Epistle 2: Places, spaces and party traps

Today let’s talk about place, space and placement.

The locale is of course important for all parties, not only the refined kind. I am aware that we have different resources. Some of us live in castles, others in grand apartments, still others in small, humble flats.

Some of us can choose where to hold our party, others have only one alternative.

Seen from a wider perspective the place for your party does not much matter — if other factors are satisfying. It is not of prime importance. However, even if all the other factors (guest list, the host (you), the program, etc.) are fantastic, the locale can still add a lot to the evening.

One cannot criticize natural resources, so to say; we live as we live. However, even a very humble flat can be “upgraded” for a party, prepared for festivities.

When I arrive to a party I may note that this is a very simple apartment, but also that the host is generous, has used his imagination well and really created a festive touch. He has made a lot out of almost nothing.

The other extreme is the grandiose flat, but you note that the host couldn’t care less. He thinks that “natural gifts” are enough, so why should he exert himself? Even though his flat is much more impressive than the simple flat, it strikes me as much less festive. The thought, the generosity (and all the resulting consequences) count much more than raw materials.

Not all of this live like this.
Not all of us live like this.

Irrespective of whether you hold the party at your own place or somewhere else, try to find that festive touch that feels extra-ordinary. Aim for a weekend, not weekday, tone, so that when the guests arrive they sense that this is no ordinary meeting but something different, a party apart.

There are lots of details that can raise the party’s electrical atmosphere. They are too many to recount, but let me speak somewhat about furniture and furnishing.

There are two main roads to take here: sitting or moving about.

Either you are inviting your guests to dinner, sitting at a more or less long table. Food will obviously be an important factor then.

But of course people don’t just sit and eat at a party, they also talk. I often find that even though the food is very good and well taken care of, the talk isn’t. Or I should say, the possibilities for stimulating conversation are not made the most of. Keep in mind that even when the food is only so-so, we well remember an evening with sparklingly stimulating conversation. Good talk counts more than grub (and is more rare).

But how do we create good talk? Not an easy thing. Let’s look at how to avoid creating poor talk, lame conversation, and things will immediately improve.

Let us count. How many people do we have immediate access to at a party where we sit down to eat?

Five.

Two to my left and right, and three in front of me. If we are going to sit and eat for perhaps several hours then these five individuals are going to be immensely important to me. Or immensely boring…. Which happens all to often.

If I would hold such a party — which I don’t, because I don’t believe in forcing people to sit in one place for hours — I would not let my guests choose where to sit. We gravitate towards that and those we already know, out of habit and sometimes out of fear (“What if I have nothing to say to those admittedly interesting looking strangers over there? No, I will stick to my old pals!”). Not a festive thing, especially not for those who don’t have any old pals to fall back on.

Consider that at larger parties (20 guests or more) there are usually always a couple of lost, “left-over” people who hardly don’t know anybody at all. And there are perhaps several groups of 2-5 people who know each other almost too well. (I call these groups clumps. They often create small sub-parties within the larger, actual party. More about clumps and sub-parties later.)

What happens to these 4-5 odd folks? They may be lucky and find each other immensely interesting. Then again, they may not. And the fact that others already know each other well can easily dampen their mood and joy.

I don’t want that to happen. Therefore I would compose A Well Thought Out List for the table seating.list2

Here is a great opportunity for you to let out, and cultivate, your inner matchmaker. Because matchmaking is what this is about. You should have the total guest list in front of you and lay a puzzle, see how you can find preferably five persons for each guest that are interesting TO them, and interested IN them.

That’s some challenge, and it will probably not succeed. But having aimed for the impossible, your party will be so much better than if you had thrown a dice and given the matter just ten paltry minutes.

This can also be a truly fun aspect of pre-party planning. Imagining how A, B, C, D and E will fit in with F trains your imagination and your “host muscles”, which are always concerned with the interaction of diverse human beings.

You might come up with groups that fit each other harmoniously, or adventurously, or bizarrely. That’s fine, we don’t need a totally homogenous whole, that could be boring, even slightly comatose.

An aspect of adventure lightens up the grey terrain of our sometimes dreary lives. Do not be afraid of it. Be more afraid of boredom and connecting people who make each other yawn.

Give time to this preparation; it might be more fun than the party itself! And of course be prepared to change things at the last minute, when your carefully thought out plans meet the reality of guests who cannot come or arrive late.

A good host always lands on his feet, not on his nose. And definitely not on the nose of another!

land on nose

As I said, I wouldn’t throw this kind of party myself; I prefer to leave more room for my guests. Say that I have 20 people coming over. Even if I can be a perfect matchmaker and create perfect groups of five, I wouldn’t want a guest to be limited to only five people, plus sit the whole evening. Neither would most of my guests.

