The best conversation topics for dinner parties, according to experts

Don’t let the conversation get too stiff.
Don’t let the conversation get too stiff.
Image: AP Photo/Dick Strobel
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To celebrate Mother’s Day, Quartz staff collected story ideas from our mothers and sought to answer them. This mother asks: How do I host a fun dinner party that also encourages intellectual discussion? Read more stories from the series here.

There’s a good reason so many murder mysteries are set at dinner parties: It’s the ultimate exercise in wish-fulfillment. Most people have been forced to sit through at least a few boring dinner parties in their lives—seated between two dullards, struggling to find something new to say about housing prices while slurping sunchoke soup. And so when a dead body turns up in a book or movie, the audience experiences a vicarious sense of relief. Just imagine being released from explaining your boring old job, and finally having something interesting to do!

But you needn’t invite a serial killer to your next dinner party to ensure that it’s a success. A little strategic conversational planning can go a long way. Here are some tips from dinner party aficionados—including Rico Gagliano, co-author of Brunch is Hell: How to Save the World by Throwing a Dinner Party and the former co-host of The Dinner Party Download podcast—on how to ensure that the banter at your next gathering is as sparkling as the champagne. (Keep the champagne flowing, for what it’s worth.)

The best kind of small talk

People are naturally inclined to talk about themselves, and basic good manners means they’ll likely ask about other people’s lives in turn. But a better route to memorable conversation may be to heed the advice of Daniel Menaker, author of the book A Good Talk, who recommends steering the conversation toward “third things”—“not me, not them, but something else.”

Gagliano and his Brunch Is Hell co-author, Brendan Francis Newman, say this is the best kind of small talk. “What you’re trying to do is come up with stuff the other person has never heard of,” Gagliano says. “Ideally not stories or concepts that will cause a lot of friction, but stuff that will blow your minds and give you stuff to talk about other than the work you do.”

Their book identifies three categories of topics that tend to spark interesting discussions: science stories, portmanteaus, and unusual art exhibits. Before your dinner party, Gagliano says, you can scan the news to have a few in your pocket should the conversation lag.

Science stories—for example, a study that involved playing music to cats in an attempt to calm them down—tend to intrigue the room. (Cats prefer classical.)

Portmanteaus—new words made out of smashed-together vocabulary—are indicators of cultural trends. “The example we give is ‘blowtox,’” Gagliano says, “people getting botox injections into their scalps so their blowouts won’t re-curl.”

And new art exhibits are bound to make people’s imaginations run wild. “There’s an art installation called ‘Everything,’ where these two Dutch artists put together a sample of every perfume released that year, which they put into a giant bottle,” Gagliano offers.

Or invite your guests to ponder the “Future Library” in Oslo, Norway—an art exhibit in which famous authors donate manuscripts that no one will be able to read for 100 years. Next door to the library is a forest, the trees from which will be cut down in 2114 and used to print the long-awaited books. “Margaret Atwood dedicated the first one,” Gagliano says.

Give your guests some intellectual homework

If you’re looking for a more structured conversation, you might follow the path of Quartz science and health editor Elijah Wolfson. “I’ve had dinner parties where I specifically set out a topic of discussion in advance,” he says—typically several weeks ahead of the planned party. Past questions included “Does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice?” and “Should we adjust the free market to safeguard blue-collar jobs?” Invitees are notified of the topic a few weeks in advance, so everyone has a chance to let their opinions percolate.

Alternatively, you might ensure that everyone at the dinner party has a particular cultural text in common. Quartz reporter Annabelle Timsit says that at her old job, her friends would sometimes read a divisive article in advance in order to guarantee a lively conversation. “We did dinner parties where we started with a controversial article (usually a Bari Weiss or Kevin Williamson piece) and discussed that for the first half of the dinner,” she recalls. “Most of us had different political backgrounds, so those were always fascinating discussions.”

If you’re not so into assigning homework in advance, you could take a cue from early 20th-century author Edith Wharton and invite your guests to do a little reading right in your own home—perhaps after the main course and before dessert. “Almost every day on returning from the afternoon expedition we were greeted by an engaging row of new volumes, which the hostess instantly handed over to her guests,” Wharton’s friend and frequent dinner-party guest recalled.

The perfect dinner party game

Lastly, it never hurts to have a few go-to questions up your sleeve. Quartz special projects researcher Molly Rubin says that one of her favorite conversation games is “For It or Against It,” in which guests are asked to take a definitive stance on everything from velvet to mechanical pencils.

“The more neutral the thing, the better the game,” Rubin explains. If you ask your dinner guests to share their opinions about polarizing, frequently debated topics like private schools or Brexit, the ensuing conversation will likely follow a predictable course. “But if you do ‘bread,’” Rubin says, “who knows?”

The other key rule of “for it or against it”: No waffling. “There’s no in-between,” Rubin says. “You have to say why and justify your reasoning. We always had fun trying to pull people onto your side.”

The most important factor in a successful dinner party is confidence: Lead the conversation with enthusiasm, and your guests will find your cheer contagious. And should your dinner party still wind up being a bust, take comfort in the knowledge that it could still go down in your friends’ history books.

One friend reports that he and his wife used to play a game called “Worst Dinner Party Ever.” “We’d try to think of the worst possible combination of friends you could have in your house,” he explains: not just people who would dislike each other, but people who would have absolutely nothing to say to one another at all.

Unsurprisingly, he says, “it was inspired by real-life events.”