Rico Gagliano and Brendan Francis Newnam of the Dinner Party Download chat with Growler Magazine editor John Garland about social strategies for navigating the confusing world of holiday get-togethers.
Growler: Rico, Brendan, we really appreciate you being our social sherpas for this holiday season.
Rico: Wait a minute, if we’re sherpas, does that mean we have to carry everybody’s booze to the top of the dinner party mountain?
Growler: That would be ideal.
Rico: It’s not. We have stuff to do, I’m sorry. So, we have to go.
Brendan: That’s why I’m wearing five layers of yak skin, to keep me warm here.
Rico: These are Minnesota dinner parties we’re talking about, right? So they’re freezing cold.
Growler: Absolutely, it’s five layers of yak skin minimum.
Rico: So that’s our first piece of advice, wear as much yak skin as possible at a Minnesota dinner party.
Growler: Before we get in to any specifics, are there any social pitfalls around the holidays that jump out at you as big ones that you commonly see people falling prey to?
Brendan: I think the real danger here, is that this could be amateur hour. Holiday parties for offices are dangerous places, because this is the time of year where people party who don’t normally party. People go out and socialize who don’t usually socialize. People drink who don’t normally drink. And so there are a lot of rookies out there, and that’s not a bad thing, but it makes for a more dangerous social environment. This isn’t the World Series of socializing, it’s little league.
Rico: That’s the big thing for office parties. We’re not the first people to say this, but it bears repeating, is that a holiday office party, your goal is to make an appearance, make sure people know you were there, and then get out before you can damage your career. That is absolutely the goal. You show up, you talk to a few people, you make sure the bosses saw you were there, put in an hour so it doesn’t seem like you only came to put a few biscuits in your pocket, and then you get out.
Rico: Yeah, you know how they always have biscuits.
Brendan: Rico actually works in an orphanage.
Rico: I work at an orphanage in Dickensian London. But that’s the deal. You have one drink, you don’t want to have more than one drink, because your lips get loose and you might say something true, which is the last thing you want to do at an office party, and everyone’s great, and then you split.
— DinnerPartyDownload (@dinnerpartydnld) December 1, 2015
Growler: So office parties are barely parties? It’s almost more of an obligation, a quick stopover, not something you’re carrying on late into the night.
Rico: Right. Many a time the office party is the first stop, and usually office holiday parties happen in the thick of holiday party season when there are lots of them going on, that the one you show up early to, but not so early that you’re the only one there and have to talk to your boss interminably, don’t want to be the first one there, so you want to show up 45 minutes after it starts, put in an hour and get on to the real party.
Growler: If you’re showing up 45 minutes late to the office party, that means you’re showing up late to the real party. What’s the decorum for showing up fashionably late to a real party?
Brendan: You’re expected to show up late in that you’re not expected to show up on time. It’s not about being fashionable, it’s about being kind to people. They have lives, they have to put their kids to bed, there are things that need to happen before people arrive. No one in the history of the world has been ready for the start time of a party. And if you were to actually arrive on time, you’re actually being very rude. It’s not about fashionable or unfashionable, it’s about arriving like a normal human, that is, late.
Rico: We should say, for the hosts, that you should try to be ready on time. Even though smart people know that you won’t be, dumb people won’t. Again, we’re talking about rookie season. So they may actually show up. They might be there. So don’t be naked when they arrive.
Brendan: Now there’s an addendum to this, this isn’t about parties. But people who go to church every Sunday, they call these people C’n’E’ers – Christmas and Easter people – and all of a sudden their church is filled on Christmas and Easter, and it’s amateur hour. It’s great because the church makes a lot of money because they feel guilty and they fill up the collection plates, but it reeks chaos. So do not be late to church or special events like that, but parties, yes, be late. It’s unfashionable to be on time.
Growler: What should you show up to a party with? Host gifts? Are they expected? Brendan: We should stipulate that holiday parties are not dinner parties, for many reasons. There’s often family invited. If it’s over 50% family we’re out of dinner party territory. There’s a buffet. If there’s a buffet situation it’s technically not a dinner party.
Rico: Yeah, you can’t sit around a table at a holiday party, typically. Also there’s usually more than 12 people there, which you don’t typically want more than 12 people at a dinner party.
Brendan: And there’s an agenda at a holiday party. It’s a holiday party because there’s a holiday going on. But our dinner party rule, which can be applied to holiday parties, is if you’re showing up at a dinner party, you’re responsible for a bottle of wine per person, whether or not you drink wine. Let’s be honest, the night’s probably going to end up there, and the worst case scenario is your host ends up with some extra wine. But the worst thing is going out at 11:55, gathering money from everyone to go out and buy cheap wine at the corner store. That’s kind of a given for a dinner event. As far as gifts? I don’t think a gift is necessary. You’re being given a gift by the host by having you over, but I don’t think you need to get them something like slippers, that’s just awkward.
Rico: And it’s also one of those things where you’re not sure that everybody is going to be giving a gift, and if you are, are you saying you’re better than them? What’s the message that you’re sending? On the other hand, I guess, if everybody is giving a gift and you don’t, that means you’re worse than them. So that’s why we’re sending out the message: Don’t bring a gift. Unless it says on the invitation “Bring a Gift”, in which case, that’s a pretty jerky host. But do bring wine.
