We’ve all been there — stuck at a dinner party, listening to one inebriated guest expound their offensive views as we contemplate whether it would be rude to leave before dessert. Or perhaps it’s a cocktail party where no one introduces you, leaving you to hang out awkwardly by the cheese table, on your own, for two hours before exiting. Or perhaps it’s a meet up with old friends that turns into a dud because everyone spent the evening talking about the same trivial topics — missing out on opportunities to discuss meaningful issues such as the political climate, their relationships, or their career.
Gatherings are crucial for the emotional and mental development of human beings. They make us feel connected; they help us understand our differences, celebrate our similarities, and commiserate our struggles. Yet, we often give very little thought on how to host them beyond, “Let’s have a barbecue on Labor Day and invite everyone we know,” or “It’s been a while. We should probably have some people to dinner.”
Priya Parker, the founder of Thrive Labs, has gathered people together all over the world in ordinary and challenging events with the purpose of making them meaningful and memorable. In her book, The Art of Gathering, she contends that we’ve forgotten that all gatherings begin with a purpose, and uncovering this purpose is the first step to having a successful gathering.
For example, why would we want to host a barbecue for Labor Day? If it’s to bring friends together for a last hoorah before school starts back or fall arrives, then perhaps it needs to be more of an all-night party than a 2 pm to 5 pm cookout. Or if it’s to say goodbye to a fun summer among friends, maybe the approach should be to host a dinner party where people can share their favorite memories of the season. Perhaps you’re hosting a gathering to help co-workers brainstorm ideas. In this type of situation, a more structured meet-up would work best. Essentially, once a gathering’s purpose has been determined, the curation should begin, and that’s when things get creative.
Once you have decided who is coming (is this an event that is intimate friends only or is this an event to connect strangers?) then it’s time to prime guests. That means, instead of just asking guests to come along and bring something, give guests some sense of what to expect, create some anticipation, and set some grounds for what is expected of them. If you want your guests to arrive at 2 pm, then it’s best to say so, rather than saying “2 pm onwards”, and if you’re hosting dinner you may want to make your invites read “we’re doing Italian 7 pm to 10 pm” to let people know they are expected not to flee once the entrée plates have been cleared.
But Parker also suggests creative primers such as asking people to “do” something, rather than “bring” something. Asking guests to email their best jokes to be shared over dinner could be fun, or send in photos of their happiest moments of the year to hang on the holiday tree. Emailing out a questionnaire on current life’s peaks and maybe even challenges to share at dinner might be a way of getting old friends to move away from rehashing the past and reconnecting in the present.
Parker’s signature suggestion is something called “15 Toasts,” where guests are given a theme before the gathering and asked to share a story related to that theme during dinner. After the story is told, the group then, in a show of support and solidarity, ends things with a toast.
Interestingly Parker says the themes she has found to work best at bringing a group together and that share the beauty of vulnerability and humanity tend not to be “happy moments” or “romance” but rather more challenging themes such as “borders,” “strangers,” “fear” or “dignity.” You could even go as far as to create an entire conversation menu, where each course is accompanied by a question. In the case of highly-charged themes like politics, religion or sex, Parker suggests having guests come up with ground rules of conversations that each has to uphold throughout the night to create a safe space.
Finally, here are some do’s and don’ts to ensure your gathering is one to remember:
Do . . .
1. Be mindful of how your event opens, such as greeting your guests, and planning how you will introduce each of them to the party. Will you announce them with some facts about them or will you make smaller introductions?
2. Prepare logistically before guests arrive. Don’t leave your guests awkwardly wondering where they should sit.
3. Lead. Be confident to run with your ideas, and be bold to check guests who are domineering or ruining your gathering for others.
4. Be generous with food and drink, and make sure snacks are on hand early if guests have to wait to eat.
Don’t . . .
1. Leave your guests stranded. If you invite guests to take part in games or theme-driven sharing, make sure you are there to listen to them rather than in the kitchen.
2. Don’t let people feel excluded. One way to bring guests together at a barbecue could be to give everyone a role – “Bob, you’re in charge of condiments, Lisa, you’re on napkins.”
3. Be heavy-handed on rules of etiquette. “Absolutely no phones” will not make your guests feel relaxed.
4. Forget to close your gathering well. No one likes being the first to say they are leaving — so help them out. Announcing post-dinner that you’ll be making tea or drinks for those who want to stay, offers an easy out to those who wish to leave.
And finally, don’t forget to have fun yourself. If guests see that you are having a good time, they’ll feel more at ease.