A few years ago, Ari Davalos started an art project called Stranger Dinner — invite six strangers to dinner at her house. In a world separated by Internet connections, she aimed to reclaim the serendipity in her life. “Instead of going to the library and researching on the internet, I want to stroll through the stacks, smell the pages of old books, pick a random book off the shelf, and let some serendipity into my life.” Here, Ari shares the open letter she sends to strangers, her insightful reflections after having hosted many such dinners in multiple cities, and some tips for hosting your own Stranger Dinner.
I think we need to talk.
My mom always told me never to talk to you, even if you offered me candy. The news tells me not to trust you–that you will kidnap, rape, rob, or kill me given half the chance.
But I never believed those lies. I know you’re just like me, trying to make your world turn as best as you can. I know you have dreams, ideas, and favorite recipes just like me. You might even have
some insight to share that will make my life better. Maybe you know my future partner. Maybe you know the solution to something I’ve been trying to figure out for a long while.
Sometimes I run into you at parties, bars, and parks. All over, really. I know we just never get a chance to really sit down together. Get intimate. You just always look so busy, and I don’t want to intrude. You might think I’m crazy, or hitting on you or something. But I’m not.
Because the thing is, you’re really easy to talk to. I can really be myself around you. I can tell you anything, things even my closest friends don’t know. I can be really honest.
Technology is changing so fast now. There are so many new ways we can communicate. We can trade books, furniture, stories, sexual partners, and ideologies. But it still feels so impersonal. I find myself staring at my computer, isolated, as you walk by my window.
I’m tired of the silent treatment. I hate pretending to ignore you, not knowing when and if to smile when you pass. I don’t want to feel afraid when I hear your footsteps behind me at night.
Well, it’s time for a change. Come over for dinner. Let’s sit down, eat, and finally have a chance to really talk. I think this will be a great opportunity for us. In fact, it might save the world, or at least help us work better together. Next week, let’s do it at your house.
All my love,
Please continue to read Ari’s story and how to host your own Stranger Dinner.
I don’t know why I started the Stranger Dinners. Maybe it was out of loneliness. I was living in a new town with my two best friends, having just graduated from college where hundreds of familiar and interesting faces would greet me as soon as I walked out my door. I had been so excited to finally be free of the isolated bubble of school. I thought it was holding me back, with its assignments and requirements and obligatory hoops to jump through. I was ready to be set free so I could finally do what I wanted: make art.
I often likened concentrating in sculpture to majoring in possibilities. As I learned more and more about contemporary art practice and theory, my definition of what art was and what it could be expanded until there were no limits. A sculpture could be anything from an idea to an action, a crafted situation, a social experiment, a conspiracy, a business venture, an anecdote told at a party. I spent my last semester trying to walk on the edge of what art could be. I planned field trips, elaborate parties, chance meetings, experiential devices, and rumors. I was a little misunderstood but very happy, and I was excited for the day when I would graduate and have the freedom to do even more.
It soon hit me that school hadn’t prepared me for the reality that lay beyond. In the real world, people didn’t have time to make art. Work that actually earned money took over life. I longed for the creative collaboration between people who had time to philosophize, to create, to experiment, to discuss, to learn and to teach. In school, I had been isolated, but at least I was with hundreds of fellow students and faculty. In the real world, I felt, everyone lives in their own little world, working to pay their rent and provide for themselves.
Working part time in a frame shop, and spending my free time working on projects alone at my house, I felt a very basic, almost laughable question begin to surface.
What is everyone doing?
I felt like I missed something. Is this it? You have a few friends, you wake up, go to work, pay rent, and get some fun in when you can? I would make a painting and look at it, thinking, What is this for? I wondered how other people were spending their time. How were people figuring out how to balance their obligations with their pleasures? How did they make decisions? How do we all decide what is right for us–what to sacrifice and what to invest? What city to live in? What jobs to apply for? What to do with our lives?
I asked everyone I came across what their life was like. Did they like what they were doing? How did they do it? Why did they like it? How did they get to that point? What did they do before? What were the obstacles? What were the perks? What were the downfalls?
I felt like I was lost in this big labyrinth and the whole world was at a party in the center of it.
Slowly it dawned on me: no one had the answer. There was no right path. Everyone stumbles their way through. Some people get lucky breaks, some people have lower expectations, some people are unhappy, some people are happy. It is always changing and evolving. Everyone just works with what they have, and from their own perspective.
So what if we all started collaborating? What if we shared our perspectives? Not just with our family and friends, but with everyone? I wanted to know what a real life was like, and movies weren’t really helping.
The internet has been a huge tool for doing just this. We can share the most intimate details of our lives with strangers, from vacations pictures to opinions, to skin infections and the latest fashions. People type out their greatest fears, aspirations, confessions, and successes for the vast unknown sea of people to read and comment on. This gives access to a seemingly infinite amount of information without having to even get out of bed.
But there’s something isolating about the internet. This screen we use as a portal to connect ourselves to each other creates an invisible barrier between ourselves an others. The voyeuristic nature of Facebook allows us to keep up with our acquaintances and friends without them even knowing, and without the exchange that let’s them know we care, and without actually having any kind of substantial relationship with these people.
I just clicked over to someone’s Twitter page. I don’t know this girl, but I’ve been following her life for almost a year. The background on her twitter page says, “I thought I was a narcissist. That is, until I met the rest of the internet.” It’s true, we are all broadcasting the stories of our lives (some more than others). We are posturing as ourselves in order to make superficial connections with as many people as possible. Social capital is suffering from inflation. It’s not enough to have 50 people in real life you really care about, you have to have 500 facebook friends too. What? You don’t have 1000 followers on Twitter? You might as well be shouting into the void, because no one hears what you say.