Brendan: So to recap, be late and don’t bring a gift.
Growler: What about people to bring? Plus-ones? Do people expect at holiday parties you’re bringing someone?
Rico: I don’t know that people expect it, but if you’re calling it a holiday party, the ideal is that we’re all kind of nostalgically looking at “It’s A Wonderful Life”, the party at the end where people just start showing up, and they’re all crowding around, and it’s all good times, and you can feel like we live in a society where we’re all bound to one another and actually love one another. So, I feel like at a holiday party, more so than other parties, it’s okay to bring somebody, because Hey! The more the merrier! But don’t bring tons of people who haven’t been invited and don’t bring jerks.
Brendan: And again, a holiday party is not a dinner party, there’s usually a buffet, so you’re not going to put the host out, they’re preparing for a bunch of people. So, yeah, absolutely okay to bring some non-jerks.
Rico: You might want to ask in advance. Say hey, I’m bringing such and so, and they’ll probably say that’s cool.
Growler: Say you just started dating somebody. These holiday parties could start to force the issue on your relationship. It gets tricky, especially if you haven’t brought them around before. How do you navigate that situation?
Brendan: John, it sounds like you have commitment issues. And, we were just talking about this with your parents, and we’re a little concerned. It’s a little convenient, that you start getting serious around the holidays, and it’s all of a sudden a little too heavy. I think The Growler offers health care, and they may not pay your entire therapy bill, but they may pay part of it. Just a suggestion.
Rico: I think there’s always an out. Especially at the beginning of a relationship. They ask “What are you doing on Saturday? Why aren’t we going out” You can say, Oh there’s this party I was invited to a while ago, and you could probably say it’s going to be old college buddies and it’s all going to be inside jokes. I wouldn’t say family, because then it sounds like “Oh, so why don’t you want me to meet your family?”
Brendan: But look, if we’re going to be Machiavellian, it’s a trick. Because in the relationship, if you don’t want to give the impression that you’re really committed to this person, then you probably shouldn’t bring them around your family. But on the other hand, it’s insulation. If you bring a person, in a way, they might quiet some of the anxiety your family has about you. Like maybe they’ll be a shield, right? On the one hand they’ll be like “John’s dating someone, they seem really nice.” Or, on the other hand, maybe they’re not going to bring up the really upsetting thing. “Did you know when John was a little kid, he’d do X, Y and Z” in front of the other person, to pretend they’re mentally healthy.
Growler: So at the office party, you’re going to encounter some inane chatter. What’s a good conversation starter for talking to business colleagues like actual humans?
Rico: I think it’s easier to small talk with a business colleague, because you can just talk about work. You can complain about the things it’s okay to complain about. Like the vending machine never has any good snacks.
Brendan: This is the place where we plug our show. Honestly, the reason we started the show is to give people things to talk about at a party. You can talk about how the vending machine doesn’t work, or about how your boss is a creep or whatever. But, it’s a holiday, you want to have a little bit of fun, and create a festive atmosphere. So we want to push ourselves to maybe have more engaging conversations. So one could listen to our show and get tidbits about cool things that are happening. Or there are other wonderful shows like Radiolab, Marc Maron, listen to something, and then when you meet someone, have a drink and say, “Hey, I was listening to this show, or I read this article.” But I think stepping mid-stream into a topic, instead of tiptoeing into “How are you doing?” Getting right into a clutch of people and saying “I just heard the craziest thing on the way over here. John, the editor of The Growler, has commitment problems.”
Rico: I have a legit example of this, now that you bring this up, Brendan. I think you really hit on something. I went to our last office holiday party and a colleague was there with his wife, and their new baby, who was adorable, and I said “How are things going?” which is a terrible thing, because if you say the real thing it might not be that great. She said “Well, I’m looking at this baby and I just heard there actually is something called “cute rage”, a legitimate chemical reaction in the brain, people do it all the time online, you know “That’s so cute I want to punch myself in the face.”
Brendan: I thought the whole reason things are cute is so you didn’t hurt them. Like the only reason you can deal with a screaming child that keeps you up all night because they’re so cute.
Rico: I know you don’t want to hurt the child. But there’s an equal and opposite reaction away from the child, to direct that violence elsewhere, against something more socially acceptable, I think is the idea. Anyway, you can see the conversation it started.
Brendan: If you started this conversation with me at a party I would run away from you.
Rico: What if it was a mom holding an adorable baby child?
Brendan: Anyway, it’s a much better thing to talk about than saying, How did you get here, did you take the 405? Was traffic bad?
Growler: What if someone asks you “How are things?” and things are not going well?
Brendan: This one’s easy. No one cares. No one really cares about how other people are doing. If it’s someone who’s not in your circle and they don’t really know, they’re not close enough to know what’s really going on, they don’t really care. If anything, they want information to bad talk you when you’re away. I wouldn’t get too caught up in “I don’t want to be dishonest, but I don’t want to bring them down at this holiday event.” You just lie. Just say “things are great. Have you heard about cute rage?”
