The Art of Gathering Response
The examples of networking events, dinner parties, and exclusive gala dinners outlined in Priya Parker's The Art of Gathering reminded me A LOT of my life here at Princeton (pre-COVID), which also speaks to the audience Priya's book might have been intended for. Her examples around optimizing the physical setup to bring people together, creating certain "rules" to follow, curating your guests and taking an active role as a host seem to be the playbook that Princeton's colleges, eating clubs, and affinity groups follow. Having hosted a few pre-games, launch parties, and networking events myself, it was really interesting to see all the psychology that has gone into my head when planning these events laid out and further developed so explicitly in text form. I appreciated her section on exclusion, I also struggle to find a better word for it, but it is important to be as intentional as one can be when planning a gathering.
Last week, I hosted a digital gathering for a surprise Zoom birthday party for my mom. It was interesting because the age range of the group was on average way higher than the ones in the digital gatherings I've been used to attending thus far, and creating a welcoming but also digitally accessible setting for everyone required a lot of thought. I settled on zoom just because of the ease of creating group calls and the fact that it is the only "free" and widely used service (at least in Brazil) that I know of that would allow for this. I decide dnot to try any other fancy apps that required creating an account so that all my mom's friends, including those who only had smartphones and/or didn't have much experience working with these apps, could participate. The second part was deciding who was going to come, and I think I inadvertently ended up using a lot of the advice in the section about exclusion. My mom is deeply religious and from the beginning I knew that I wanted to open her birthday party with a mini sermon and prayer from our church's pastor, who was one of the first people I invited. Our extended family, as opposed to my deeply evangelical parents, is buddhist/a-religious, and have often been uncomfortable in those settings. Not that the two worlds don't mix, but I know that my mom always feels more like herself when she's surrounded by her church community. For that reason, I made the decision to only invite her close friends who were appreciative at least and in touch with her spiritual side. The next part was choosing the format of the meeting, because I HATE zoom birthday parties because it's always so awkward with so many people trying to talk on top of each other, or nobody having the courage to say anything because digitally, it really is only realistic for one person to talk at a time. So I also ended up using Parker's advice (even though I only read the chapter after the event) on being an authoritative host to some capacity. I wanted the focus to be on my mom, so I made a queue with all the participants and asked each of them (in order) to spend 2 minutes max sharing a story or moment they have had with my mom.
The event was a success, and I think everyone was grateful for the meeting's structure around both spirituality and celebrating my mom's life. I'm not sure if Parker will touch into this part in the following chapters, but knowing where to stop/end the event is also an important skill. I always try to end events at a sweet spot where I know people will have had enough time to enjoy themselves/fulfill the purpose of the event but will also leave wanting more and eager for the next (if it were to repeat itself). Maintaining the structure and promptly ending the event after the pastor's prayer was actually really great for that and had us (at least me) leaving the call feeling energized and warm, rather than exhausted and relieved as I often do for zoom birthday parties.
This gets me to the last part of my response, which got me thinking about the audience of Parker's book. Clearly, this book was written with some type of corporate manager, first-world NGO worker, young professional in Brooklyn type person in mind. And so the types of gatherings discussed and the examples of do's and don'ts fit inside that view. However, for gatherings where the purpose is much larger than just one business decision or social-group bonding, where the stakes are higher and the purpose is towards the actual organization of people, how do we take these ideas of hosting, excluding, curating the space to the next level? Especially now in a time where physical gatherings are so restricted and we have to get even more creative, what would Parker have to contribute? Now that the internet allows for movements to gather in so many new ways, the ability to organize and communicate across any sort of physical border really changes everything. Social media was one thing but the new zoom/digital work/play landscape is an entirely new reality, and it's definitely here to stay. Under this lens, what are the uses of Parker's book? To be honest I still am having trouble getting through to understand Parker's argument. Has she just overthought her dinner parties? Or is she actually saying something new? Is "gathering," especially the types of gatherings she's usually writing about, which, to be honest, I couldn't care less about because I will never be at a fancy liquor brand gala or afford to go to any of these White Dinners, enough of a phenomenon or art to be worth reading this entire book for?
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