I’ve never been good at small talk. I’m too fond of working through life’s big questions, out loud and with companions. And nowhere do I enjoy this activity more than at small dinner parties, preferably in the presence of wine and copious amounts of cheese.
I recently hosted a dinner party where, within 30 minutes of my guests heading home, I’d received a text from each invitee specifically commenting on the high quality of the conversation around the table. While I’m sure they just forgot to mention the culinary delights, I couldn’t deny that they were right: There was something about the evening’s conversation that seemed particularly transcendent.
So where had I gone so right? While I had put some thought into the composition of personalities, professions, and temperaments around the table—there was a mix of corporate types and freelance bohemians, marrieds and singles, and five different passport types—I had also intentionally not invited people that knew one another. The thing everyone shared in common was that they were all strangers to one another except me.
This certainly influenced what we talked about. Not only was there no gossip about mutual friends or acquaintances; there were also no pre-established beliefs, presumptions of shared social politics, or shared knowledge of the same internet controversies. Everyone had opinions to share, and yet there was virtually no talking over one another. We didn’t spend much of the evening catching up on life’s more quotidian topics—work, relationships, apartments—because there simply was not enough shared context to do so. So instead, the conversation was free to meander, from feminism in witch culture, to the ethics of giving cash to homeless people, to the pain of losing family members, to the ways our physical bodies interplay with our mental health. And those are just the topics that I remember.
My friend Graham Garvie is a bona fide expert on dinner parties, having co-founded the global dinner party community called Bring Your Own Story (BYOS) in 2015 while at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “There were 1,000 students from all around the world—all ostensibly world-changing and fascinating—and then all we did was talk about work, weather, and the weekend.”
He wanted to create a space where strangers could come together and talk about life’s bigger questions, so he came up with a conceit: Come to dinner party centered on a single-word theme (examples: energy, faith, adrenaline) and bring a true five-minute story from your own life on that theme, that you’re willing to share with strangers.
Now, BYOS operates with a membership system in San Francisco, London, and New York. Garvie says there is a kind of “social alchemy” that happens when an experience is designed to foster deep engagement and empathetic listening, rather than upholding the kinds of social norms we all unconsciously participate in.
And it works. BYOS evenings, which I’ve attended twice, provide a dazzling level of mental stimulation. No one looks at their phone. Everyone asks preternaturally good questions. And you find yourself freely talking about things that you’d never normally bring up.
A Swedish non-profit has a version of the concept specifically for men in the wake of the #MeToo reckoning around sexual harassment and inequality. Make Equal conceived of its #Guytalk dinners as a way to facilitate “starting conversations about what it’s like to be a man”—exploring concepts such as love, friendship, ego, avoidance, fragility, and sex. They’re now being held in cities throughout northern Europe, and the organization offers a slew of tip sheets and accompanying materials for free online. Whether your dinner party is for just one gender or not, these offer a useful template to facilitate openness and thoughtful conversation.
Of course, an elevated intellectual discourse isn’t the only kind of great dinner party; there’s also a value to getting together a group of friends for a good catch-up—and even a bit of gossip. But when done with intention and care, the stranger dinner party invites you to more fully be yourself—which is exhilarating even if it’s somewhat daunting.
There is, of course, an art to executing one of these. As Garvie said, ”It’s true that the best dinner parties are where nobody knows each other‚ but some of the worst can be that way too.” For one thing, not everyone will be thrilled to turn up at a party where they have to do the extra emotional labor of meeting new people. Because of that, he notes that it helps to have some kind of structure and opt-in.
In BYOS’s case, guests sign up and get an email letting them know how the night will go, and there’s a host who moderates the exchange of stories. At my less formal version, it was simply mentioning to my guests when I invited them that the dinner would be a collection of people who didn’t know one another—but whom I suspected might get along.
The number of guests matters, too. BYOS evenings feature anywhere from six to eight people; anything more becomes less intimate and harder to make sure everyone can participate in the same conversation.
The night I hosted recently felt unique and lovely—even more so because it will never happen again. It’s unlikely the five of us will come back together to continue the conversation, but that wasn’t the point. For one night only, we all felt connected. The cheese plate helped, too.