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#8: On Gathering

How to Suck Less at Getting People Together


Nanya Sudhir

Jun 04 2021

8 min read


Welcome to you are here! This newsletter has been on a bit of a hiatus lately as I've been dealing with the unbearable lifeness of being. Ha. But I'm getting back into it. If there's something you'd like me to write about, reply to this email!


More than a year into the p-word, perhaps you’re thinking of that sweet moment when you will meet people next. Perhaps you've already begun. Maybe it's on the distant horizon.

Wherever you are in your journey towards reunions, I hope you are giving thought to the intention and purpose behind each meeting. Maybe just think about the last event you went to that really left an impression. What was so special about it?

My parents have always been great party planners, but until I listened to Priya Parker speak about the dynamics behind a great reunion, I hadn't figured out why. In her book, The Art of Gathering, which was released and spoken much about a couple years ago, Parker, a conflict resolution expert, talks about how a gathering works best when done with a sense of shared purpose in a way that aims to make it meaningful and memorable for all those involved.

One of the last memorable events I went to was actually a dinner I hosted. It was an end-of-year, welcome-the-winter-and-make-new-friends kind of thing at the end of 2019. Invitees were all my friends in my adoptive city, the kinds of interesting, well-traveled people that would probably get along together and maybe even find each other in a crowd. Everyone was between their early twenties and mid-thirties, spoke at least two languages fluently, and brought something or someone to the party. Semi-intentionally, I put them all to work as soon as they arrived: laying out a cheese plate, peeling chayote, making glühwein, planning and supervising where dinner would be laid out, making sure everyone was well-looked after, or flexing and testing their acquired language skills with a newfound friend. Part chemistry, part sociology.

In a room full of family we chose, chopping, drinking, serving, gathering in the warmth of the kitchen, it was one of the only times in this city I felt truly at home in my skin.

What was so magical about it? The fact that everyone was really co-hosting together the entire night, taking ownership for various parts of the evening. We learned from and about each other in the process and apart from that initial task division, I didn’t even have to think too much about it. I’m not an expert, but I feel like whatever skills I put to use that night, I subconsciously picked up from the best: my parents.

In every foreign posting we've been to, my diplomat parents have hosted large groups of people united by a similar (or different!) role, institution, purpose or identity group, and brought them together in unexpected ways to create a shared sense of intimacy, bonding and fun. They've done this by having icebreaker events where they announce their intentions subtly before the event and also at the beginning, so that people know what they're in for and arrive with a shared sense of purpose. Couples games nights with races, quizzes, and cross-dressing; evenings where non-Indians learn how to dress up in sarees; open mics; photo booths. They’ve done it all. 

Prepped, armed and ready for a bit of lighthearted fun, people are able to relax, let down their hair a little, and enjoy what's set up for them to fulfill the evening’s ultimate purpose: creating long-lasting human connection. The food, the games, the drinks, the guest list curation is always taken care of. Guests get to just flow, get intimate, challenge themselves and make connections that endure.

My parents also don't just stay in the perfunctory his and hellos. Because, ew, bo-ring. As we come into a year and a half of living in alternate reality, there’s a lot of literature floating around about what to say instead of 'How are you doing?' I fully endorse it. My parents have been talking with people to figure out their interests and thought processes to drive conversations about those things ever since I can remember. You have to really pay attention for that: What do people like to do in their free time? What projects fill up their lives? Who is important to them? What gets them riled up? Entertaining for decades can get eyes-glaze-over boring if you forget to be truly present in an effort to be polite.

Instead, when guests arrive all prepped to talk about the things that matter to them, they're already in a position to discuss things that go beyond the usual awkward small talk. When people share in an activity, they feel a sense of collective ownership, a kind of hippie co-op where once you’re done with your part, you can let go a little, feel free, relax, and get to just hang out together, that conclusive feeling of knowing it’s all taken care of. And from there, we can all go deeper.

It's an art, not a science. But here are some research-based tips from Priya Parker that could help (For more, listen to this podcast and read this PDF summary):

  1. Look at gatherings as once-in-a-lifetime events where invitees go away feeling moved, impacted, and with a sense of meaningful interaction.
  2. Commit to a clear, shared purpose. Ask the whys that allow you to go deeper than ‘Oh, we just want to put a group of randoms together and see what happens.’
  3. Prime your guests and honour them. This sets the right expectations and makes them feel they are part of something special.
  4. Be willing to exclude people. This may mean cherry-picking a group of people you think might get together well and vibe off each other. It also means being willing to exclude anyone who isn't up for your kind of event or who might feel awkward in the existing group. More is not always merrier.
  5. As a host, look for generous authority rather than being overly laid back. This may mean planning ahead (Plan As, Plan Bs), but also being ok with feeling like you're imposing on your guests a little bit if it's with a well thought-out intention (e.g. change tables after every speech at an official function or everyone starts by saying something surprising about themselves that they haven't shared with this group before).
  6. Rules can be fun! Laying down some rules such as no checking messages at a picnic or no pouring your own drink can act as creative constraints that enable invitees to be present and interact with others in a profound way.
  7. End well. For a sense of closure, as things are winding down, thank your guests, reiterate your intention for the gathering, move those who are staying into a cosy corner, do a magic trick, and give them something to take away with them. It's better to burn out than to [fizzle] away.

The perpetual motion machine of meetings, coffees, cocktails, dinners that beckons is going to get exhausting quick. Yes, sometimes we just want to catch up, but as we start dreaming about the deluge of gatherings coming our way, instead of performing the perfunctory rituals, is there a way we can more meaningfully bring together the people we want to bring together? 



What are some memorable gatherings you’ve been to? What are your hot tips for hosting? What’s one event you’re looking forward to someday when we are all back to normal?

Write in!

Links and Things

  • This piece that talks about seven types of rest we may need. As someone with a lot of energy for some things and not as much for others, I sometimes feel like it's a bit of a cop out to say "I'm tired" without really thinking deeper about how exactly I'm tired. Now I finally have the words! (I would add "Rest from screens" to the list 😳)
  • This article that talks about the existential dread that comes with being asked "How are you?"

  • This poem in honour of Pride month that takes you right back to being 17 and wanting so hard to belong.
  • And finally, some words I'm learning and enjoying: liminal spaces, being in limbo/purgatory, at that point when you haven't quite crossed the threshold to the next stage; callipygian, having shapely buttocks; and Glühbirne, German for a lightbulb (literally, a glowing pear). But all you German-speakers already knew that.

That's it for this round. A huge thanks to Kushaan and Christine for their edits!

Now get away from your screen. 👾

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