Even when times are normal, figuring out how to host — or attend — a gathering can be fraught. What do you wear? Who will be there? What will happen while you’re there? When will everyone go home?
And now the pandemic has thrown an extra wrench into things. Not just because people have varying levels of comfort and ability to gather; the disruption to our normal life patterns have left some of us feeling drained of our past ability to socialize for days on end. Or we feel like we’ve forgotten the social scripts that governed our interactions. We’re all awkward.
Yet gathering in some form is essential to our social, mental, and even physical health; humans aren’t meant to exist without community. Knowing this, I wanted to discuss the new art of gathering with Priya Parker, whose wonderful book The Art of Gathering challenges readers to think about what makes a gathering — a work event, a wedding, a pizza party, a rave — into a smashing success.
I talked to Parker by phone, asking about creating the practice of being an “artful gatherer” in our everyday lives. In a wide-ranging and challenging conversation, we discussed our ritual-starved culture, the importance of deciding what kind of community you want to be part of, and practical steps toward integrating (or reintegrating) gathering into our lives.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What happened to us over the past few years?
The pandemic was a social X-ray for many of us. Not out of choice, but seemingly overnight, all of our social patterning was completely interrupted. Who we interacted with, how we interacted with them, how often we interacted, what was the nature of the connection — all that was basically changed or stopped overnight.
Because we couldn’t gather physically anymore, we began to have an emotional map or graph of desire, belonging, loss, regret, and also boredom. It’s almost like a quiz. What did I miss, and also who? What obligations do I feel relieved about not having to go to? What did I long for? Who did I long for? Who did I want to be with? At the deeper level, who am I, what is my work? Who do I want to spend time with? Who are my people? Are the people that are my people who I want to be my people? Rather than being on autopilot, we could diagnose who we actually are and what we actually want.
What’s interesting is that as we “reenter” in different ways — whether it’s going to physical gatherings again or going back to an office or moving to a city and trying to figure out how to build community — people seem to be trying to be more intentional, both about who they’re spending time with and how.
But we’re out of practice. Our social muscles have atrophied. I think people are pausing and practicing — practicing getting back out, thinking about what they want to attend, saying no, saying a full yes, sometimes hosting.
The new art of gathering is the art of “guesting.” Guests can be a total drain on a gathering or a total energy boost. Most of us are guests more often than we’re hosts.
How do you see that showing up in the way we think about our social interactions?
Recently I found myself talking about a “gathering diet.” People need to monitor their nutritional diets: what you take in, how much you are taking in, and in what form given your body type. When the internet came along, we started talking about information diets — whatever’s on my home screen, what I’m reading, how much time I spend on Instagram, what my sources are, what newsletters I choose to subscribe to. It’s about intent, about the individual trying to figure out a system that works from them. As we emerge from a pandemic in which gathering was taken from us, we’re starting to think about our gathering diet. What do I attend?
That’s true in the workplace as well. How many meetings should any one person actually attend in a week, and why? What rises to the level of needing a meeting, and when do I just get to write at my desk and do the actual work? Is meeting the work, or does the work happen outside of the meeting? These are really important questions happening in a church, in a synagogue, in a mosque, in our museums, in our nonprofits. How often should we be meeting, and in what context?
So one tool or skill I can develop as a guest is deeply thinking about what I want to attend, and why, so that I’m building the community and building the life that I hope to have. What am I saying no to? And how do I say no in a way that is a respectful, connected no?
You write about being an “artful gatherer” — about it being a practice, not a personality trait. Suppose I’m someone who’s feeling a lack of community, and I want to move toward creating and also attending artful gatherings that start to help me find that community. What do I integrate into my life as part of that practice?
Communities are formed and shaped and also generate spontaneously at different moments around shared interests, shared values, shared passions. At some level I would advise you to not start with a form, saying “I need a community,” or “I need a gathering.” Communities can be terrible! Communities can be completely isolating.
