Create a Temporary Alternative World

 


Four


Create a Temporary Alternative World

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Sometimes you need to spice things up.


So far, we have explored how to anchor your gathering in a meaningful purpose. How to close doors on the basis of that purpose. And how to be a host who takes care of your guests by taking the right kind of charge. These decisions will give your gathering a solid foundation.


Many of the people I work with don’t realize they need to do this foundational work. I have to convince them to go back to basics. The question they often come to me with instead is the one we turn to now, and we can turn to it because we have gone through the foundation making: How do I mix things up at my next gathering?


If Internet-advice sites are a guide, the hunger for answers to this question is widespread. From SheKnows.com: “Ways to Spice Up Your Next Dinner Party.” From the online-invitation company Evite: “5 Ways to Spice Up Your Office Party.” From Wisdump: “Holding a Conference? Spice It Up with These Geeky Ideas.” From the Catholic Youth Ministry Hub: “Twelve Ways to Spice Up Your Next Youth Group Breakfast.”


Some of the tips you find on such sites work; some don’t. But this genre of advice misses a larger point, which is that many of our bland gatherings cannot be saved by one-off interventions and tricks that are disconnected from the context of the gathering. A gathering’s blandness is a symptom of a disease. We must treat the disease. And what is the disease? That the gathering makes no effort to do what the best gatherings do: transport us to a temporary alternative world.


So I will leave the micro-tips and micro-tricks of spicing things up to the Internet. In this chapter we will delve into a way of seasoning your gathering more deeply: designing it as a world that will exist only once.

THE RISE OF RULES

I began noticing the invitations a few years ago—invitations I personally received and ones people showed me. In some ways, they were conventional, asking people to a dinner, a conference, or a meeting. But they contained an unfamiliar, even jarring ingredient: rules for the gathering.


There was the group that called itself, with no apparent humility, the Influencer Salon. It gathers twelve strangers every month to cook and eat together. The invitation contained these rules: “Conversation: We ask that guests do not discuss their careers or give their last names until after the presentation portion of the evening”; “Photography: Photos are only allowed during the presentation portion”; and “Attendance: People who confirm and do not attend are unlikely to be invited again.” (The presentation, it turned out, was the serving of the dinner.)


There was a gathering called the House of Genius, which started as an experiment in Boulder, Colorado, bringing together a group of entrepreneurs and using their collective brainpower to solve one of their problems. It came with its own set of “House Rules,” including “FIRST NAMES ONLY: Personal information—last names, professions, etc.—are saved for last. In the interest of maintaining pure collaboration, use first names only until The Reveal”; and “COLLABORATE CONSTRUCTIVELY: Genius is about creative, actionable ideas for a greater good. Criticism can be appropriate, but please keep it constructive. If you like something that has already been said, feel free to ‘+1’ the comment.”


There was a so-called Jeffersonian Dinner, the invitation to which warned that “you cannot talk to the person next to you, you can only talk to the entire table.”


There was a destination birthday party in New Orleans, whose invitation came with its own rather charming set of rules: “Limit your time in bed,” “Don’t stray from the herd, be a strong follower,” “Take tremendous photos but post nothing,” “Commit to a conversation with a local,” “Make up more rules as we go,” and “Don’t miss the flight home.”


There was a wedding invitation that said, “We invite you to be Fully Present with us at our UNPLUGGED WEDDING. Kindly turn off your phones and cameras.”


There was even a Christmas party invitation that issued a rule about RSVPing: “We don’t care if you come or go, but you must RSVP. If you don’t RSVP, you won’t be invited next year.”


At times, these rules struck me as unreasonably demanding. Who are you to tell me who to talk to, which of my names I can reveal, what I can talk about, whether I seek alone time or not, whether I check my texts or not, whether I update my Instagram feed or not? These rules could seem like the stuffy old etiquette that ruled many older gatherings, but on steroids. What’s nice about etiquette is no one clogs up your inbox about it. No one tells you what it is in advance. No one forces you to practice it. You just may not get invited back if you mess it up. Here was something different: people dictating the details of their guests’ conduct up front and plainly, leaving nothing to the imagination or social cues.


It took me time to understand that what these gatherings signified was not a doubling down on etiquette but a rebellion against it. In the explicitness and oftentimes the whimsy of these rules was a hint of what they were really about: replacing the passive-aggressive, exclusionary, glacially conservative commandments of etiquette with something more experimental and democratic.

RANDOM KNOWLEDGE OF HOW OLD RICH PEOPLE WANT YOU TO BEHAVE

In sixth grade, I begged my parents to sign me up for Junior Cotillion. All my friends in northern Virginia were doing it, and I was not going to be left out, even if I didn’t know what a “cotillion” was. My parents—since I was an only child and was raised in my early years outside the United States—were keen on sending me to things where I would have company, especially if they seemed very American. Thus they signed me up for what amounted to Southern charm school lite.


The National League of Junior Cotillions traces its origins back to the town of Lincolnton, North Carolina, and the year 1979, when a woman named Anne Colvin Winters began teaching etiquette. Winters was a former pageant winner and debutante in her hometown of Gastonia, North Carolina, who would go on to be a statewide organizer for Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns, focusing on colleges and universities. The little classes she began in Lincolnton eventually grew into a national organization, with three hundred chapters in more than thirty states. Junior Cotillion offered students “a three year curriculum designed to give young people instruction and practice in the courtesies that make life more pleasant for them and those around them.”


