Five Ways to Make Your Summer Get-Togethers More Meaningful

Sarah Harrison Smith on July 03, 2018

53434297_l.jpgSummer parties offer precious opportunities to connect with family and friends. As a host, it's easy to focus on the food instead of setting the stage for meaningful discussions, though we all know: what makes a get-together great isn't the potato salad.

Priya Parker specializes in bringing people together to "experience a sense of belonging," whether they're meeting in the boardroom or on the beach. In her new book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters, she considers ways to create "rich, memorable group conversations" -- the kind that make parties worthwhile. We asked her to write a short list of ideas for readers who might be planning their own celebrations. Her suggestions may surprise you.

1. Simplify the food; complicate the holiday. We confuse what we should keep simple (the food) with what we should complicate (the discussion). Holidays like the Fourth of July and Labor Day are times when we gather to honor an idea or a value. Rich, memorable group conversations can involve exploring the more complicated parts of seemingly unidimensional ideas. For example, on the 4th of July, as you’re sitting on a blanket with friends waiting for the fireworks to begin, invite each person to share what the 4th of July means to them, and in what ways America is currently embodying those values and in what ways it is missing the mark. Or have a listening party to hear Baratunde Thurston read Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speechWhat to the Slave is the Fourth of July? Open up space to explore and engage with the values we are supposedly coming together around, and give space for doubt, reflection, and re-interpretation. 

2. Knock people off their scripts. Gatherings suffer when everything in them is on auto-pilot: The same people having the same conversation following the same predictable sequence of events year after year. Instead of hosting a 4th of July party this year, try instead hosting around the lesser-known holidays: Bastille Day, JK Rowling’s birthday, the Summer Solstice, the Swedish midsummer’s night. But then have the evening match the theme. (Teach people snapvisas; have them harness their inner Harry Potter; invite your guests to talk about the transitions in their lives.) When people don’t have a form in mind or don’t feel attached to a specific tradition, they are much more willing try new things and show new sides of themselves.

3. Pair people in unusual ways. Another trap of summer gatherings, particularly within families, is that everyone plays the same role they always have: the same people in the kitchen every year, the same people falling asleep early. If you’re spending a weekend with your extended family, host a cook-off where pairs compete to prepare the best meal for everyone else over the course of three days. But have those pairings be people who don’t always spend time together (an in-law and a grandfather; a niece and a sister-in-law, etc.). Also, make sure no one is exempt from cooking. Give everybody an excuse to spend a few hours together planning a meal, cooking together, and serving the family. And throw in a little competition: at the end of the weekend, everyone can vote on their favorite meal! 

4. Host phases of the gathering in different locations. Edward Cooke, an expert in the workings of memory, suggests having several interesting phases over the course of an evening take place in different rooms. If you’re hosting a summer soiree, have cocktails in the kitchen, dinner around your table, and then cap off the night by roasting marshmallows in the backyard. Even if you’re hosting just an afternoon picnic, have appetizers on one blanket and then move to the “main course” a few steps away on a different blanket. Studies show that switching physical locations help people remember different moments better and more clearly.  

ParkerPortrait.jpeg5. Invite stories over opinions. For the vast majority of people, our stories are much more interesting than our opinions. For a family reunion, host a make-shift storytelling night. George Dawes Green, the founder of The Moth, hosted one at his 60-person family reunion where every family member was invited to share a five-minute story of what it meant to be a Greene. Or host a 15 Toasts for your next dinner party, where everyone has to give a toast connected to a theme of your choosing (patriotism; transition; back-to-school; immigration) by telling a story from their life that relates to that theme. The only other rule: the last person has to sing their toast. -- Priya Parker

(Party Photo: 123RF Stock Photo)

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