So I would first start by mapping it out: What are my interests? How do I actually want to spend my time? Would I want to spend more time outdoors? Am I yearning to strengthen or enrich my spiritual life? Do I want to spend more time reading? What are my questions? Am I trying to figure out how to co-parent equally with my partner when neither of us saw that model in our family? What are the questions that I have that I would love to answer with others?
Remember, groups can have negative effects or positive effects. Gatherings can be good or they can be bad. Gatherings are tools. You can bring people together and people can still feel incredibly lonely and disconnected. Gatherings are not good in and of themselves. They’re tools. Communities are not good in and of themselves. They can be for good. They can be for bad. They can create an incredible sense of exclusion. These are all just forms.
What does that look like, in practical terms?
People may now realize they don’t want to be spending time in the ways that they were spending their time. Maybe it’s their behavior around alcohol, and they’ve realized, “If I don’t want to drink as much as I normally would, are there other activities that are less centered around alcohol? Oh, well those are actually different sets of friends.”
A lot of the activities that people do together end up becoming cultures. That’s why rather than starting with “Who are my people?” a less intimidating form could be, “Who else is spending time in a way that I would like to spend time with?” And then you can judge any community starting out by thinking, “Do these people share common values? Do I feel welcome here?”
I also think that if you have a need, there’s almost always people who share that need. And so hosting something is also a way to start meeting people. Sometimes hosting can be scary, so a very easy trick is co-host something. If you move to a place, meet a new neighbor or a parent at a school or a running buddy, or it’s just someone else who also realizes we need to meet people, that can be a way to do so.
Do you think there’s a role for ritual in becoming an artful gatherer?
We are a ritual-starved nation. Even watching the pomp and circumstance around the death of Queen Elizabeth — as controversial as that is, what you’re seeing is a 1,000-year-old tradition that has what I call a “meaningful order.” There’s a meaningful order to what happens when a monarch, a matriarch, a person with a specific role in society dies. What does the community rise to do? In the US — for all sorts of good historical reasons, and for the rights of the individual over the community — we have thrown out many of our rituals. But part of what makes a community is its rituals.
One of the best definitions of ritual I have heard of is from Jonathan Cook, who said to me in an interview, “Ritual is nothing more than the transference of state from something to something.” So you can have an individual ritual: your morning cup of coffee is a transition from night state to morning state. But the rituals you and I are talking about are collective rituals, which need to be witnessed for it to be a communal ritual. In this moment, particularly coming out of the pandemic, we are so starved for that.
We need ritual, and ritual can be as simple as marking a birthday, marking a first day of school, marking someone finally quitting that job that they hate, marking launching a creative project.
Rituals are forms of meaning-making and witnessing, for communities to mark time and to share a spotlight on what matters to them. So they’re incredibly important for binding people together, for helping people locate their role and what is worthy of paying attention to. Perhaps it’s people coming back to the office for the first time — at the first in-person meeting when people come back, what do they actually do? If you’re moving, having a farewell, having a goodbye party. It can be totally casual. It could literally be a bowling party. None of these forms need to be formal. It’s just simply bringing people together to mark a moment that says, “This happened and now I’m passing through it.” With the pandemic, we have lost so much that without actually pausing to reflect and mark time, it can be an incredibly destabilizing time.
Gathering right now to create these rituals or form communities can be tricky. People have different levels of comfort, or complicated feelings about gathering together. What are some practical things that someone could do to create a gathering that is nourishing for those who gather, and also take into account the power dynamic between host and guest, all with the goal of creating a sense of belonging?
A gathering is a future moment in which you’re inviting somebody to attend something at the same time, at the same place, with other people, whether it’s virtually or in person, with a beginning, middle, or end. It’s a social contract.
The opening salvo is your invitation. Gatherings don’t begin at the moment of entry. They begin at the moment that the guest discovers what I call the moment of discovery: The guest discovers they’re being invited to this housewarming or a bachelorette party or a transitioning ceremony or a graduation party. So first of all, the invitation is not just the carrier of logistics. It’s actually the first practical mechanism of meaning-making and orientation to your guests. Give your gathering a name. Is this a dinner party? Is this a mosh pit? Is this a rave? Is this a dance party? Names carry a lot of information that help people really decide, “How do I show up? Do I want to go to this thing? What is this thing?”