Among the skills that Junior Cotillion taught were proper telephone courtesy, acknowledgment of gifts, introductions, receiving lines, participating in group settings, polite conversation, paying and receiving compliments, sports etiquette, first impressions, dress code for all occasions, manners in the home and in public places, table manners, formal place settings, styles of dining (including American, Asian, and Continental), skills involved in being a guest, hostess, or host, and many other areas of social behavior.


Once a month, I put on stockings, a pleated navy polyester skirt, a white turtleneck that I tucked into that skirt, and my favorite floral vest, and I was driven to a local country club to learn how to make life more pleasant for those around me. The teacher, a South African woman, would roll out a table with a white tablecloth and show us proper table settings, down to the precise placement of a wineglass. She explained the correct way to send a thank-you note (promptly and by including a specific detail of appreciation), what to do when you drop a fork at a restaurant (never pick it up), and the steps of the foxtrot. I remember most classes ending with a formal dance lesson. (I was terrified of this part because it required pairing up with a boy to learn the steps, and I suffered from what my friends called “sweaty-hand syndrome.”)


Cotillion was enjoyable, if not life changing. I enjoyed hanging out and giggling through much of it with my friends. I saw the inside of a country club for the first time. And I liked the graduation ceremony, because we got to have a dance party at the local Clyde’s restaurant. But the lessons imparted to us didn’t feel especially useful. I filed the teachings of Junior Cotillion into the deep recesses of my brain as Random Knowledge of How Old Rich People Want You to Behave.


There is no doubt that etiquette has a certain value. I’m the one who lobbied my parents to send me to Junior Cotillion, after all. Within a certain social milieu or professional class, it is helpful to have a common set of norms and behaviors. Sharing this common code allows people to coordinate more easily, to avoid embarrassing one another, and to minimize the social risk of situations.


These positive features of etiquette work particularly well in stable, closed, homogeneous groups. When like gathers with like, etiquette often does its work so well that no one notices its presence. In ancient Greece, when you were invited to a symposium, you knew there would be a chair for you, probably in a circle, perhaps in the host’s bedroom, and that you had better prepare your liver and your larynx. If you were invited to a neighbor’s home in Waterloo, Iowa, in the 1950s, you would know that after eating in the dining room, the group might wander over to the piano to sing songs together, many of which you, like everyone else, had learned in Sunday school. In Stockholm today, when you’re invited to a crayfish party in August, you know that you might need to call back to mind the lyrics of the snapvisor and that you should be ready to down a shot of schnapps. And in Argentina, when families gather for a Sunday-afternoon barbecue, no one makes plans for the rest of the day. That would be silly. Because they know, after they eat platter after platter of meat, they will sit and talk, and then sit and talk some more—sobremesa, or “over the table,” as it is called. Each of these situations is lubricated by etiquette. A group of like-minded, similarly raised people gather enjoyably, over and over, by following an unspoken and long-standing code of being.


The problem is that more and more of us do not live in closed circles of like-minded, similarly raised people. Think of the last few gatherings you attended—a work meeting, a class, a trade show. Chances are, you sat next to and talked with people from places other than where you’re from, people with different cultural norms, people of different races and religions and histories. And chances are, therefore, that you sat next to people who do practice etiquette—but etiquette different from yours, and perhaps even in conflict with it on certain points. When my Argentine friends used to show up to dinner parties in New York an hour late, they were confused as to why their friends were livid. They were experiencing a clash not of civilizations but of etiquettes. When Jewish and Christian in-laws come together for the first time over Thanksgiving, and one side opens with the Lord’s Prayer, as they always have, and the other family sits quietly feeling isolated, they, too, are experiencing a clash of etiquettes, not to mention belief systems. In the world we are becoming, there will be even more such clashes.

ETIQUETTE VS. POP-UP RULES

The rise of pop-up rules can be better understood against this backdrop. It is no accident that rules-based gatherings are emerging as modern life does away with monocultures and closed circles of the similar. Pop-up rules are perhaps the new etiquette, more suited to modern realities. If implicit etiquette, absorbed from birth, was useful for gatherings of closed tribes, whether Boston Brahmins or Tamil ones, explicit pop-up rules are better for gathering across difference. Rules-based gatherings, controlling as they might seem, are actually bringing new freedom and openness to our gatherings. To grasp why, we have to look into the differences between pop-up rules and etiquette.


The cotillion class I took is part of a long tradition of etiquette that goes back hundreds of years. In 1750, the fourth Earl of Chesterfield wrote a letter to his illegitimate son, Philip Stanhope, laying out advice that would come to be regarded as one of the founding texts of modern etiquette. “You have acquired knowledge,” he wrote, “which is the Principium et Fons; but you have now a variety of lesser things to attend to, which collectively make one great and important object. You easily guess that I mean the Graces, the air, address, politeness.” Among these “Graces” was the ability “to carve, eat, and drink genteelly, and with ease.” One should avoid “awkward attitudes, and illiberal, ill-bred, and disgusting habits; such as scratching yourself, putting your fingers in your mouth, nose, and ears.”


On the road from eighteenth-century etiquette to Junior Cotillion were many stops: the teachings of Emily Post, Robert’s Rules of Order for business conduct, and various other sources of guidance on how not to mess up in polite society. Yet when I read the letters of the Earl of Chesterfield, what strikes me is how a few basic features of the etiquette approach to life were baked in from the start.


One of these is fixedness. Whether in the earl’s instructions to his son or in the curriculum I absorbed at Junior Cotillion, there is a strong sense of permanence. These aren’t the guidelines for this event or this month or this year; these are the enduring right ways to be. To practice these ways was to uphold a tradition. And because these codes wouldn’t change, the assumption was that you needed to learn them early and on your own time, so that you would be ready to deploy them in society. “We truly believe manners will never go out of style and the skills we help children develop are the skills of a lifetime,” the National League of Junior Cotillions declares.