I believe in the charm and excitement and adventure of meeting new, exotic people, but this also entails leaving people. I might have a great little conversation or chat with someone at a party, but after a while I want more. There are other people that whet my curiosity. At a sitting dinner I would be chained to a chair, but at a more mobile party nothing (expect perhaps misguided “politeness”) stops me from excusing myself and moving on, to the next flower, and to the next.

If I have met and talked with perhaps 15 interesting people at a party, I call that a great evening! (I will probably write an entire epistle about mingling.)

ornament5b

Obviously all this is partly a question of furnishing. Every home can be furnished in different ways and nothing stops you from moving your furniture about. If you lack chairs you can borrow from a neighbor or friend.

As to food, instead of a dinner you could have a buffet. All the food on one table, so that the guests take their plates and help themselves.

This is in a double sense a wise move socially, because during this fetching food-stage one bumps into other people. Other people are in my opinion the very raison d’être of refined party life. And in my book “bumping” is a good thing. When you just sit and sit you don’t bump into no one; no fortunate coincidences, no Lady Luck. The moving about reinforces the adventurous, exciting aspect of the evening.

But of course we don’t want everybody to stand the whole night. I would place smaller tables here and there with perhaps 3-4 chairs around them. Not more.

This will create small islands, but not forts. You can quickly get in, but also get out (which is just as important). When boredom sets in, on you move! Don’t fall into the well of misdirected politeness.

I ask none of my guests to bear boredom; however, I often feel that that is asked of me at parties.

Just say no to boredom is my watchword.

How many people here have the party time of their life?
We’re sitting it out…

So, create possibilities to rest, sit, eat, but also to move. Let’s be as mobile as our telephones.

A warning is in place here: watch out for the sofa-armchair-trap, the SAT. I call it trap because that’s what it is. The SAT consists of a sofa, usually a low table and a couple of chairs around it. Now imagine the dynamism of this formation.

When the first four guests arrive, guests with not strong enough hedonistic impulses (i.e. willing to give up enjoyment too easily), they sit down in the sofa. The low table kind of shuts them in.

More guests arrive and place themselves on the chairs around the sofa. The prison is set!

What happens in this situation? Here is a likely scenario:

Imagine that you are one of the people sitting in the sofa. With the added newcomers a kind of circle has been formed. Now a circle can be a really dangerous thing. It closes in, and it excludes out. It is hard to enter from outside (for newcomers), and it is hard to exit for those already in. Yes, that sounds like a prison.

You need a good excuse, a too good excuse to leave the sofa now. No excuse should be needed at all.

A circle seems to have a message of its own. It says: “Let’s keep this together folks. Let’s stick together, talk together, think together…”

What a sorry invitation to conformism… Even a half open circle can be bad.

We're in this together.
We’re in this together. This sofa.

All this CAN be great if we really do think together, but that happens seldom. Often this is just a low bow to the idol of Conformism. Vive la similarité.

A common variation is that 2-3 people (if we are lucky) talk about something that really interests them, while the others get the role of audience. They can of course be “polite” and try to fit into a conversation that, to be honest, bores them. Not good.

But it can be even worse. Those 2-3 people that we THOUGHT were talking about something that really interested them, might be “polite” as well, feigning interest without having it. Now that’s really bad!

Yes, we must admit it: its not always easy to “break the ice” and start a conversation. Often we take the road of least resistance and talk about something that we THINK interests everybody. But what “interests everybody” often interests nobody. And even if it does interest, going the way of least resistance creates the least pleasure — and the most boredom.

By placing that sofa there, that table there and those chairs there, you have almost created an invitation to boredom. Don’t do it.

Open up the whole thing. If you have a sofa, don’t shut it in with a table. Keep the chairs away from it. Create white space, freedom, breathing room. Let your guests be birds, let them fly and don’t fence them in.

ornament5b

As you understand this kind of moving, non-sitting arrangement is better suited for more artistic and even bohemian folks. Bohemians are often used to informal and aleatoric parties where everything just happens. I see a need for a higher bohemian octave. I have tried to describe some aspects of it here.

Much depends on the guest list, of course. We will discuss that important subject at length in another epistle.

Missa est. Party on!

Epistle 1: Let´s start at the end

So let the party begin!

It would be logical, and traditional, to start with semantic preliminaries, trying to define what a party is and create an intellectual foundation for what is to come.

Logical and BORING. But boredom is not something I want to connect with parties, so instead I will begin at the end. Before that, however, a VERY general division of the party domain (more nuances to come).

