Plutarch's Table

Unlikely Pairings: dinner guests and the art of conversation | October 3, 2010

I got an invitation to dinner last week from a woman I have never met before, the partner of my friend Marta.  This was nice in itself.  What was even better was that the invitation was also addressed to a friend of hers who shares my name, with the explanation that they wanted to bring together both of their favourite people named Joanna.  I am a huge fan of social experiments, and a dinner party balanced on the axis of something so arbitrary as two people whose parents gave them the same name fills me with glee.  It also happens to be the case that I’ve never met a Joanna that I didn’t like.  And I’ve never been to an experimental dinner party that I didn’t like, since it is almost always either full of tension, or a house on fire.

Why would I enjoy tension in social settings?  Because in my experience it usually leads to something – a real or imagined confrontation between people who don’t mix comfortably.  Even if the tension doesn’t lead to outright conflict, everyone gets to feel the social force of conflicting views or sensibilities.  Last summer in Italy I stayed a few days at the house of a very close friend of some very close friends, assuming that this American woman (who had married an Italian) and I would naturally fuse the link joining our mutual friends and ourselves become very close.  It didn’t turn out that way.  And one night, the last night before the day I would cut the visit much shorter than planned, there was a dinner party on the terrace of their lovely Tuscan villa.  I chatted briefly with a couple of the guests, happy at the thought of meeting new people and getting the chance to speak a bit of Italian, but once we were all seated this group of ten childhood friends and their partners completely ignored the eleventh person at the table.  A great deal of their conversation was about people they knew and our hostess’ new Tom Ford sunglasses, both of which were subjects on which I had nothing to contribute, so I suppose the fault is not all theirs.  In any case, as I turned from humiliated to amused I realized that there should always be an eleventh person at these sorts of gatherings.

The eleventh person should prevent a group of friends from becoming a horribly obnoxious circle that simply stews in its own juices, never learning anything new about itself or about the world outside.  That night I felt like Sartre’s Roquentin: “I am alone in the midst of these happy, reasonable voices. All these creatures spend their time explaining, realizing happily that they agree with each other. In Heaven’s name, why is it so important to think the same things all together”.  I remembered that earlier, during cocktails, I had disagreed with something the professor of poetry had said to me about translation and this had been met with stony silence.  Of course there is nothing wrong with a group of old friends getting together to speak their own shared language and to agree with one another, presuming that they are at least capable of breaking rank to accommodate an outsider.  I think what my presence demonstrated was that they valued their collective certainty more than anything.  It wasn’t what I would call fun, but it seemed better to me to be forced to feel that tension than to be one of those happy people explaining and agreeing.  What I enjoyed that night was the very feeling of discomfort that reminded me of the value of hospitality, and the value of being open to people who are not like me, and of how easy it is to find a world where one fits comfortably and forever avoid challenge and dissonance.

Challenges are not always constructive, of course.  Too often conversation is about winning the debate, each side coming to the table with a view that they will themselves never consent to question.  In being faced with a sparring partner, we tend to become more defensive, less open-minded, and less willing to concede gaps in our logic – which we all have all of the time, I would suggest.  But all power struggles are like this: each partner is unlikely to give up any ground in the fear that the other, rather than seeing it as an invitation to soften their resolve, will annex the ground the other has relinquished and declare victory.  So a good conversation, one where something is actually achieved, requires trust – which is why it is unlikely that political discourse can ever be anything but this defensive war of words leading to ever more entrenched and unyielding positions.  But those of us who don’t have to worry about being accused of ‘flip-flopping’ when we actually consider an issue from another perspective and modify our view of it, can remember that even where our trust turns out to be unjustified we have won something in the valuing of our own ideological flexibility over a sense of victory.

I went to another small intimate dinner party with people I didn’t know at all recently.  Actually I kind of crashed it – long story.  Most of the guests seemed to do one of two things for a living, so I assumed they were all old friends.  The conversation was lively and interesting and the warmth and hospitality they extended to the eleventh person was overwhelming.  It turned out to be a birthday party, and at this one I felt like Grégoire Bouillier as the mystery guest at Sophie Calle’s birthday party (in his fabulous book The Mystery Guest), that person who makes a dinner party an unpredictable event.  Only unlike Bouillier I wasn’t invited, and because I was feeling a little under the weather that night I am afraid to say that I did not deliver much in the way of surprise.  But the host and the birthday boy showed no distress at the prospect of this unpredictability, and I later even had my privileged status revoked when I learned that they did not, in fact, all know each other well.  Birthday parties are where people who may only have one friend in common come together, and from a collective love for that one person the trust is usually there.

Dinner or cocktail parties are where a lot of conversation happens and they can be important components of social movements and the development and exercise of the engaged mind.  Like the food that is almost as important as the guests, unlikely pairings usually fare best.  If the ambiance inspires trust and flexibility, then rather than stewing in its own juices a company gets to see the unpredictable results of new combinations.  I have always assumed that this is what our eccentric contemporary chefs mean when they talk of ‘deconstructing’ food: things we thought we knew are revealed to have hidden attributes that are brought out only by putting them in new contexts or juxtaposing them with unlikely partners that have no use for their more customary and predictable talents. I can only hope the other Joanna, who for obvious reasons I already trust, will disagree.


1 Comment »

  1. Nice set of observations. I can’t stand dinner parties with more than eight. It either splits into micro groups with micro conversations and never reconvenes, or, if it stays together it is only under the dominance of some over-bearing personality. Normal people can’t hold the attention of any more than eight others when they speak

    Comment by John Mullarkey — October 8, 2010 @ 9:50 pm

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About author

My name is Joanna Polley. I am a writer and a philosopher experimenting with ways of practicing and teaching philosophy outside of the university environment. I completed my PhD at the University of Toronto and have taught for several years in the departments of philosophy and literary studies, and am currently exploring ways to bring philosophy out of the ivory tower and into the wider public sphere. My specific research interests have been in the history of philosophy, philosophy of language and culture and the philosophy of literature, but I am interested in any philosophy that helps illuminate contemporary problems and deepens our experience of being alive. You can also visit me at for information about my philosophical therapy services.







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