The etiquette approach to life is also imperious. It is the opposite of humble. It shows minimal interest in how different cultures or regions do things. It upholds a gold standard of behavior as the only acceptable one for people who wish to be seen as refined. It is not interested in variety or diversity, or the idea of different strokes for different folks. At Junior Cotillion, we didn’t learn the dances of Compton, Spanish Harlem, or Appalachia. We learned the foxtrot. We acquired its idea of the universal access code for appearing polite.


A third feature of the etiquette approach is exclusion. The value system behind etiquette is aristocratic. It is designed to help you stand out from the mob. The idea is to scale the social ladder, not collapse it. If everyone knew the foxtrot and proper wine-glass placement, going to Junior Cotillion would no longer help students transcend the herd and be “among the most successful in their graduating classes,” as its website promises.


If the standards of etiquette are fixed, imperious, and exclusionary, pop-up rules have the power to flip these traits on their head, creating the possibility of more experimental, humble, and democratic—and satisfying!—gatherings.


If etiquette is about sustaining unchanging norms, pop-up rules are about trying stuff out. The etiquette of not bringing up politics or religion at dinner applies, in the minds of those who believe in it, to all dinners, not just their own, and not just ones during an election year. But the rule of not saying your last name at a salon is a lark that expires as soon as the last guest has gone. In an etiquette-based gathering, the ways of behaving flow from your identity and define who you are. In a rules-based gathering, the behaviors are temporary. Whereas etiquette fostered a kind of repression, gathering with rules can allow for boldness and experimentation. Rules can create an imaginary, transient world that is actually more playful than your everyday gathering. That is because everyone realizes that the rules are temporary and is, therefore, willing to obey them.


If etiquette is about the One Right Way, pop-up rules make no such claims. They are free of the ethnocentric, classist pretensions of etiquette, because the rules they enforce are made-up. Their impermanence is a sign of their humility. No one is claiming that the withholding of last names is the mark of a cultured person. They are just saying that on this day, at this time, with these people, for this purpose, do not say your last name, and let us see what happens.


And if etiquette is about keeping people out of certain gatherings and social circles, pop-up rules can actually democratize who gets to gather. What could be less democratic than etiquette, which must be internalized for years before showing up at an event? A rule requires no advance preparation. Thus someone who has just arrived in a country and is unfamiliar with its culture, but is able to read an email, can fully, without embarrassment, partake in a rules-based gathering—but would struggle at a gathering full of etiquette landmines. It is not difficult as an outsider to comply with the rules of a Jeffersonian Dinner or a House of Genius event or one of the trendy new “silent dinners.” But grasping whether a dinner party in Hamburg is the kind at which you should say “gesundheit” after a sneeze or rather shouldn’t—that takes years of immersing in German social life, of learning codes and cues. If implicit etiquette serves closed circles that assume commonality, explicit rules serve open circles that assume difference. The explicitness levels the playing field for outsiders.


Etiquette allows people to gather because they are the same. Pop-up rules allow people to gather because they are different—yet open to having the same experience. In my observation, many of the people best able to gather across tribal lines these days are those willing to play with pop-up rules. When they do, they often end up creating that temporary alternative world I described earlier. By drafting a kind of one-time-only constitution for a gathering, a host can give rise to a fleeting kingdom that pulls people in, tries something new, and, yes, spices things up.


Let’s now zoom in on one such gathering and see how it works—the Dîner en Blanc.

A KALEIDOSCOPE OF WHITE

Dîner en Blanc is a magical example of what a gathering can achieve when it is governed by explicit rules rather than hidden etiquette. It is a global dinner-party series that has hosted events all over the world, from Kingston to Singapore, Kigali to Bucharest. A dinner in a single city on a single night may have as many as fifteen thousand guests. An event occurs just once a year in any given city, but there have now been dinners in seventy cities on six continents. The dinners bring together people of all backgrounds, races, languages, and sexual orientations. People don’t need to share a common language; they can come with whatever dietary restrictions they have.


What became a global phenomenon started as a personal invitation. In 1988, François Pasquier was returning to his native France with his family after two years living in French Polynesia. He invited a large group of friends to join him for dinner at his home to celebrate his homecoming. Then, realizing there wouldn’t be enough space, he told them instead to meet at the Parc de Bagatelle, one of Paris’s four botanical gardens. He asked each guest to bring a friend and to wear white to make it easier to find one another in the public gardens. The evening turned out to be memorable and electric and they decided to repeat it the following year, and again the following. Each year, there were many of the usual suspects, plus a growing number of newcomers. It expanded and expanded, all through word of mouth, each year more spectacular than the last. Once it outgrew the Parc de Bagatelle, they began hosting it in even more iconic venues in Paris—the Pont des Arts, the Palais-Royal, and the Trocadéro. The organizers tried to keep a certain continuity to the dinners by requiring that newcomers be invited by someone who had attended the previous year. Still, over time, the annual Parisian dinner has grown to more than fifteen thousand guests. And it began to spread around the world, from continent to continent.


And the not-so-secret secret of its spread is the invention of a rule-based format that allows the dinners to gather people who share very little in common.


On the appointed evening, thousands of locals dress elegantly in white from head to toe, with a dash of the spectacular—perhaps a boa, a fascinator, a top hat, a cane, angel wings, or white gloves. They arrive in pairs at one of a number of designated locations throughout the city. They are carrying picnic baskets full of champagne, elegant home-cooked food, glassware, white tablecloths, white flowers, and their own fold-up tables and chairs. They do not know ahead of time where this massive flash mob of a dinner party will take place. But they are sure it will be good.


