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Why and how to create meaningful dinner parties
Let’s stop the banalities and make powerful connections through unexpected experiences
I don’t know about you, but sometimes dinners can be so trite and trivial. Have you ever been driving home from a dinner party and thought about how dissatisfying the conversation was? You might remember some of the catty comments made between a couple or the odd outfit someone or other was wearing. Or it was about the latest family holidays, the fabulousness of the kids or the progress on the house extension? Depending on the culture, it might have been the endless comparison of recipes, or snooty quibbling about the bouquet of the fine wine. God forbid we should talk about something like art, fine literature or philosophy, much less discussing reasoned solutions for our democracy or avowing our own imperfections. In our times, it seems that we’ve lulled ourselves into conversations in society that are bereft of teeth. So many topics are off base, language not allowed or knowledge insufficient that we’re left with meagre scraps. Even if dinner parties are difficult to “manage” (think of herding cats), they provide a great context for having meaningful conversations. We should be more intentional about how and with whom we spend our time. Let’s revisit how we can make our dinner parties far more memorable as experiences and meaningful in their content.
Over twenty-five years ago, my wife (Yendi) and I hosted a standout dinner party. Being French and ever attentive to food, my wife is a great cook and we’ve always enjoyed inviting friends over. However, rather than just provide delicious dishes and wonderful wines, Yendi came up the idea of using a board game she’d created around the arrival of the Euro. The game was designed for educational purposes in her consultancy work with banks whose employees needed to learn more about Europe and the Euro (which was to be launched on January 1, 1999). You were allowed to roll a die if you got the question right. As such, it was a great case of ‘edutainment’ in a business context. So, we decided to do a sort of dry run with our guests, using the question cards that looked at a number of cultural facts about Europe and intriguing elements around the implementation of the Euro. We had a lively dinner, learning while laughing and dining. It was the light switch moment that opened up the idea of making the dinner party more of an event.
Since that enlivening dinner, as a couple, we have changed countries five times and hosted over two hundred themed dinner parties. We’ve come up with a different theme each time and always with a different assembly of friends, although over time we’ve of course had some repeat guests, too. While a couple of these themed dinners flopped (I’ll talk about these below), most have been tremendously fun and rewarding. Along the way, we have learned a lot and discovered much about our friends as well as about ourselves.
Types of themes
To give you a taste for the types of themes we’ve come up with, they’ve ranged from the more ordinary to more exotic. For example, we’ve often asked our guests to come as something or someone else, such as a historic personality, a musical instrument or an animal. Other themes might be articulated around sharing a taste or a specific story (e.g., mystery, Christmas or exploit). Others still have been about describing a favorite event, object or experience. In each case, we like to tease out from our guests (ourselves included) why they chose what they did. Depending on the group, we tend to encourage some preparation and then send along a connecting message post event, such that there’s a before, during and after to the dinner. Given my appetite for trying new things, for a number of our parties, I set up a blog where the guests were invited to share some preliminary thoughts before the dinner and then add follow-on comments afterwards. Back in the late nineties and noughties, that was a bit off the beaten path. It gave new meaning to the idea of “hybrid” event. I’d like now to recount what transpired in a few of the more memorable of these evenings. Below, I’ll set about describing a few of the better evenings. I’ll also mention the two failed experiences. The real identity of the guests won’t be revealed. And, in the next chapter next week, I’ll explain the manner to the madness.
A thing of beauty
The theme was beauty. On the evening of the anniversary of 9/11, our guests were invited to talk about something beautiful to help us move beyond the ugliness. We were eight people in total, with several meeting for the first time. It turned into a most emotional and, dare I say it, beautiful evening. All of the stories were wonderful, but one stood above them all. Luis (not his real name), who came solo, had very recently married. His wife was feeling unwell so preferred not to come (Covid precautions obliged). He then set about telling his story of beauty. At the age of 30, he had been in love and living with a woman for six years. Even though he hadn’t yet finished his PhD, it seemed like the time was right to get married. With painstaking care, Luis bought a ring and set up preparing a magnificently romantic way to propose in a country B&B, replete with an original song.
