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Networking the Old-Fashioned Way

The Victorians invented the dinner party, and over a hundred years later it’s still a brilliant way to socialize

But of all the things I did during my first few months in Blighty — watching the guards change at Buckingham Palace, wandering around the British Museum, seeing Big Ben or taking the tube to Baker Street — the event that most defined my “English” experience was going to a friend’s dinner party. Seeing my name on that place card was just special, and as much as Brits rightfully cringe when Americans refer to them as “quaint”, it rather fits in this case.

The event that most defined my “English” experience was going to a friend’s dinner party

Fans of Downton Abbey might be picturing this as an elaborate setup, complete with giant halls and silver platters, but as a student I wasn’t exactly moving in those circles. Not that it made a difference, because at the end of the day, the key ingredients for a great dinner party are the people, the food, and all those little touches you put into hosting.

Key ingredients for a great dinner party include the people, the food, and all those little touches you put into hosting

I mentioned those place markers, carefully written in little pieces of card and placed on top of plates. There is a seating plan, and people are traditionally arranged in a boy-girl-boy-girl sequence, with couples separated so that you don’t end up just talking to people you already know. Between the main course and dessert there’s often a reshuffle so that you get to sit next to different people and begin fresh conversations. Because the heart of a great dinner party is, of course. its guest list.

At the heart of a great dinner party is, of course, its guest list

Stanley Ager, a career butler with over 50 years of experience creating such parties for aristocratic families, wrote in his seminal book The Butler’s Guide to Running the Home and Other Graces that: “conversation is the essence of a party, what you eat and drink is the spice of it and a well-laid table hints of what is to come, like the wrapping on a present.”

A well-laid table hints of what is to come, like the wrapping on a present

So even though we were just some poor students crowding around a makeshift table, perching on mismatched chairs and eating off chipped plates, we dressed up, ate fantastic food and had the best time ever. Since then, I have been invited to more elaborate affairs, but makes it work (or not) is still the company.

But what about the food, I hear you ask? Well, that matters too, of course, but a dinner party is in essence a social occasion, so the food follows from that. The price of the ingredients is never as important as the effort the host makes to produce an interesting menu. Food is fuel for that all-important conversation that Ager talks about.

The price of the ingredients is never as important as the effort the host makes to produce an interesting menu

Which is why people will dream up and swap their “dream dinner party” guest lists, which often feature fictional and dead personalities. Stephen Fry is always a popular one, as he is a goldmine of fascinating facts and stories and has wonderful manners. It was a definite tick off my bucket list, then, when I found myself sitting across from him at a dinner preceding a debate at The Cambridge Union Society last year. I’m working on the rest of my list, but Mick Jagger is still proving an elusive one.

It’s not all about fun and games though. Dinner parties were invented by the Victorians primarily as a mechanism for self-promotion and touting for new business. So yes, along with bicycles, the steam engine and typewriters, the Victorians also gave us networking.

Dinner parties were invented by the Victorians primarily as a mechanism for self-promotion and touting for new business

The fact that it’s easier to connect with people over food is not lost on today’s diners, and there are businesses built around giving that concept a modern twist. Tablecrowd is a London-based start-up which curates such dinner-party style events where people “meet and eat” and it has proven enormously popular, particularly with the busy Tech City crowd.

For further proof of the continued appeal of dinner parties, look no further than Channel 4’s TV show “Come Dine With Me”. Now in its 37th season, the addictive format brings together a group of strangers, taking turns hosting a dinner party for the rest of the group, scoring each other’s efforts, and competing for the £1000 cash prize.

In rural communities the dinner party is still the main form of social capital, and people tend to keep careful accounting of it, just like any other currency

In rural communities the dinner party is still the main form of social capital, and people tend to keep careful accounting of it, just like any other currency. My in-laws live in a small Devon village — in idyllic surroundings that to me look straight out of Hobbiton — and whenever I visit them, we immediately get invited around to several friend’s houses. Each invitation is of course replied to, and guests bring a token gift of flowers, wine or chocolate (hint for dinner party newbies: wine is by far the safest choice) then followed up with a thank-you card and a reciprocated invitation. And as this endless polite cycle of mutual feeding goes on, it all feels wonderfully like you’ve stepped into a Jane Austen novel. It’s about as English as it gets.

As the endless polite cycle of mutual feeding goes on, it all feels wonderfully like you’ve stepped into a Jane Austen novel

And whether you’re English or a transplanted citizen of the world like myself, the “quaint” dinner party is still one of the best ways to celebrate food, friendship, and maybe fit in some cheeky business networking.

Written by

Technology writer for FastCo, Quartz, The Next Web, Ars Technica, Wired + more. Consultant specializing in VR #MixedReality and Strategic Communications

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