The guests are escorted, typically in groups of fifty, from their meeting points to a surprise venue in the city, along with thousands of others. Once at the venue, they set about building a glimmering but temporary ant colony of white. They unfold their white tables, their white portable chairs, their white tablecloths. They array their tables in long rows, and the women sit on one side of each row all the way down, the men on the other. Each pair lays its own table with things brought from outside: glassware, porcelain, candles, fresh flowers, vases, napkin holders, and whatever else might add to the beauty of the evening. There is not a speck of paper or plastic to be seen.


There is no public announcement to begin, no MC guiding the night (in fact, it is explicitly forbidden). Rather, to signal the beginning of the evening, guests, reading one another’s cues, grab their white dinner napkins and wave them in the air. It is time to eat. For ninety minutes, as the sun sets, this gigantic tribe feasts on three-course homemade meals. The food, like the tables and candles and everything else, is brought by the guests, and the hosts strongly encourage it to be homemade. (In recent years in certain cities, there has also been an option to purchase food from a vendor on-site.) The wine is white or rosé or champagne; there are few, if any, beer cans in sight. Dessert time comes—guests are encouraged to make something special: chocolate-covered strawberries, say, or individually wrapped macarons. During dinner, everyone remains seated; no one stands or wanders around. Marriage proposals have been known to happen at this hour.


People all over the world have described attending Dîner en Blanc as the best night of their year. One elderly guest in New York described it in this way: “Over the past three and a half years, I’ve been dealing with physical illness and challenges, and despite that, I’ve made sure that I attend the Dîner en Blanc every year, even if my doctors recommend that I didn’t come, because I find it spiritually and emotionally and physically such a rejuvenating thing.” He continued, “You really can’t describe the emotions and the feelings that are involved unless you’re here and feel them yourself.”


As dusk yields to the summer night, you might notice every table lighting sparklers, signaling the evening’s next transition. Guests stand up, find other friends, hug, toast, and begin to dance. The entertainment, always a surprise, begins. It might be an electronic violin, as at a dinner in New York; or choreographed dancers with paper parasols, as in Tokyo; or drums and guitar, as in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The mood changes as the pulse of this coordinated tribe grows stronger. At midnight, a trumpet sounds. The guests wrap up their tables, pack their items, and collectively leave. Four hours after everyone sat down to eat, there’s no trace of the evening.

A GAMBLE ON RULES

Why has Dîner en Blanc spread so well? Perhaps because of its intuition that etiquette would be inadequate to the task of gathering so many different kinds of people. Dîner en Blanc instead bet on rules—rules that would one day help a woman named Kumi Ishihara import the magic to Japan.


Thousands of miles from the Parc de Bagatelle, and many years after that original gathering, Ishihara one day saw a YouTube video of a flash mob dinner in New York. Born in the Japanese seaside town of Kamakura, Ishihara had moved with her family at age fourteen to Düsseldorf, Germany, where she attended a Japanese school and acquired a sense of herself as a nomad. After stints in Singapore and London, she returned to Japan in her late twenties and built a motley livelihood as a yoga instructor, creative consultant, and translator. When she saw this video of thousands of people in white, it grabbed her. “I was so amazed to watch this crowd of white gathering,” she told me. She loved that it was a global phenomenon, connecting disparate people through the same experience. She knew she had to bring Dîner en Blanc to Japan.


She first needed to convince the French organizers to grant her a coveted Dîner en Blanc license. To maintain the dinner’s integrity, the French organizers have developed a system of granting official licenses to organizers all over the world to host an official Dîner en Blanc. She convinced two Japanese friends who had more experience organizing large events to join her in applying and interviewing, and after two video conferences they won the license.


Ishihara now had to figure out how to bring this very public European dinner to a very private Japanese context. She and her fellow organizers needed Japanese authorities to give them space on public grounds for an admittedly strange-sounding event. They had to generate interest in the dinner among hundreds of people, most of whom had not heard about it before. Perhaps most difficult of all, they had to persuade these strangers to follow a set of intricate, unfamiliar protocols.


As an organizer, Ishihara was required to follow and enforce an extensive list of strict rules that she received from the organizers. She shared with me the following summary of them:

  • If you receive an invitation, you need to bring one guest with you.

  • The rows of tables have a male side and a female side.

  • Wear white, including socks, shoes, headpieces.

  • Dress formally and outrageously, but in good taste.

  • Bring wine, champagne, or mineral water. No beer, spirits, or soft drinks.

  • The square table must be between 28–32 inches by 28–32 inches and covered with a white tablecloth.

  • No plastic, no paper. Only glassware and fine china.

  • If you accept, attendance is mandatory. Rain or shine.

  • Food must be “quality,” ideally homemade; no fast food.

  • There is no MC to the evening. Everything happens through group cues.

  • No standing during the eating period. This is a formal dinner.

  • Clean up behind you, with the trash bag you brought. Don’t leave a trace.

  • Organizers may host Dîner en Blanc only once a year.

Selling the dinner to Japanese people was going to be tough. Japan, Ishihara told me, doesn’t have a culture of dining with strangers. While dressing in costume is common in Japan, white shoes are almost impossible to find. Tables with the exact right measurements would need to be ordered months in advance. People aren’t used to registering for events through the Internet, or to schlepping and working so much to attend a party. It is difficult enough to get people to commit to come to your event, Ishihara said; people aren’t used to paying for something they’ve never seen before. This was Ishihara’s challenge: to get thousands of Japanese strangers to not only follow these rules but also be excited by them.