Be sure to orient people. Particularly in a pandemic context, give context for who else is going to go. You don’t necessarily have to name people, but give people a sense: Is this a small event? Is this a large one? For different people, that gives them different levels of comfort for what they’re comfortable showing up to. And is it indoors? Is it outdoors?
At this phase of the pandemic, respectful inviting is sharing what the gathering is and what the hosts are doing related to Covid. That could be an indoor dinner party where no one’s checking for vax cards. What’s helpful now, as people are living in multiple realities, is transparency, so that guests can make their own decisions.
That seems like it would be good to keep in mind even if Covid wasn’t an issue!
This is always true — the pandemic just made it more explicit — that however you are hosting, whether it’s indoor or outdoor, whether it’s free or pricey, whether it is one type of food or a selection, those are actually choices that are going to affect who can meaningfully participate. So No. 1, think a lot about the invitation.
No. 2, size matters — for people’s comfort levels, whatever the gathering is. It gives people a sense of context so they can make that decision. But size also matters in terms of the vibe of the event. If you want a more intimate evening, don’t go above six people. Six people is wonderful for conversation; people can participate, and it’s harder to carry dead weight, since if one person is kind of checked out, everyone feels it. Eight to 12 is actually a much more complex gathering to have one conversation, but there’s a lot more choice in it. There’s more vibrancy. People may meet a few more people, right? There’s trade-offs to each of these numbers.
Then finally, think about where you’re going to host this thing. Rooms come with scripts. So whether it’s a living room or a park or a public library or a graveyard, places come with scripts. Your place is a character. Choose it well.
So suppose someone really wants to be an artful gatherer going forward into this next phase of their life. What are some practical steps they can take to start off well?
We’re in a transitional era. We’re all kind of baby lambs learning to walk again. And that’s okay. The people I think are finding their way are asking themselves questions like, “When I think about my actual week, or when I think about my free time, or when I think about how I work, how do I want to spend my time?”
Second, mapping out, what do I want in friendship? Who were the people in my life, whether they’re present or were in my past, that felt like a really meaningful connection? What were the elements of that? Excavating a bit.
No. 3, what are my geographic patterns in my city or town? I live in a city. We often get very stuck in our rotations, in our patterning. The old joke in New York is you only know two neighborhoods, where you live and where you work, and that’s collapsed. So what are my geographic patterns?
When I first moved to New York, my husband and I started these things called “I’m here” days, in part to just force ourselves to go to other neighborhoods. We would spend 12 hours in a neighborhood on foot with other people. It started to grow through word of mouth, through friends. Phones off, just explore a neighborhood on foot. The only rule was you had to come for all 12 hours and you couldn’t micro-coordinate with other people. Then you leave at the end of the night. I write about that in The Art of Gathering, and part of what that did is that it shifted our geographic sense of what kind of neighborhood person am I? Getting off of our routines can also be helpful.
Fourth, try one experiment, one risk. Attend something, even virtually, that you might not normally attend. See if you make meaningful connection around common interest or common need. Volunteer. There’s a lot of ways to meet other people and it’s a common interest, so that there’s a sense of context about how you’re actually meeting.
Finally, we are guests more often than we are hosts. So start getting curious as a guest. When are moments over the course of the gathering where you feel excited, where you feel engaged? When are moments you feel kind of bored or slightly excluded? And just notice, why is that happening? What’s the infrastructure of the gathering? Has the host welcomed people? Have they introduced people to each other? Just start observing, because once you start seeing what the mechanisms of gatherings that work are, you can’t unsee it, but you can practice it all the time.
Hosting a gathering? For practical steps to being an artful gatherer from Parker and her team, download “The New Rules of Gathering,” a PDF workbook available at her website.
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