Parties can be IMPROVISED or COMPOSED, more spontaneous and aleatoric (random) or more controlled.

compose-improviseIf you favor the spontaneous, improvised party there is not much I can contribute. Party on, throw the dice and see how it lands. These epistles are for those who want to go beyond informal, improvised partying. By the way, I call the aleatoric party hip-hap[hazard]. It can be great, or dull, but it is, literally, out of control (which is part of its attraction and charm).

Hip-Hap! Lady Luck plays a small role at my parties.
Hip-Hap! Lady Luck plays a small role at my parties.

Now let´s really start at the end.

Let us suppose that you are planning a party. How would you like it to end? Imagine that your guests have just left the scene of festivities, they are going home while discussing the evening. What would make you most happy, what would you like them to say about your party (while you were not listening)?

  1. What a wonderful dinner we had!
  2. I am so full that I cannot eat for a whole week…
  3. Who was that crazy fellow in the yellow suit?!?
  4. My, what interesting people! The conversation was really flying!
  5. I could kill for those furniture, they must have cost a fortune…
  6. Phew, I thought it would never end… How do I get on the Don´t invite me again-list?
  7. … add your own alternative

Ponder this for a minute, because your answer, your dream scenario so to say, is an important piece of the party puzzle.

ornament5bSo, let us get our priorities straight. If you know how you want the party to end, you know how to begin and move forward. Let the end decide your direction.

§ If you want your guests to admire your expensive furniture, buy expensive furniture.

§ If you want them to marvel at the crazy fellow in the yellow suit, invite a crazy fellow in a yellow suit.

§ If you want them to admire your wizardry in the food department, that is to make their bellies happy, then fix a really nice dinner or buffet. (This is a classic goal and aim. Unfortunately, many parties only offer this kind of food. Mr Belly is happy but there is hardly any food for thought or food for heart.)

§ If you want your guests to be happy because your party is over, just be an awful and boring host. (In all honesty we must say that some guests are no saints either. Some actually deserve to be put on the Never invite again-list.)

I am sure I don´t have to give special advice for this alternative; just do things awkwardly. Of course if THIS is your goal, your motivation for throwing a party at all will remain a mystery to me.

§ If you want your guests to be happy because of all the interesting people they met and the great conversations they had, invite fascinating people who are great conversationalists and listeners.

This, by the way, is my personal goal. I cannot really prepare a stunning dinner, often I can´t afford it. You wouldn´t look twice at my furniture. However, I have a fascinating and intriguing circle of friends. This is what I have emphasized in my life, people. My party talent definitely lies in the area of human raw material, not in vegetables or interior design.

Besides, I am a matchmaker, quite proud of the fact that people have met at my party and then married. (That they later divorced was not my fault… I think.)

Knowing what we want, our priorities, strengths and weaknesses is one aspect of the refined party life. As Socrates might have said (he supposedly liked to party)

Know thy party talents.
Know thy party talents.

KNOWING OUR LIMITATIONS

You might answer that you want to make your guest happy with nice food but you cannot fix a great dinner. Or, you might want to invite your friends to a wonderfully witty evening. but you know too few people.

This can be disappointing of course, but at least you now know what you want, and what you have (or not). Your self-knowledge has grown.

From here — the important ending — we can reverse and crab-like go backwards to our practical preparations. We are wiser. We know what effect we are aiming for, what feelings we want to evoke in the hearts of our guests. We might not succeed 100 % — but hey! we will succeed even less if we don´t even know what we want!

Why be formal, you may ask. What´s wrong with improvised parties? Of course the informal hip-hap party is the easiest of them all to throw.

alea jacta est
It need not cost a lot of money, preparation, or thought. Just invite people over and party. It might turn out to be great fun — or it might not, such is the nature of aleatoric parties.

However, by and large they are not challenging or interesting enough, if you ask this party composer. A bit like a McDonald´s meal. And our friends sure deserve to be treated better than prosaic fast food.

Partyology is concerned with somewhat less random festivities. About 47.3 % less.

CHOOSING VARIETY

Naturally we don´t have to settle for just one type of party, or only one kind of attraction. There´s nothing wrong with great conversation AND food AND furniture (a beautiful space can create a festive atmosphere the moment you enter it).

And probably we throw different kinds of parties at different times. Sometimes food is the focus, sometimes music, sometimes the company. And sometimes we party just because it’s Tuesday. Every excuse is legitimate.

When we have decided more specifically how our next party is going to be, we need to move on and make further decisions about

  • where exactly to hold the party
  • how many guests to invite
  • how important food and drink will be
  • if we want some kind of program (or, God forbid, theme)
  • how long into the night we want to party

All this comes later. For now we have taken care of the first important decision: how we want the party to end.

End of Epistle One.