For months, she wrote daily Facebook posts on the Japanese Dîner en Blanc page, to “get them in the mood,” she said. She summarized for me in English the themes of her Facebook messages. “The story is not just about the day,” Ishihara said. “It’s over the course of the month at least, buying the candle stand that you like, the skirt that you like, so you’re building momentum and excitement.” She focused on different elements over the course of a few months. One day she wrote about the Europeanness of the dinner: “It’s like a banquet. It’s very formal. You really have to dress up. At a banquet, you would never dream of having it on paper plates!” She explained to guests that the dinner was demanding on purpose: “This is a heavy-duty party. It’s not just an easy picnic.” Above all, she employed the Passover Principle that I wrote about in chapter 1, conveying that this was a special invitation for a special night, that it would happen no more than once a year, and that it was the inaugural Dîner en Blanc in Japan. “We are choosing this secret place, which no one else in Japan or anyone else has ever dined at,” she said, recalling her post. “It will likely be the only time in your life you will dine there.”


Some in Tokyo might have recoiled at certain rules, just as people around the world have. In Singapore, a debate arose about whether Singaporean food was “formal” enough, generating a firestorm of outrage about their “ancient colonial master mindset.” In Boston, a blogger wrote, “Um, so if I’m part of a same-sex couple, romantic or platonic, I can’t sit with my guest? Because it will mess up the symmetry?” In Washington, D.C.: “No event has ever made me want to plan a paintball rampage like this one.” In New Orleans: “This whole thing makes me feel like putting on an old Saints jersey and licking roast beef po-boy gravy off my forearm while doing the Cupid Shuffle.” Organizers have been accused of being “snobbish,” and their event “too expensive” (it varies by city but is roughly thirty-five to fifty dollars per person to register) and simply too much work for the guests. In Vancouver, two artists even staged an alternative “ad hoc, barely-even-organized, family-friendly” Ce Soir Noir to which 1,500 people turned out. And yet the dinner continues to spread from city to city, year after year, with longer and longer waiting lists. The waiting list in Tokyo was 11,000 people. The waiting list in Philadelphia has been as high as 26,000 people.


Having attended the one in New York as a fly on the wall, I can tell you the crowd was more diverse in every way than that at most New York parties I have attended—and more diverse than the clientele of most New York restaurants of comparable elegance. As a cohost of the New York event told Time Outmagazine, “The beautiful thing about this event is that it’s so diverse. The community here is from every background and every part of New York. It’s truly a reflection of the city that we’re in. It’s brilliant to be a part of something that brings so many different people together, and to have everyone celebrate as one. You can put everything else aside, but at the end of the night, we’re all wearing white.”


Shane Harris, a political reporter who wrote about the Dîner en Blanc in Washington, D.C., made a similar observation. Harris touted the event as being “snobbery-free”—a rarity in a self-important city known for “its rigid social calendar and order.” He wrote:

We may have been all dressed in white. But we were, as a lot, mostly African-American, followed by white, with a ribbon of Asian and Latino throughout. We were old. We were young. We were gay. We were straight.


I couldn’t tell who was rich and poor. A woman in a stunning silk gown could have been an intern as easily as a partner in a law firm.


What these people were not was the type I’m used to suffering at so many social occasions. No one was looking over their neighbor’s shoulder to see who they really should be talking to. No one asked what I did for a living. It was a delightfully douche-free affair.

In the elegant Washington soirées to which Harris seemed more accustomed, it’s usually the clothes that come in all colors and the people who are overwhelmingly white. At Dîner en Blanc, it was the clothes that were white and the people who were of every color. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence. When the social code is spelled out, when it is turned into a one-night-only game, you don’t have to know certain unsaid things, you don’t have to have been raised in a certain way, you don’t have to be steeped in a certain culture, you don’t have to have parsed decades’ worth of social cues. You just need to be told tonight’s rules. This is the bargain that the rules-based gatherer offers: if you accept a greater rigidity in the setup of the event, the gatherer will offer you a different and much richer freedom—to gather with people of all kinds, in spite of your own gathering traditions.


On Ishihara’s big night in Tokyo, 1,600 white-clad partiers showed up at the appointed hour, at the appointed place. Ishihara described what she felt during the waving of the handkerchiefs that opened the dinner: “We conquered this place.” The people all around her were total strangers to most others in the gathering. But something about the scene and the strange, binding, liberating rules created a beauty and a sense of awe that brought people together, Ishihara said: “Your heart is already open, so you can be friends with anybody.”


At the end of the party, a trumpet was blown to notify the guests that it was over. “Do you remember Cinderella?” Ishihara asked. “Cinderella would know at twelve midnight that she has to go. And here, too, people would automatically know that this midnight summer is over.” She said that she felt herself asking, “Is it a dream or reality?” Such is the power of gathering openly and colorfully with rules. You create another world. And then it expires, and you begin all over again.

RULES VS. PHONES

Etiquette, as we’ve seen, is a problematic glue in modern society, because it makes it harder, rather than easier, to gather across differences. Nor is that its only drawback. Etiquette is also a hopelessly porous shield against the most powerful force of our age: addictive technology.


Anyone who gathers nowadays must, like it or not, cope with the reality that people are often elsewhere, thanks to their technological devices. Perpetual distraction is a curse of modern life and of modern convening in particular. People are often too busy to gather at all. Scheduling gatherings can be a nightmare. Coordinating people can be a pain. And when, against all odds, we do come together, our minds are in a thousand places.


How do you get people to be present at your gathering? How do you get them not only out from behind their screens but also not thinking about those screens? If people check their phones an average of 150 times a day, as some studies have shown, how do you ensure 50 of those check-ins aren’t at your event? You may have everyone in one room, but how do you get people to be here?