Rico: But do turn it back on them, and say, “Great, how about you?” Because they might only be asking to talk about themselves. And you could learn some juicy information if they’ve had a few too many eggnogs.
Brendan: And that gives you an opportunity to eat. They’ll talk for 15 minutes and you can tuck in to the prosciutto rolls and the cheesecake.
Growler: What about making yourself helpful at a party. Do you ask “Is there anything I can do?” or is that an empty gesture?
Rico: This is a great strategy for wallflowers. If you show up at a party where you don’t know many people or you don’t know how to mingle or you’re uncomfortable with it, ask them to give you a task, and do that thing. It’ll give you some focus, it might get you to interact intimately with one or two other people who are doing the same task, and you’ve narrowed it down to just a few people instead of the whole party, and you have something in common, which is you’re both deveining shrimp, or whatever. Even at my own parties, I find it gets overwhelming, and late in the evening, I’ll start washing dishes because only one person can talk to you at a time while you’re doing dishes.
Brendan: I was with Rico’s advice until that last point.
Rico: Because you don’t like to help.
Brendan: Well I don’t like doing dishes, but that’s a whole separate thing. But if you’re hosting a party, you can’t hide around the dishes.
Rico: What are you talking about? Hosts almost never get to talk to people at their own party because they’re so busy doing stuff.
Brendan: Well, it’s an excellent strategy for someone who’s a little shy and wants to get involved. But if you mean it, everyone can use a little help. But follow the host’s cue. Don’t impose yourself on them.
Growler: When you’re hosting, what food and drink should you have on hand?
Rico: I’m a big fan of cheese logs. Even though I know that’s not considered very posh, I just like them. And you only ever really see them at the holidays. Also, I look forward to eggnog, but I almost always forget to bring Lactaid. So have Lactaid for people like me.
Brendan: That aside, whether or not it’s eggnog, a punch is a good strategy. You are in control of how much alcohol. You can do a low alcohol punch, a wine punch or sangria, you can calibrate the evening so people fill up on that instead of having a wet bar. Or, you can go the other way and you feel like the group is too uptight, and they’re all crashing at your house, so you can have a little more high-octane kick at the beginning of the event. And a punchbowl is always festive. No one goes home and makes a punch bowl for themselves. It telegraphs that Yes, this is a party. This is fun.
For food, the trick is not to get too invested in how people should eat. It should be a buffet, lots of fun options. If people decide to fill up on hors d’oeuvres, that’s ok. Don’t have too much of a plan, and have lots of finger foods, savory to sweet. Don’t worry what people might go nuts for your deviled eggs and ignore the intricate nut cluster you’ve created. That’s okay. If you’re sad about that, just put your head in the punch bowl.
Growler: Can you get adventurous with the foods you prepare?
Rico: Well nobody shows up to a holiday party expecting supernatural food. If you do better than the cheese log, that’s great. The bar is low.
Brendan: But can you alienate people by having food that’s too out there? And I think that’s where I can agree to having a cheese log at my party. Can’t believe I’m saying this.
Rico: You’re coming around.
Brendan: Well it’s a democratic event. This party is amateur hour, and I mean that in the best of ways. You need an entry point for people. So if you’re making some bizzaro Brussels sprout-artichoke-offal treat, well, a lot of people won’t be in to that. You need some Doritos, some grapes, some entry level things. For every avant-garde food item, you need something more pedestrian. You calibrate to the middle. If you have some 10s, you need some 1s, and that’s on a scale of “brow-ness”, some highbrow, some lowbrow, but you’re going for middle-brow.
Growler: What if you have dietary concerns? How can you be polite and not obnoxious when you’re declining food at a holiday party?
Rico: That’s easy. You just decline. The most polite way to decline food if it’s not in your dietary plan is just to not say anything. If the issue is that people are saying “Why aren’t you eating anything?” That’s hard.
Brendan: Well you just lie! Say, “My stomach is upset, I had something weird at lunch.” I’d rather hear that, than “I don’t eat gluten.” I’d rather be lied to than having a window into your paleo diet. It’s like, “Oh, I’m sorry, is this all about you?” So, the host shouldn’t be pushy. And if you have to lie, say “I like the punch!”
Rico: The other thing you can do, is just come and have all of your holiday parties in L.A. I can guarantee you, all the dishes will be labeled with all the various dietary concerns. There’s always gluten free options here in Los Angeles. We’re waiting for you.
— DinnerPartyDownload (@dinnerpartydnld) November 29, 2015
Growler: What about the end of the night? How can you politely shoo away a guest who’s overstaying their welcome?
Brendan: You start doing the dishes.
Rico: Yeah, and I just admitted to liking doing the dishes with people around me. But yeah, that is usually the universal signal that the party is over. People get the picture.
Growler: And on the other side, ghosting. Leaving the party unannounced. Are you a fan of this strategy?
Rico: You have to say goodbye to the host. You do not have to say goodbye to anybody else. We talked about this in Minnesota, I’ve been to parties where the goodbyes last longer than the parties. It’s not right.
[Brendan leaves the interview]