Have you ever walked into a big, bustling party without knowing anyone? Many of us have had the experience: Newly arrived at college or a job, we heard about a party that everyone’s going to, so we felt we might as well show up.
The large party certainly has an appeal: a lively setting, a chance to meet lots of people, and the ability to join in reminiscing conversations afterwards. But while we were there, how often did we have a sustained conversation with someone? How much did we get to be with the host and learn about his or her home?
A party with just a handful of guests might be quieter, but it can be the perfect setting for quality time. Here are three reasons why.
01. Intentional invitations
At a big party, there’s a good chance that we don’t know everyone there, maybe not even the host. We might feel like a drop in a sea of guests and wonder, “Why was I invited to this?” Often, the answer is that we’re part of a general group that the party is for: a company, a volunteer organization, a set of school parents.
Small parties have a more personal touch because a generic group does not dictate the guest list. At a small party, guests are invited not mainly as members of a group but as individuals.
Winemaker Abe Schoener, founder of Scholium Wines, is a former philosophy professor who enjoys contemplating the meaning of hospitality—the theme of his presentation at a conference at the University of Notre Dame in January. His praise for personalized, intimate gatherings comes as reassurance in an era of social distancing, when bustling parties are not possible. But Schoener’s perspective is not just about making the most of restricted circumstances. He argues that limiting the guest list to a few people is essential for interpersonal bonding. “The very notion of welcoming depends completely on there being something like borders, on there being the possibility of holding up one’s hand and preventing entry,” he said.
That might sound exclusive, but Schoener’s point is really about being intentional. For a social activity to be personal, there must be something personal about the invitation process. That means being thoughtful about whom we choose to invite into our lives and leisure time—rather than letting anyone and everyone roam through.
Schoener pointed out that an important part of a home is the entrance, which separates the inside space from the outside world. “A door and a doorway are absolutely essential to there being a home,” he said, “not just for the sake of simply protecting it but for the sake of defining it.” The closed door doesn’t prevent hospitality; it creates the space necessary for it.
To illustrate his point, Schoener used an image from the winemaking world. “Some of the most important and prominent vineyards of the world that made not only some of the best wines but absolutely the most valuable wines are walled vineyards in ancient places in Europe,” he said.
This is not to say that good wine can’t come from an open field vineyard—or that open house parties can never generate friendship. But there is something about the enclosed space that makes coming inside a privilege. As the guest, we appreciate the invitation because we feel we were personally invited. As the host, we can cater to our guests’ personalities more directly by bringing people together with overlapping interests and by having more time to talk with them ourselves.
Because it demonstrates intentionality, inviting someone to cross the threshold establishes a bond. It’s an invitation not just to a friendly interaction among many people but to a personal friendship.
02. Opportunity for personal conversation
There’s also a psychological benefit to the small party: it allows us to converse in our most natural setting.
A 2016 study by psychology professors from the University of Arizona and the University of Oxford found that our brains can only handle so many conversationalists at once. “Krems, Dunbar, and Neuberg propose that the size of our conversations is restricted by our ‘mentalizing constraints,’ or the limits on the cognitive demands that we can handle in our interactions with others,” reads a Psychology Today article summarizing their findings.
According to the study, our brains have the capacity to “model” the thoughts and ideas of others in order to understand and respond. The more people in a conversation, the more mental gymnastics we need to do in order to keep up.
“Concretely, as it becomes difﬁcult to follow a conversation above fourth-order intentionality (one speaker modeling three other minds), most conversations are not likely to exceed a four-person limit,” the professors wrote. “And the addition of a fifth person may put pressure on the growing conversation to fragment into smaller, mentally-manageable conversations.”
Krems, Dunbar, and Neuberg found support for this hypothesis by examining study groups university students formed among themselves and conversations in Shakespearean plays (whose constructions tend to reflect real-world conversation). In both cases, group conversations that involved modeling others’ thoughts never exceeded five people. In fact, they wrote, “90% of mentalizing conversations had only two or three speakers, thus requiring readers to work at commonly comfortable levels of intentionality.”
This tends to be the case even at large parties: people break off into smaller groups and “migrate” from one circle to another for brief stints of conversation. But if our party is small—even as small as four people—it actually provides the ideal setup for sustained group conversation. Plus, without a collection of conversation pods to pull us away from the conversation at hand, we’re more likely to get a sustained period of time with our few fellow guests.
And with more time to talk, we’re more likely to get to know each other better.
03. A sense of community
So if more people to talk to means more mental exertion, why not just keep it to one conversation partner? Why not forget the party altogether and stick to the occasional coffee date with a friend?
It is true that one-on-one conversations and friendships play a crucial role in our lives as social beings, and we should always reserve time for them. At the same time, a small party addresses another very human need: a sense of community.
To appreciate this idea, it’s helpful to dip into a bit of philosophy. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who wrote extensively on the value of friendship in his Nicomachean Ethics, also recognized that communal relationship fosters human development in a way that individual friendships cannot.
“For in every community there seems to be some sort of justice, and some type of friendship also,” he writes in the Ethics. “And the extent of their community is the extent of their friendship.” In other words, engaging with a group of people establishes a relationship of its own kind, one that extends beyond the individual.
Of course, Aristotle wrote this in the context of politics, but his ideas about communal relationships can apply to our everyday experiences as well, including our social interactions. For many of us, after having enough quality time with a certain group of people, we start to associate a certain character with that group as a whole.
It’s the reason why we look forward to our monthly lunch with the same three friends from college, or a regular double date with another couple. There’s a certain chemistry that we create together as a group, one that’s tangible in the small enclosed space without being drowned out by a larger group.
Another point Aristotle made about community is that size matters. In describing his ideal city in his Politics, he states that it should be small enough that “the citizens should know each other and know what kind of people they are.”
This can apply to our social experiences as well. At a big party, it’s often more difficult to get to know everyone there simply because of our limited time and energy levels. A small gathering is more likely to create an intimate atmosphere because we can spend the whole time learning about the people with us. As a result, we bond with that small group.
There’s no doubt that when it comes to fun times with friends, having both large and small parties creates a variety of fun and valuable experiences together. (And when Covid subsides, many of us will eagerly pop the champagne at an overflowing house party.) But hopefully, during these more limited social times, we can all come to appreciate and continue the practice of the intimate gathering, the incubator of memories and relationships to cherish.
Be the first to see the latest news, changes, and articles at Verily. Sign up for our email here.