For too long, in too many settings, our response to these questions has depended too heavily on manners, on unspoken norms—on etiquette. We have hoped that not checking your phone during dinner will become like not double-dipping a chip—something people know not to do without being told. (Clearly, neither norm has succeeded.) But etiquette is not succeeding against technology in an age of distraction. And if etiquette fails with large, plural groups because it is internalized and implicit, it fails against technology for an even simpler reason. An army of some of the smartest people alive are working feverishly to ensure that etiquette stands no chance against our addictive new technologies.


In 2011, Google acquired a small company called Apture, along with it its CEO, a man named Tristan Harris. He ended up working on the team that designed Gmail’s inbox app and realized what he would later publicly say: “Never before in history have the decisions of a handful of designers (mostly men, white, living in SF, aged 25–35) working at 3 companies”—Google, Apple, and Facebook—“had so much impact on how millions of people around the world spend their attention . . . We should feel an enormous responsibility to get this right.” Harris eventually published this sentiment in a 144-slide presentation titled “A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention,” directed to his Google colleagues. It is an impassioned plea to abandon the hobbyhorse of personal responsibility and manners—of etiquette—as the proper response to distraction. Making it an individual’s responsibility not to be distracted, Harris told The Atlantic, is “not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.” Google appointed him to be its in-house “philosopher.” His mission was to reflect on how technology was affecting human societies.


If etiquette doesn’t stand a chance against the programmers of Silicon Valley, why would rules? Because rules are explicit and become an experimental game. There is a certain kind of fun in trying something for a bounded moment. The kind of restriction that might feel oppressive if permanent can seem compelling and intriguing when it applies sometimes, as part of a conscious effort to create that temporary alternative world.

“I AM HERE” DAYS

My husband and I once created an event of this kind, but inadvertently. We were just about to move to New York and eager to explore our new home. We wanted to get ourselves into a habit of exploring continuously; we didn’t want to get stuck in the rut of the same few neighborhoods. Somewhere in our conversations, we agreed to set aside a full day every now and then for exploring a single unfamiliar neighborhood.


Soon enough, it was time for our first such day. We chose Harlem. We mentioned it to our friend Nora Abousteit, that paragon of generous authority. Without being invited, she announced, “I will come.” What began as a newlyweds’ romantic plan was now a social occasion—a gathering. Abousteit then said she was bringing a friend along (yes, she broke her own rule). Not knowing what we were doing, we agreed. And thus “I Am Here” days were born.


We had a friend who was a member of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, led by the Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts III. The church receives thousands of visitors every year, in part because of its famous gospel choir. However, because we were guests of a member, we were able to sit downstairs in the main pews, not upstairs with the outsiders. Before launching into his sermon, Reverend Butts surprised us by not only naming us but also reading our résumés aloud to the church. Everyone started clapping as we blushed. We were welcomed and greeted by dozens of members.


High on the feeling of that place, we went to have lunch at a nearby diner. At the diner, we talked about our different experiences of New York and about the manic pace of the city. Having now spent a few hours together, we started to share our fears and anxieties about living there, understanding the social codes, figuring out if we could afford to stay. Without much forethought, we then walked forty blocks south. What we were doing had begun to feel a bit like an investigation of our city, and someone suggested that we should see not only big institutions and restaurants but also private homes. That was where the action was. But how would we see a private home?


Suddenly, Abousteit remembered that she had a friend who lived nearby. On a whim, she texted him to ask him if we could stop by to say hello. To our surprise, he invited us for tea, and we got to see the inside of a beautiful home. We were so tickled by our luck that we decided to keep going, this time walking north to the Museum of the City of New York. There we learned all about the making of New York City—how its lands were leveled, how the farms were paved over, how skyscrapers could be built only in certain places. On our way out, we heard loud beats from a neighboring building and discovered a huge, underground dance party at four on a Sunday afternoon. We grabbed a beer and started dancing. An hour later, sweaty, we broke away and entered Central Park. We realized that we felt relaxed, peaceful, and full of energy, despite having walked so much. And we had barely checked our phones. At 7 p.m., we called it a day. We went home full of the people we had met, the blocks we had walked, the conversations we had had. Only three weeks after moving to a new city, we thought: Maybe we can find our people here. Maybe we can call this city home.


What began as a vague idea between the two of us turned into one of the most meaningful gathering rituals of our early days in New York. First there were the four of us, and then six on another day, and then eight or ten on another. In the beginning, there weren’t any rules; we just stuck together the whole time. We began to gather on those Saturdays or Sundays in a way that felt different from how we usually spent time with people. We would choose a neighborhood and rotate “curation” of the day—basically, the role of deciding what to do. At first, it was relatively ad hoc, and the only real rule was that you had to come on time and stay the whole time. I didn’t originally intend to have any rules. They evolved organically.


Almost by accident, my husband and I fell upon a gathering format that created some magic almost every time we used it. The “I Am Here” days came to fruition out of an intentional idea, but their structure developed naturally. Our constraints were natural ones: Choose an area that can be covered by foot; invite a group small enough to be able to sit together at a single table for meals; take into account the weather. We found that the days worked better when one person took on the role of curator and did some research ahead of time, to create a specific and enjoyable experience for everyone else—whether or not they knew anything about the neighborhood. We also found that the days worked best when everyone else agreed to submit to the curator’s generous authority.


