The Art of Gathering
...we spend much of that time in uninspiring, underwhelming moments that fail to capture us, change us in any way, or connect us to one another.
take an ordinary moment with others and make it unforgettable—and meaningful.
You don’t have to be an extrovert. In fact, some of the best gatherers I know suffer from social anxiety.
The art of gathering, fortunately, doesn’t rest on your charisma or the quality of your jokes.
Gatherings crackle and flourish when real thought goes into them, when (often invisible) structure is baked into them, and when a host has the curiosity, willingness, and generosity of spirit to try.
You are not alone if you skip the first step in convening people meaningfully: committing to a bold, sharp purpose.
Gatherings that please everyone occur, but they rarely thrill. Gatherings that are willing to be alienating—which is different from being alienating—have a better chance to dazzle.
A disputable purpose, on the other hand, begins to be a decision filter.
To have a trusted circle to share struggles without worrying about appearances...
Far too often in the name of inclusion and generosity—two values I care about deeply—we fail to draw boundaries about who belongs and why.
Venues come with scripts. We tend to follow rigid if unwritten scripts that we associate with specific locations.
First you determine your venue, and then your venue determines which you gets to show up.
Every gathering with a vivid, particular purpose needs more of certain behaviors and less of others.
And a venue can and should do one further thing: displace people. ... Displacement is simply about breaking people out of their habits. It is about waking people up from the slumber of their own routines.
It takes imagination and effort more than anything else to achieve a little displacement. It is not more complicated than doing an activity in a place where people would think you shouldn’t.
Those seven minutes are going to be defined by his space and context, not theirs.
It had become the gritty symbol that temporarily displaced a leader from his throne.
A contained space for a gathering allows people to relax, and it helps create the alternative world that a gathering can, at its best, achieve.
It’s about claiming that mental space and making it yours and comfortable and safe.
Several interesting phases over the course of the evening, each of which occurs in a different space.
To talk about that power is to acknowledge that it exists.
Once your guests have chosen to come into your kingdom, they want to be governed—gently, respectfully, and well.
Hosts assume that leaving guests alone means that the guests will be left alone, when in fact they will be left to one another.
You are not easing their way or setting them free. You are pumping them full of confusion and anxiety.
A gathering run on generous authority is run with a strong, confident hand, but it is run selflessly, for the sake of others. Generous authority is imposing in a way that serves your guests.
Sometimes generous authority demands a willingness to be disliked in order to make your guests have the best experience of your gathering.
You may need to protect your guests from one another, or from boredom, or from the addictive technologies that lurk in our pockets, vibrating away.
The anger of the shushed is concentrated, while the gratitude of the protected is diffuse.
That is protecting your guests: anticipating and intercepting people’s tendencies when they’re not considering the betterment of the whole of the group or the experience.
Temporarily equalize your guests.
One measure of a successful gathering is that it starts off with a higher number of host-guest connections than guest-guest connections and ends with those tallies reversed, far in the guest-guest favor.
I had to operate as a representative of their future selves—happy they met new people, surprised by new connections with people unlike themselves—and actively go against what their present selves demanded.
You have to design your gatherings for the kinds of connections you want to create.
By letting people come whenever they want, Abousteit understands that she would be failing to protect those who showed up on time.
She is protecting those who may not have the luxury of catch-up buddies at the dinner, and whose chance of having a good time depends on other people being open to conversation with a stranger.
She equalizes her guests by holding everyone to the same standards.
And because she’s so authentic and explicit about it, people make an effort to talk to new people, in part because she’s given them the social cover to do so.
Hosting is not democratic, just like design isn’t. Structure helps good parties, like restrictions help good design.
What they gave us in return did not justify the freedom they were asking us to give up.
The evening was all form, no function. They hadn’t woven us into their story, and we didn’t feel a part of it.
...to come away slightly altered by the moment.
In the explicitness and oftentimes the whimsy of these rules was a hint of what they were really about: replacing the passive-aggressive, exclusionary, glacially conservative commandments of etiquette with something more experimental and democratic.