Communication has been one-sided too long. We are starting to learn how to make all this technology work for us. It’s starting to occur to people that these amazing networks we are building can help us improve the communities where we actually exist. With the internet, I can now find all the garage sales in my neighborhood, order takeout, find a date, join a pillow fight, and locate my favorite food cart when I get that special craving.
In response to all these ideas and questions, I started inviting strangers to my house for a potluck. With the Stranger Dinners, I seek to bridge the gap between personal and impersonal, between the mass communication and face to face interaction. I want to bring what is good about the internet and relocate it from the ephemeral everywhere and nowhere plane and bring it closer. I want to create the opportunity for people to find something they might not think to look for. I want to take the idea of StumbleUpon and bring it to the dinner table. Let us cultivate an open flow of information without the anonymity. That way, the value placed on the information or opportunities we come across are tied to real people who live in our physical communities. I want the humanity back. Instead of going to the library and researching on the internet, I want to stroll through the stacks, smell the pages of old books, pick a random book off the shelf, and let some serendipity into my life.
Most of all, I want to keep myself open to the physical world around me, and all the people who live there. I want us to act as though we have the world in common. If we’re all in this together, we’ll have all the support we need to get us through. Through my art practice, I seek to create situations outside of our everyday expectations of the world. I strive to actively create what I find lacking from my everyday experience. And I want to explore the possibilities that can come from encouraging people to talk to each other without reason, motivation, agenda, self-selection, or presumption. They’re no telling what we will find if we look just outside of our everyday experience.
Since I started having Stranger Dinners, they have turned into one of the most fun and easy activities to plan. They are always different, but I’ve never had one I didn’t enjoy. With a little forethought, having a stranger dinner can be a great way to meet some new people, gain some different perspectives, and get people to bring delicious food to your house for free.
Think about why you want to have a Stranger Dinner.
Imagine what you’d like to get out of this experience. What is your motivation for the dinner? What makes a night with strangers so appealing to you? Write down your intention for the dinner, and what you hope to experience. Include this in your invitation, and you will attract people who want the same thing, and who are open to letting this experience happen.
How to host your own stranger dinner
Depending on your comfort level, there are different ways to do this. For the first stranger dinners, I found strangers by giving invitations to friends and asking them to invite people they knew. If you go this route, make sure you leave plenty of time for invitation delivery and for people to RSVP. This is probably the safest way to organize a stranger dinner, since your friends will have vouched for each guest that attends. If you want to start a dinner series, you can ask the guests to invite the next round of strangers. In this way, the dinner becomes a kind of chain letter.
Another way to invite people is through the internet. Though I wouldn’t necessarily post Stranger Dinner invitations on Craigslist, I do send the invitation to a mailing list or two that I trust, as well as to my own personal contacts. It’s easy to find a niche mailing list that speaks to a community you may be comfortable inviting without getting that icky stranger-danger feeling in your stomach. Having said that, posting it on a site like Craigslist might turn up great people, and you may have no problem at all. Follow your gut. Diverse sources of strangers help the dinners stay strange.
Stranger Dinners are best planned on a Sunday or a weeknight. Fridays and Saturdays, people have lots of options and plans that come up last minute. Planning on the right day minimizes being stood up by flaky strangers.
Send a reminder
People have a lot of stuff going on. It’s easy to forget something you signed up for, especially if it was more than a week ago. A couple days before the dinner, send your guests a reminder email. Restate the time, day, intentions, and location of the dinner, as well as any special instructions. I ask my guests for a question they would like to ask a stranger. These questions serve as confirmation that they have read the email and are still planning to come to the dinner, and work as great conversation starters to get people talking at the actual dinner.
Prepare your space
It’s fun to get excited about the Stranger Dinner. Get your space ready for guests. Make it cozy. Make it easy for people to come in, put down their stuff, and relax. Candles, flowers, tablecloth, music–whatever mood you want to set, ambiance is the key!
Make something yummy
I don’t like to tell people what to bring for the potluck. I like to be surprised, and I’ve never been disappointed with the meal. However, I do make sure I have some wine or beer on hand. Alcohol, though not necessary, definitely works as a social lubricant and gets people relaxed and talking. There is no need to spend all day slaving over a hot stove. Depending on my mood, my budget, and my schedule, I make sure my potluck item is stress free and delicious. Stranger Dinners, unlike other dinner parties, are great places to try out new recipes. If it turns out bad, there will be plenty of other things to eat, and you never have to see these people again!
Now all that’s left is to sit back, relax, and let a bunch of people bring you food and entertain you for the evening. You’re in for a treat! Don’t forget to be a courteous host. Make sure everyone feels safe, comfortable, and is never without something to drink. Help people do their final preparations for their dish if they need it, help them serve it up, and don’t be afraid to use some ice-breakers if things aren’t flowing naturally. People are there to hang out, and after a while you’ll be talking like old friends.
When it’s time to leave, thank everyone for coming. Make sure they get any dishes or leftovers they brought to take home, and if they would like to exchange contact information, send a group email to everyone so they can stay in touch!
This piece has been graciously offered by Shareable. It is an excerpt from a new book, Share or Die, where Malcolm Harris and Neal Gorenflo offer a rich collection of essays, narratives, and how-tos in an intimate guide to the new economic order and what it means to live within the challenges of our time.