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Making Social Gatherings More Meaningful

It's more about the conversation than the canapés, says author Priya Parker


The food was great, the wine was flowing and your friends gave you great gifts for your birthday. You were expecting a wonderful evening. But at the end of the night, you felt let down. And the sad part is — this isn’t the first time it’s happened.

You’re not alone.

“Many studies confirm that the time we spend in gatherings with other people often disappoint us,” writes Priya Parker in her book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters. Parker, a facilitator and strategic adviser who attended M.I.T. and Harvard and is trained in conflict resolution, wrote the book to help us achieve more satisfying, meaningful get-togethers.

“When I discuss the art of gathering, I’m referring to the shaping of interaction between people, not things.”

“Gathering — the conscious bringing together of people for a reason — shapes the way we think, feel, and make sense of our world,” Parker writes. “We spend much of our lives gathering … in families, neighborhoods, schools, birthday parties, dinner parties and funerals. But we spend most of that time in uninspiring, underwhelming moments that fail to capture us, change us in any way or connect us to one another.”

And here’s the kicker, according to Parker: “As much as our gatherings disappoint us, we tend to keep gathering in the same tired ways.”

Priya ParkerCredit: Mackenzie Stroh
Priya Parker

After reading her book, I learned tips and techniques to change my gatherings for the better (and had a knockout birthday celebration). I asked Parker to share her thoughts with Next Avenue readers:

Next Avenue: What is your definition of a gathering?

Priya Parker: I define a gathering as any time three or more people come together for a purpose.

You’ve written that many gatherings are disappointing. How do we improve them?

We’ve been told for multiple generations that to gather well means to be an expert or a master in the shaping of things … making delicious canapés, or getting the right wine, or having the most beautiful table setting.

When I discuss the art of gathering, I’m referring to the shaping of interaction between people, not things.

You suggest that in order to create meaningful gatherings we must “commit to a bold, sharp purpose.” How do you define a purpose?

Most gatherings don’t have a purpose. Instead, people think the activity is the purpose.

For example, if you and your friends get together for your birthday, you might think the purpose is to celebrate your birthday. In reality, that’s the activity you’re doing. If I asked you to dig deeper, you might say that you’re throwing a birthday party to look back on the year. That’s a basic, bland purpose, but it’s a start.

What if you challenged yourself to create a bold, sharp purpose for your birthday party that would make it more meaningful? Here are some ideas: To surround myself with the people who bring out the best in me; to set some goals for the year ahead with people who will help me stay accountable or to reconnect with my siblings.

Can you see how your conversations will be deeper and more profound?

How do gatherings like book clubs differ?

When most people think about book clubs, they think that the purpose is to read a book, right? Reading a book is actually the activity we’re doing. Again, we’re confusing activity with purpose.

There could be many purposes of a book club. Sometimes the purpose isn’t obvious, or it’s different for individual book club members, and that can cause friction.  A typical challenge with book club meetings is that some members join for the purpose of reading and discussing more of a certain type of book and others join for the purpose of having a scheduled date and time to get together with friends, drink wine, and have fun!

Neither purpose is right or wrong, but members are often frustrated because they want more talking about the book and less about someone’s recent trip to Spain, or vice versa.

If this is an issue in your book club, you have options. You can choose to be flexible and accept it however it is; you can leave the club or you can speak with the members to try to determine an acceptable purpose that all of you can agree on.

Do you have a personal example of a gathering you wish had gone differently?

My husband and I had gotten together with a couple we don’t see often. It was election time, and I asked them which candidates they favored. Later that night I was thinking that I wish I had paused and asked about something more meaningful. Such as what does it feel like to be at this stage of life? Or what are the transitions you are going through?

Let’s talk about male friendships and relationships. You’re probably familiar with studies showing that as men get older, they let friendships slide and they get lonelier. What are your thoughts about men over 50 and gatherings?

One of the crises of what it means to be a man in the U.S. is that we have very few ways for men to gather outside of sports or drinking. And as men get older, it’s even more important for them to have meaningful gatherings.

We can learn from other cultures. In Portugal, there is a tradition of men’s dinner clubs. Men have dinner together and it’s part of male bonding. In Italy, I met with members of a boar-hunting club, and everyone in the club is over 50. Every Saturday during hunting season they would gather in the morning, do warm-up exercises, then go and hunt and cook together. Then all the families would eat together. I met with the members of this hunting club, and a man in his 70s told me, ‘My wife passed away a year ago. The only thing that saved me from complete and utter despair is this hunting club.’

I did find one example of a great men’s gathering in the U.S — a walking club. The men walk together at 6 a.m. It’s not a fast walk. It’s a way for them to get together and talk. This differs from traditional sporting activities which offer men an excuse not to talk.

You say that family reunions are some of the most important types of gatherings. How do we create meaningful reunions when the group is made up of three or more generations?

The answer: structure and stories. Many of the activities during a reunion will be unstructured. But occasionally including structure and stories can elevate your gathering.

Here’s an example. George Dawes Green is the founder of The Moth, a nonprofit organization that presents storytelling events across the United States and around the world. He and his family planned a reunion that included seventy people and lasted for three days. His sister suggested that one night be ‘Moth Night.’ They rented out a local hall, and asked every member to spend five minutes sharing through a story. The topic was: ‘What does it mean to be a Green?’ The stories shared on ‘Moth Night’ were a highlight of the reunion. The group especially enjoyed hearing the thoughts of younger family members, including one in middle school.

What’s the biggest takeaway about how to make a gathering better?

If you focus on only one thing in any gathering, focus on what you’re going to ask — not what you’re going to serve!

By Margie Zable Fisher
Margie Zable Fisher is the founder of The 50-Year-Old Mermaid, where she and other 50+ women share learnings and experiences on living their best lives after 50.

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