Our original motivation had to do with exploration and discovery more than presence. But as the days morphed from a two-person concept into a regular group expedition, and as more people became interested in attending them, including people we didn’t know, I was forced to codify the practices that had emerged. People needed to know what they were signing up for. So I took what had basically been implicit, rendered it explicit, and sent these rules out to newcomers:

  • If you’re going to join an “I Am Here” day, be there from start to finish (all 10–12 hours).

  • Turn off technology (unless it directly relates to the day).

  • Agree to be present and engaged in the group and what’s going on.

  • One conversation at meals.

  • Be game for anything.

Among these rules, it became clear that the two most important ones were spending a full day together and no technology. And they were powerful because they forced a degree of presence rare in New York and the tech-addled modern world. People had to come on time, stay the entire time—no coming and going. When they knew that was the deal, they became more relaxed. They couldn’t micro-coordinate. They were giving up the option of finding a better option. They were just here. And because we were all here, we enjoyed one another’s company to the fullest. These rules allowed busy, stressed-out, perpetually distracted people to come together and simplify. “I Am Here” days worked because the rules created a feeling that it was “enough” simply to be there, because when you were “here,” you were in another world.


We tend to associate rules with formality and stiffness, but in our “I Am Here” days we found that rules created intimacy. Each of us on his or her own was no match for the coding geniuses at Google and Facebook and Snapchat. But once presence was enshrined as a rule, a one-day-only attempt—temporary, humble, inclusive—overcame the power of the machines in our pockets and the churning of our brains.


We discovered from these experiments that spending twelve hours together as a group is fundamentally different from spending four hours together on three separate occasions. The longer you’re together, the more reality sets in. You can only chitchat for so long. People (including you) get tired and cranky; walls start to come down. By the time late afternoon arrives, people begin sharing stories of their pasts, of their struggles with money, parents, religion—topics that don’t always come up easily. And it was these conversations that truly mattered and made me feel less alone. I realized that there were others in the city who had left the homes they knew in pursuit of adventure but who, like me, treasured their families. That there were others who experienced setbacks in their work and wanted to talk about them but who, like me, didn’t always want to be discussing work. That there were others who worried about money but who, like me, didn’t want it to keep them from taking risks. And, most simply, that there were “busy New Yorkers” who were not only willing but also hungry to slow down and savor time with friends and even strangers.


The rules to be present worked because they weren’t imperious. They were just the formula for these occasional days. And when we followed these rules, they changed our behavior, and they changed the way people saw and interacted with us. As we walked around neighborhoods, a present band of people, locals sitting on their stoops were curious about this strange nomadic tribe that seemed to operate on a different set of rules from everyone else’s. We found ourselves sitting down with strangers and chatting with the owners of neighborhood bars. We once hung out with a local TV crew waiting for a story to air. We were invited to share cans of sardines in a garage in Red Hook. We spent time debating homosexuality with ultra-Orthodox Jews in a synagogue, and we got our fortunes read in one of the last working Daoist temples in Chinatown. On one magical night on Roosevelt Island—situated in the East River between Manhattan and Queens—we were invited upstairs to a bar owner’s apartment to see the plant that a Chinese grandmother gave her New York–based grandson, the Epiphyllum oxypetalum, which blooms one night a year. (It was not the night we were there.) As we sat and sipped wine overlooking the Williamsburg Bridge, the bar owner pulled out his family album and shared photos of his grandmother. By lingering and listening, we witnessed a moment of beauty.


Why did we feel so freed by imposing these rules on ourselves? My friend Baratunde Thurston, a comedian and veteran of several “I Am Here” days, answers the question this way:

It’s rare for groups of people to do things together for a sustained amount of time. We all carry with us the technical capacity to be anywhere, to check out of the present time or space. That means we always could be doing anything. So the active choice to do ONE thing and to do it with a fixed set of people is significant. I sometimes found myself feeling antsy with the rules. I wanted to text someone or look up information or just flip through Instagram because Instagram trained me to treat unfilled time as an opportunity to browse Instagram.


What “I Am Here” day offered was a different way to fill that time. Because of the rules, I could go deeper into the experience. I could observe something around me my phone would have caused me to miss. I could interact with a person next to me instead of thousands of miles away. And with the knowledge that I would spend an entire day with this one group, I could let go of the low-level anxiety caused by using every moment to anticipate the next. It didn’t matter what else was going on. It didn’t concern me where I had to be next. Because I decided to be HERE.

That’s the point and the magic. In a world of infinite choices, choosing one thing is the revolutionary act. Imposing that restriction is actually liberating.

PUSH-UPS!

A diamond may be forever, but a gathering rule is just for right now. This is its power. It can make someone like Thurston feel liberated rather than oppressed because it is temporary, humble, and inclusive. It creates a world that begins when the gathering begins and ends when it ends. This fleeting quality of gathering rules allows you, the gatherer, to be creative with them. In setting your rules, you are not making a claim for how any other future gathering should be. A gathering run on rules is like Vegas—what happens there stays there. And so rules allow for an experimental spirit in gathering, whereas etiquette is that spirit’s enemy.


At least that is what I told myself after making several senior Thai executives do push-ups in front of their colleagues. I was running a two-day retreat for a group of twenty consultants just outside Bangkok. In Thailand, and particularly at this firm, there was a very strong etiquette among the consultants that the client always comes first. Accordingly, it is understood that they pick up the phone at all hours of the night, leave family dinners to take calls, step out of weddings to reply to texts, and hop on planes if needed. This etiquette had helped to make the firm extremely successful in general. However, it was an etiquette that was threatening the success of this particular gathering: a retreat intended to build trust internally among the consultants. I had two eight-hour days planned, and everything designed down to the minute. Each two-hour section of the day was intense, with the consultants focusing on one another, having powerful and honest conversations, saying things they had been keeping from one another. Then the first break came. A number of consultants had scheduled calls with clients during the breaks. Not surprisingly, after fifteen minutes, they were finding it hard to get off the phone. We started the session again, but four of the consultants were missing. Their tardiness, even if in the name of being a good employee, was hurting the group and making the people who were in the room angry. And it was breaking trust, undoing all the work we had done in the previous two hours, because the latecomers’ peers felt disrespected. The client-first etiquette was so strong, I began to realize, that I would need to counter it with an explicit, temporary rule.


