is one of severla types who can spell trouble at a dinner party

There’s the nervous story-teller who never shuts up in case there is silence (I rather like those, they’re relaxing).

And there’s usually the person — male or female — who thinks it’s interesting to disagree with everyone.

Conversational no-nos to avoid at all costs Giving up smoking — believe me, nobody else cares; your sporting activities, bully for you; your divorce — we get it, you hate each other and deserve more money; praising your own children, boring; being rude about your own children: weird.

Setting yourself alight on a candle isn't a good look

Anything people never change their mind about — the anti-caesarean league, or the evils of Wii, or public sector pensions — had better be avoided.

I have seen a woman get so cross she set fire to herself while gesturing over a candle — not a good look.

Though most male ego crises are overt and can be instantly identified, the female ones are likely to be silent and emerge later.

‘Did I look alright Say enough Too much’ is the female refrain on the way home, followed by angst about outfit, figure, children, and house.

Plus the deepest female anxiety of all – which is that working mothers think everyone will think they’re evil, and the stay-at-home, that everyone will think they are dull.

For the hosts, it’s an energy issue.

A friend at a dinner was mortified to hear a newish mother and father upstairs through the baby monitor: ‘Don’t you wish they’d all just go home and we could go to bed’ having fallen prey to exhausted host syndrome.

Having a few drinks to settle your nerves as host can spell disaster

Having a few drinks to settle your nerves as host can spell disaster

This is the phenomenon by which by the time you have invited everyone, tidied up, shopped, cooked something (or warmed it up) laid the table, got changed and bribed your children into bed, you will be so tired you will long for a bit of telly and not have the slightest urge to make conversation, let alone be responsible for the welfare of anyone else’s evening.

I would like to believe that it’s only people, not food, that matters, but as I spent a long time working for a food critic whose mantra was, ‘I’m not crossing London for chicken’ I’m not sure this is true.

Like war in the Middle East, the trouble is, standards escalate. If somebody goes to great efforts to cook for you, it looks churlish to take the menu back down to nursery food at your place.

You don’t want to scrimp on vegetables (it looks mean), ‘forget’ pudding, or ask, as someone of my acquaintance always does, ‘I don’t suppose anyone wants coffee, do they’ in a bid to chivvy everyone out of the door.

The tensest moment for the shattered host brigade is the last act.

You are longing to go to bed, your guests longing to leave, but no one wants to be rude.

No one can win here.

Leave early: the host will sulk and think the whole thing was a flop.

Leave late: that they overstayed their welcome. There may well be an agonising wait for a taxi.

Then you may have the misfortune to be married to one of those polite sorts who wants to say goodbye, individually, to everybody, at length as if setting off for the Antarctic.

With all that to contend with, perhaps it’s no wonder that we women are left dumbstruck by the whole experience.