But the best laid plans hit a snag right before Christmas and a few weeks before the surprise proposal. His girlfriend went in to check up on some internal pains and was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. So, he kept the ring discreetly in the box. She immediately started getting treatment. However, the chemo didn’t work, and the prognosis wasn’t good. Luis agonized over what to do. It was in these conditions that he found a time when they were both alone -- and that she had the strength -- to propose to her. Luis prepared an uplifting scrap album, brought out the guitar to perform his song, Me Pediste Una Canción, and gave her the ring. We witnessed in his recounting the infinity of their relationship, a love that would last beyond her death. I could hardly stop weeping. Not out of sadness, but because of the beauty of the gesture. Out of this tragic story, though, came the next chapter in the form of an encounter through an online platform for young grieving spouses (it’s called WAY). The first person he “matched” turned out to have had a very similar experience with a man who’d just bought a special engagement ring and before having had the chance to propose was struck down with a critical cancer diagnosis. Immediately, Luis and the fellow young ‘widow’ connected, finding in each other a kindred spirit who deeply understood what the other had gone through. Together, they decided that their deceased partners would remain with them in their new lives. Luis played us a stanza from his song and the evening pursued, bathed in the splendour of soulful stories. As a P.S., I’m glad to report that Luis and his wife have since had their first child.
I’ve long enjoyed the saying that “everything is energy.” For this party, we invited a fabulous group of sparkling characters. We had a journalist, an extreme-sportsman-cum-doctor-cum-entrepreneur, a woman responsible for a highly reputed think tank, a TV personality, a director, and a psychologist-turned-entrepreneur. The brief was:
If you had to classify your energy as an equation (your chance to play Einstein), what would it be? We'd also like you to bring a sample of music (we can use Youtube or Spotify here if you wish) or perhaps a work of art (it can be the written word too) that best illustrates your energy.
In terms of answers, we were blown away with astonishing revelations. I particularly remember the titillating demonstration of the difference between a knot and a tangle, explained with quantic references, and about the energy inherent in a cosmic tangle. We played everyone’s song and listened intently to the explanations. There was nostalgia, amusement and dancing. The energy in our salon was tangible and lasting. We talked far into the night, well past our respective bedtimes.
Fictional – You couldn’t make this one up
For this dinner party, our guests were invited to come as a favorite fictional character. Each person was invited to reveal some clues, in descending order of difficulty, such that at the end of the clues, everyone would know each other’s fictional personality (and why they chose that character). It was all fun and games, but two of the guests – who were married to one another I should add – stumped us. And with good reason. One of them had mixed up the clues of Rachel from the show, Friends, with Jennifer Aniston, the actress. The other, who had a notable penchant for swearing, came as a porn star. Granted the porn star was carrying a stage name, but none of us was equipped to recognize his name. The upshot was that we all had a good laugh about the mix-ups. Sometimes, real life is indeed stranger than fiction.
For this dinner, our guests – three couples -- were invited to bring a text, image or object that represented love for them. For myself, I read out the poem of Love by Roy Croft because it was the poem that my grandfather had cited in his last letter, written in a POW camp in the Philippines on the eve of his fatal hellship journey, December 12, 1944. The letter was addressed to his wife, my grandmother.*
I love you,
Not only for what you are,
But for what I am when I am with you.
I love you,
Not only for what you have made of yourself,
But for what you are making of me.
I love you for
the part of me that you bring out;
I love you for
putting your hand into my heaped-up heart
And passing over all the foolish, weak things
that you can’t help dimly seeing there,
And for drawing out into the light
All the beautiful things
that no one else had looked
Quite far enough to find.
I love you because you have done
More than any creed
Could have done
To make me good,
And more than any fate could have done
To make me happy.
You have done it
Without a touch,
Without a word,
Without a sign.
You have done it by being yourself
Perhaps that is what
Being a friend means, after all.
Both my wife and I were completely outdone, however, by our guests. One friend composed and played a song for his wife. Another wrote a poem and read it out to her husband. Not only was this a baring of the soul in terms of exposing one’s creative talents, they were premiering their work in public, in front of strangers. We had tears, hugs and a prolonged evening of intimate conversation thereafter.