As the stragglers came back in, one at a time, with sheepish looks on their faces, one of the consultants made a suggestion. It was said almost as a joke: “Push-ups!” Everyone laughed. I took the cue and decided that this would be our rule. The four tardy consultants, in suits and ties, heels and wingtips, looked at me like I was crazy. The consultants who had returned to the room on time started grinning and clapping. Before you knew it, all four consultants were down on the floor doing ten push-ups each.


It released the tension in the room, and it also introduced a new rule: If you’re late, you can come in, but you first have to do ten push-ups. We had three more breaks that day, and by the third one, people were literally racing through the hallways to make it in time. After each break, people would shut the main room door on the dot with great ceremony. If anyone was even a few seconds late, everyone started cheering, and the condemned got down on the floor and gave them ten push-ups. The group collectively improvised a new rule to overrule, temporarily, their usual etiquette. By making it fun and harmless, if slightly embarrassing, they created a fleeting social contract that everyone bought into. The fact that the rule was physical and funny also added some much-needed lightness to the group.


In this case, their client-first etiquette may be good for the firm in general, but it was bad for that specific gathering. The push-up rule helped counterbalance that strong ethic for the alternative reality of our time together, an interlude that needed its own pop-up etiquette. Etiquette can, as I have said, serve a purpose: to maintain pleasantness and politeness and good behavior. But sometimes as a particular etiquette code grows entrenched in a culture, it crowds out the possibility of other ways of behaving that might be more appropriate for certain moments. The consultants’ client focus was a good etiquette for most things, but it was an etiquette that left no space for the equally important ethic of caring for their colleagues. A gathering rule allowed us to create that space.


Harrison Owen, an organizational consultant, found this truth in his own way when he realized the limitations of conference etiquette. Politeness and feigning interest in others’ work were such strong values that they crowded out the no-less-important value of learning. Owen wasn’t a social engineer, and he wasn’t about to rewire genteel networkers not to care about other people and their feelings—especially people they might need someday! He stood no chance of changing the etiquette. What he could do was temporarily overwhelm it. So he created a temporary methodology, called Open Space Technology, in which he embedded among other things one specific rule that helped counterbalance an implicit norm of politeness. It was called the Law of Two Feet, and it stipulated this: “If at any time during our time together you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet, go someplace else.”


By creating the rule, Owen gave rise to an experiment: What happens at a conference when people are freed, even goaded, to leave a presentation that is not teaching them? Do the same feelings of offense take hold? Do presenters understand? Does it change the way people present? Owen later wrote that the purpose of his rule was “merely to eliminate all the guilt. After all, people are going to exercise the law of two feet, mentally if not physically, but now they do not have to feel badly about it.” As in my workshop in Thailand, the rule counterbalanced an etiquette that is often helpful but, for this specific gathering, did not deserve to crowd out all other needs.


Sometimes a rule is useful when a gatherer wants people to connect in a way that normal social norms would discourage. For example, the Latitude Society, a controversial secret society in San Francisco that has since disbanded, used to design various rules at their gatherings to create a sense of belonging. One of my favorites, as shared with me by one of their talented “Praxis” facilitators, Anthony Rocco, was that you couldn’t pour yourself a drink; someone had to pour it for you. This simple rule forced (in a playful way) people to interact. The rule took something most people wanted (a drink) and tied it to something that can be awkward initially: approaching someone you don’t know. They knew that the old etiquette of pouring other people’s drinks before your own had withered too much to expect strangers to follow it at their gatherings. So they made it a rule.


The proper use of rules can help you get so much more out of a gathering because it can help temporarily change behavior. Consider the case of Paul Laudicina, who realized that a bad habit had formed in the board of directors he was leading at A. T. Kearney, a global management consulting firm. Board members were constantly asking for more information and asking clarifying questions, and this was preventing the kinds of conversations that help a board reach critical decisions. At one point, when negotiations among board members were breaking down and tempers were flaring, Laudicina realized that people were asking questions in order to avoid making tough decisions. Curiosity was fine in general, but it wasn’t useful given the purpose of this particular gathering. As the chair of the board, he introduced a new rule: Board members could only ask questions that were not asking for more information—that were building on what information there already was. For example, “What is blocking us from getting this done?” or “Who has a problem with this?” or “What would it take to come to agreement on this issue?” As opposed to “Can you give me last year’s Q4 numbers?”


Laudicina ensured that all board members had the information they needed well ahead of the meetings and had ample time before the meetings to ask any questions that clarified the issues. By putting information-gathering questions off-limits, he forced his board members to have the kind of difficult but productive conversations that led them to state their positions more explicitly and reach decisions. As board chair, Laudicina had the legitimacy to introduce the rule. But the brilliance of the rule was that he changed the board’s language. And by limiting and reorienting the language, he created a temporary alternative world in which they couldn’t ask for more information. It forced them to create a world in which each was adding rather than staying still or even detracting.


Laudicina didn’t need to create an entire world of rules to temporarily shift the world of the board meeting. He was able to identify the one behavior that he believed was stalling progress and create a temporary rule to overturn it.










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