This story is part of a 10-part series profiling the “warrior women” behind the Hello Sunshine x Together Live tour, a band of all-female storytellers who traveled to 10 cities across North America in November. On tour, the women shared their stories and songs, and made 10,000 women across though country laugh and cry. Learn more about Hello Sunshine x Together Live here—and get excited to join the party in 2019.
Hosting a holiday party always seems like a good idea, in theory. A cozy night in with friends—nothing fancy!—with some festive sweaters and Santa-themed Champagne cocktails. What could possibly go wrong? But then, day-of, you find yourself simultaneously cooking and cleaning and yelling “Where’s the effing cookie platter?” while cursing Martha Stewart for ever setting an “easy-but-elegant” table. And suddenly all you want to do is bolt the door and drink the Champagne straight from the bottle.
But there’s good news, beleaguered hostesses: It’s possible to host a party without making yourself with miserable. Inspired by Priya Parker, author of The New York Times Bestseller The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, people everywhere are enjoying gatherings more—and worrying less about what direction the knife is supposed to face. Below, find Priya’s advice, in her own words. And then follow it, starting now.
I grew up with images of what I thought the perfect dinner party had to look like: a beautifully set table, gorgeous wine glasses, a vase of flowers set just so. I attended cotillion classes as a pre-teen, where an instructor would roll out a white-clothed table and instruct us on how to properly display a napkin, where to set teaspoons, and what to do if you drop a fork on the floor. (Leave it there.) I’d leaf through my stepmother’s hosting diary from the ’70s, where she meticulously captured which recipe she tried, to whom she served it, and the date. I grew up with the implicit message that there was a right way of gathering and that it took a particular form. And, furthermore, that if you got the “things” of a gathering right–the food, the settings, the wine–the night would be a success. And implicitly, to gather well, one had to eventually obtain those specific things and follow a specific inherited form. And, lucky me, there was an entire industry designed to help me on my way.
Years later, I became a group conflict resolution facilitator and found myself designing experiences for Hindus and Muslims after riots in India trying to rebuild their neighborhoods, for the World Economic Forum trying to find its way to a more authentic culture, and for government agencies trying to figure out how to revamp a national poverty program. What all these gatherings had in common was that no one had any idea what they “should” look like. And because of that, we had freedom to invent. In addition to my own work, I set out to study the world’s most remarkable gatherings, and in speaking with over a hundred gatherers around the world, I learned a mantra that has deeply freed me in my own hosting: It doesn’t have to look a certain way. In fact, gatherings are far more interesting, meaningful, and memorable when they don’t. As you get ready for the holidays, and for a new year, here are some tips to help you host meaningfully on your own terms:
Throw a “Worn-Out Mom’s Hootenanny,” Not a Dinner Party
Spending time and energy on our gatherings isn’t what is making us miserable. Rather, spending time and energy on predictable, routine gatherings is. When our gatherings go into autopilot, it’s hard to connect meaningfully. Instead of starting with the supposed form of something (a dinner party, a workshop, a house party), start with a need in your life you could gather around and then design afresh around it. Take for example, a dinner party Jancee Dunn, a writer, wanted to host at her place. She came to me for advice on how to “Art of Gather-ify” her dinner party. Rather than giving her tips on the form of a dinner party, I asked her instead: What is a need in your life right now that by gathering other specific people they could help you fulfill? She said that she, in addition to being a writer, was a worn-out mom. She realized how worn out she was when a friend cut her a PBJ into triangles, and she felt so deeply taken care of. Jancee wanted a night where she wasn’t only in the care-taking role, and thought perhaps she could host something to gather her other worn-out mom friends. She gave it a name: The Worn-Out Mom’s Hootenanny. She gave it a rule: If you talk about your kids, you have to take a shot. She emailed six mom friends the idea and they all RSVP’d yes immediately. She took a general evening and made it specific, disputable, and exciting.
Don’t Assume a Party Has to Look a Certain Way
A friend of mine was leaving a well-paid job to become a metal artist and wanted to host a gathering to mark the transition. But rather than just hosting a party and inviting everyone in her life to it, she invited a subset of people: those who gave her courage. Like many of us, she had a range of people in her life who had various opinions about her decisions. She certainly had a set of peers and colleagues who thought she was nuts to leave a high-paying, prestigious job to explore something that was effectively more of a hobby. And she also had people in her life that thought it was awesome and admired the decision. She invited a subset of us—who didn’t all know each other—for a dinner to help her commit to her choice, mark it, and go through with it. She asked us each to bring a poem or some words to share with the group that have helped us when we took big risks. After some general hanging out, she gathered everyone into the living room and we sat on the floor around a glass coffee table and munched on some carrots and celery sticks and mozzarella balls. There were a few bottles of wine open. She started the evening by talking about why she was going to leave this job, and why she believed so deeply in pursuing metal artistry. She said that she was also scared about her choice, and asked us each there to help keep her on her decision when she felt wobbly. I felt immediately drawn in, and inspired by both her boldness and her vulnerability. She had made up a structure for the evening that fit her needs: To tap a sub-community in her life to help her uphold a decision when it got scary. And, she let us know that we could actually help her with that. We each had a chance to share our reading and any advice we had. And the evening became a night of stories and risk-taking and community. It was her “farewell party,” but there was no sheet cake.
If you’re anything like me, you grew up with the age-old adage, “The more, the merrier.” That is certainly true for football games and barn-raising, but it is not true for many of the moments we typically gather. When you know why you’re gathering and what for, it’s the more the scarier. Before my husband and I were married, we had gone home for the holidays and were going to get our parents together for an afternoon tea to get to know each other better. My parents happened to have an aunt visiting, and it happened to be her birthday. At the last minute, she wanted to come, too. To her surprise, we asked that she not come because it was such a rare occasion for our two sets of parents to meet before our marriage. And, effectively, she wasn’t a parent. It wasn’t personal, it was purposeful.
If You Think You’re Over-Doing It, You Probably Are
“People are throwing birthday parties for their 1-year-olds with photo booths and a cake-smash portrait session and a sit-down meal, and the parents are miserable and over-spending, and the kid would rather be home with them and an empty box, anyway,” an editor friend said recently. “Amirite?” She is right. When we get stuck to the form of something, we think reciprocity has to be in the same form (and take the same financial value). They had a bouncy house at their birthday party, how can we not? This is a recipe for collective misery. Instead, assuming each family is different, ask: “What is a need in my kids’ life right now, that by gathering people together in a certain way could help fulfill?”
“Maximize your gathering for the people in the room. And if the magic was hard to capture for someone who wasn’t there, you’re probably moving in the right direction.”
Don’t Aim for Instagrammable. Aim For “You Had to Be There”
One danger of Instagram is that, because it is a visual medium, it rewards moments that are visually captivating to people who are not there. A stunning table setting is easier to capture than a memorable conversation. A group selfie is imminently more postable than a conversation about how to deal with sick parents, or how to choose the right partner, or even, what to do about location monitoring services and the tradeoff between privacy and convenience. The danger of the Instagrammable gathering is that you start making trade-offs between two different audiences: the real-life, flesh-and-blood guests in front of you, and those not there. Sometimes these two audiences have the same needs, but more often than not, they don’t. Think ahead of time about your “phone philosophy” and set some norms around when and how (and if) people can take photos of the gathering, and whether and how to share them. As we’ve seen over and over, when we believe we are being watched or will later be seen by some future audience, our behavior changes. Maximize your gathering for the people in the room. And if the magic was hard to capture for someone who wasn’t there, you’re probably moving in the right direction.
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