You call that erotic?
The task asked of the guests for this theme was tricky. Each couple was assigned the mission to come up with their definition of erotic. At the dinner, each couple was invited to present a representation of that erotic vision, typically through a work of art. Here’s the rub, it had to be a shared definition. And, it turned out that every couple struggled to find a common ground. There was plenty of nervous laughter and debate as well as a number of intriguing questions posed. For example, we discussed whether the Gustave Courbet nudes collection -- that have been so controversial, even today -- erotic?** We talked about the intrinsic erotic qualities of the male and female body and of different sexual encounters. The consequence was a lot of intimate and somewhat confused conversation, but well worth the ride.
As I mentioned above, however, over the years and out of all the parties, we did experience a couple of disappointing ones. One of these involved inviting a couple where the husband felt like the idea of having to ‘play a part’ at a dinner was unnecessary, and probably below his standing. He was clearly uncomfortable at the possibility of making a fool of himself. The learning was clear: make sure to invite people who have the ability and desire to play. Henceforth, we made sure to avoid individuals who take themselves too seriously or prefer to hide behind stiff masks.
As you’ve undoubtedly read elsewhere, there are three topics -- sex, religion and politics -- that are supposedly to be avoided in polite company. At the very least, we were all taught that we should swear away from them in the workplace. In the early days, after having done well over 50 themes, we did try our hand at politics. In that we often choose themes that are contextually relevant, we thought that the moment was ripe. This dinner was held in the midst of the 2007 French presidential elections. In the first round, there were four female candidates in a field of 12, where the second-round run-off ended up being between Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal. We invited friends who all professed a particular appetite for politics. They were invited to discuss the following brief:
“It is the morning after the vote and you’re the new president(e) of France. You have convened your most confidential group of advisors at l’Elysée Palace and are going to announce the first five actions and reveal your intended legacy at the end of your five-year reign. Your advisors are there to make sure that you succeed.”
I was personally excited to focus on being proactive and constructive in the political debate. So often most of the political discourse in public is focused on criticizing the elected officials or proposing irresponsible solutions that have no funding or proper consideration for the consequences. Since there was a female and a male candidate, everyone could feel equally involved. However, despite much anticipation and a bit of fanfare, the theme failed. In essence, people failed to show up. One guest said that he hadn’t had the time to prepare, while another feigned not having read the email. When we tried to pursue with the remaining more diligent guests, the theme wobbled because of an evident lack of commitment. The key learning here was not to not talk about politics. It was to ensure that we get right the mix between brief and guests. And, emphatically, we all learned that it’s easier to criticize politicians than to come up with our own properly thought-through platform. We’ll surely try politics with another group in another setting, and hopefully even tackle sex and religion in due course.
Theme in lieu of banalities
We’re certainly not going to let one or two bad apples stop us from going forward. What we’ve appreciated in particular about these themed dinner parties is seeing our friends in a new light, discussing topics that are far from the typical banalities. We have had countless exceptional dinner parties, with themes around mission, performance, stars, the Proust questionnaire, time and many more. We’ve discovered hidden talents, heard powerful stories and facilitated profound connections. Most recently, once the pandemic lockdowns were called off, we experienced some magical evenings where the desire to gather and have meaningful exchanges were evident. We were able to use themes to avoid incessant talk about the pain of remote work, Covid, masks and vaccinations. In any event, after over two hundred plus themed dinners, Yendi and I remain enthusiastic about continuing to host them. We will surely continue to explore new themes and boundaries.
In the next chapter, I’ll lay out how we throw our dinner parties. I’ll talk about how we set them up, how we choose our guests and themes, the process and some insights about the mindset needed.
Even if dinner parties are difficult to “manage” (think of herding cats), they provide a great context for having meaningful conversations. We should be more intentional about how and with whom we spend our time. Let’s revisit how we can make our dinner parties far more memorable as experiences and meaningful in their content.
*For more about this story, you can check out the book and film, The Last Ring Home.
**See this Guardian article about how Facebook tried to ban L’Origine du Monde (1866)
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