If the standards of etiquette are fixed, imperious, and exclusionary, pop-up rules have the power to flip these traits on their head, creating the possibility of more experimental, humble, and democratic—and satisfying!—gatherings.
If etiquette is about sustaining unchanging norms, pop-up rules are about trying stuff out.
Rules can create an imaginary, transient world that is actually more playful than your everyday gathering. That is because everyone realizes that the rules are temporary and is, therefore, willing to obey them.
If etiquette is about keeping people out of certain gatherings and social circles, pop-up rules can actually democratize who gets to gather.
The kind of restriction that might feel oppressive if permanent can seem compelling and intriguing when it applies sometimes, as part of a conscious effort to create that temporary alternative world.
Your gathering begins at the moment your guests first learn of it.
Moreover, the less priming you do in this pregame window, the more work awaits you during the gathering itself.
A simple name switch altered people’s sense of who the gatherer thought they were and what she expected of them.
One of the mistakes many of us make in thinking about this in-between time is believing that “it doesn't count.”
Anticipation builds between the initial clap of thunder and the first drops of rain; hope and anxiety mingle.
Pleasant shock therapy.
When you awe as a host, you are in a sense putting yourself—and your gathering—above your guest. When you honor, you are placing your guest above you. When you do both at once, as Cecchini does, you end up—with a hat tip to Groucho Marx—making your guests feel like valued members of a club to which they have no business belonging.
After all, thinking about what makes a good life implies thinking about life ending, about it being of limited quantity.
But every time people gather, they are being brought into the opportunity to help one another, to do what they couldn’t do or think up or heal alone. And yet so often when we gather, we are gathered in ways that hide our need for help and portray us in the strongest and least heart-stirring light. It is in gathering that we meet those who could help us, and it is in gathering that we pretend not to need them, because we have it all figured out.
...ones that let people show sides of themselves that were weak, that were confused and unprocessed, that were morally complicated.
Darkness is better inside the tent than outside of it.
It is often easier to get people to share when many in the room are unknown to them—or when they are helped to see those they do know with fresh eyes.
With strangers, there is a temporary reordering of a balancing act that each of us is constantly attempting: between our past selves and our future selves, between who we have been and who we are becoming.
Strangers, unconnected to our pasts and, in most cases, to our futures, are easier to experiment around. They create a temporary freedom to pilot-test what we might become, however untethered that identity is to what we have been.
If I, the host, acknowledge and broadcast their strength, as individuals and collectively well in advance, it relieves some of the pressure people feel to flex during the event itself.
...to offer an “invitation to intimacy, but depth is a complete choice.”
A well-meaning desire not to offend that devolves into a habit of saying nothing that matters.
To embrace good controversy is to embrace the idea that harmony is not necessarily the highest, and certainly not the only, value in a gathering. Good controversy helps us re-examine what we hold dear: our values, priorities, nonnegotiables. Good controversy is generative rather than preservationist. It leads to something better than the status quo. It helps communities move forward in their thinking. It helps us grow. Good controversy can be messy in the midst of the brawling. But when it works, it is clarifying and cleansing—and a forceful antidote to bullshit.
In my experience, though, good controversy rarely happens on its own. It needs to be designed for and given structure.
We moved the controversy from implicit to explicit by ritualizing it.
What are people avoiding that they don’t think they’re avoiding?
How you end things, like how you begin them, shapes people’s experience, sense of meaning, and memory.
The failure to close well is rooted in the avoidance of an end.
For every person who is tired or checking out, there are presumably others who look as if they could keep going for hours.
A strong closing has two phases, corresponding to two distinct needs among your guests: looking inward and turning outward. Looking inward is about taking a moment to understand, remember, acknowledge, and reflect on what just transpired—and to bond as a group one last time. Turning outward is about preparing to part from one another and retake your place in the world.
A gathering is a moment of time that has the potential to alter many other moments of time.
How can I use this gift to turn an impermanent moment into a permanent memory?