As hosts of the public radio show, The Dinner Party Download, Brendan Francis Newnam and Rico Gagliano helped listeners learn how to "win your dinner party." They have now authored the book Brunch Is Hell: How to Save the World by Throwing a Dinner Party. They talk to Francis Lam about why you should opt for a dinner party, not brunch (unless you are a new parent.)
Francis Lam: I love your book, but I have to say I take an exception to the title, Brunch is Hell. Because I’m the father of a daughter that has to be in bed by 7:30 p.m. I don't get to go out to dinner anymore. Don’t take my brunch away from me. That is all I got man.
Rico Gagliano: That's OK. We give you a special dispensation. It's in a footnote in the first one or two chapters of the book that new parents get brunch because it is one of the few times that they can go out.
FL: Alright fine, Brendan and Rico. We are here to talk not about brunch, but about dinner parties and how to throw them. In your mind, what matters when you’re setting up your home for people to come over?
Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, it's a good question because we think part of the reason people are not having dinner parties is because they do have anxiety about how their house looks or how the food is going to be. If you have absolutely no time, the only thing you really, really need to do is clean your bathroom.
BFN: As basic as that sounds, it's the one room in the house where people are going to be alone. And you should probably check the medicine cabinet because your guests are going to. Other than that, yes, you can clean up your living room and maybe put some old magazines away. The kitchen can remain a mess because that's often where people will be hanging out, but that's fine. That is where a lot of the work is getting done. And the reason we like dinner parties is because they are a reflection of you. If your home isn't perfectly polished -- that's OK. It can actually make people feel a little more relaxed about their homes.
FL: How do you like to get into the mode? I want to be present with people.
RG: That is absolutely one of the most important things about a dinner party -- that it is one of the few places in modern life where you can be present for a long time with other people and share a conversation. We have a list of challenges over time that the dinner party has overcome, and it's managed historically to always overcome these obstacles, but we are not entirely sure that it has managed to overcome the invention of the iPhone, which allows you to stream kitten videos at the dinner table. Some people have this idea that everybody should give up their phones and put them in a bowl that sounds vaguely like a 1970s key party to us, and you’re also treating your friends like children. I do think that you should police this a little bit, you know, if people are getting out their phones too much just be like, hey, please, we want to be having a conversation here. And there are places during a dinner party, kind of stopping points where it's perfectly OK to take out the phone and check on your babysitter, or see what the scores of the game are. Usually that is between dinner and dessert when everyone is cleaning off the table. Again if you go to the bathroom alone you can check your phone a little bit there, too.
FL: OK, so if we are at the table we are doing our best to keep our hands off our devices.
FL: Unless we’re using the long knives and forks and spoons. And everyone wants to be a gracious host and host the lively conversation where we touch up on the issues of the day with wit and candor, but sometimes it’s awkward and I will make an excuse to go back to kitchen.
RG: Oh, really?
FL: So how do you get people talking?
BFN: Well, you know there are a couple of phases to this. Before you go to the table, you welcomed people, maybe gave them a drink, you’ve introduced some folks, you’ve taken the jackets, and that is the time for small talk. And then by the time you arrived at dinner, we’ve had some hors d’oeuvres, or maybe have gotten to know to each other, and that's when we advocate for deeper conversation. The number one rule, we think, is shut up.
BFN: Weirdly, it's to get out of the way, it’s to listen. People want to be heard and often in life they are not. And so if someone is in the middle of a story, let them have some space. There is no rush.
RG: It's fascinating. We actually have a quote in the book from what seems like an unlikely source, Alan Alda, who has done some research on conversations and the ways that information is transmitted, and it turns out that when people tell stories their brains literally sync up. When someone is telling you a story your brain syncs with that person. So, a goal of a good dinner party is to get people to tell stories because you’re literally mind melding with the other people at the table.
FL: Oh, I love that!
BFN: But in the moment it's really like go with the flow, make it personal, and talk about people as opposed to abstract principles, and often people will listen in if you’re telling a story about how a person was affected by a policy, as opposed to just the abstract policy as well.
FL: Thanks so much Brendan and Rico!
BFN: Alright goodbye Francis look for our invitation in your email.
RG: Anytime Francis.
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