The Life of the Party
by Jennifer Bernstein
In an age that values authenticity as the highest good, consideration for the other may represent the truest radical act.
Nearly every important thing I know I learned from Rachel. Rachel was my best friend in college, a phenom, the slinky sundress to my straight-leg khakis. She tore into my life, two years older and wiser, and taught me how to be a person in the world: to paint my nails fuchsia in the winter and mandarin orange in summer; to give a cab driver your route preference, so he wouldn’t mistake you for a tourist; to smoke half a cigarette after three glasses of wine, then grind the remainder into the sidewalk with a point-toe heel. And, not least of all, how to throw a party.
Rachel and I hosted parties together, warm and loud and booze-soaked, in her series of matchbox Brooklyn apartments (I lived in the dorms). Here began the lessons: You’d be surprised how many people you can fit in a small space, especially if you are young, even more so in a city that reduces expectations of breathing room to near zero. In fact, a tight squeeze forces an intimacy of bodies that leads, in the right conditions, to the intimacy of souls.
In preparation for these fêtes, we made pico de gallo with fresh vegetables from the farmer’s market, dancing and dicing, flutes of cheap champagne depleted and refilled in an imitation of adult luxury. This according to another of Rachel’s diktats: Always get a little drunk before people arrive, she said. Your cheer will set them at ease. Rachel’s roommate was a bartender, eager to test her creations on live subjects; we bore the burden without complaint.
I began to know the motions of a house party, regular like the tides. About an hour after the official start time, guests would trickle in and pool at the room’s edges; another hour later, a second gush would fill in the gaps; latecomers would quickly down a couple of drinks to catch up with their predecessors. The pitch of talk would increase; girls would shuck off their sweaters; someone would spill something. The laughter of flirtation would float up like bubbles, glinting in the yellow light. At times the group would coalesce into a singular amebic mass, sway and undulate, then splinter into twos, threes, fives, connections formed and dissolved in a span of minutes. Sometimes they lasted.
I moved away from New York and from Rachel, and once I’d settled into my new home of Seattle, I threw a party on my own, and then another, and then another. Not naturally inclined toward cooking, I laid out a medley of crackers, dips, and cheeses; in fact, my dos became known for the quantity and variety of their cheese offerings: goat, cow, soft, firm, veined, French, Italian. For a while I had a boyfriend whose building boasted a deck with two barbecues and a 270-degree view; we lugged tanks of propane out the back hall and grilled burgers and asparagus for a couple dozen of our friends, Mt. Rainier and the Puget Sound lording over the proceedings, until the beginnings of a chill chased us indoors, where we huddled together against incursions from the outside world.
* * *
Trend writers have taken pleasure, of late, in lamenting the death of the party. Millennials, they say, don’t throw parties, owing to financial constraints and a tectonic culture shift toward the digital. In truth, these reports have been greatly exaggerated. For one, people still have parties, even millennials, the objects of seemingly every journalistic lament in the last decade. For another, parties can and do happen on a shoestring. Everyone brings a bottle of cheap liquor and a bag of grocery store snack mix.
But perhaps the scribblers are onto something, even if the phenomenon they describe is confined to certain places and scenes. If we are witnessing a decline in the popularity of the party, it is born less of insurmountable economic obstacles than a social anxiety endemic to postmodern life—a paralysis in the face of too much choice, too little sense of cultural common ground. We don’t go to church, we don’t go to the movies; we sit, frog-legged, in our office chairs, curating our online personae, looping our Spotify playlists, and refreshing our Twitter feeds, nestled in a protective cushion of the familiar.
If we are all atomized, alone in bubbles of personalized media and consumption, then the onus is on us to break out. But we seem instead to be curling inward. We have responded to social fragmentation not by pushing back, but rather by glorifying one of its primary byproducts: social ineptitude. We have entered the era of “awkward is the new cool.” In place of the Romantic seducer, we have the timid, halting geek; not the self-sure woman, in full possession of her wiles, but the girl who doesn’t know she’s beautiful (that’s what makes her beautiful). For popular entertainment, we are bombarded by the indistinguishable likes of The Office and The Big Bang Theory and Parks and Recreation, which rely almost exclusively on awkwardness for their humor.
The party, done right, may offer a site of resistance against the prevailing ethos of “we are all vaguely embarrassed all the time, yet also vaguely proud of our embarrassment.” For the party is a playground for the premodern, or courtly virtues: social grace, the art of conversation, a focus on the other. There is no activity at a party but other people—and this is its chief virtue. (Let us dispense, for the moment, with gatherings programmed around games, performances, professional networking, etc., which belong to an adjacent but separate category.) If our central mission in this life is to figure out how to live together, then partying lands us face-first among (some of) the people whose preferences and personalities we must contend with in society-making.
Of course, the limits of the-party-as-exposure-to-difference are dramatic. We tend to party with those in our own socioeconomic class, political camps, and racial, ethnic, and age groups. And there are valid political critiques to be made of social grace. If you are fighting for your very right to exist in a country that has all but declared war on you, then why should you care for bourgeois niceties? Refusal to get along and play nice may serve as a necessary and effective tool of protest against a structurally unequal system that benefits from your silence.
But we are none of us political advocates 100 percent of the time; we could not survive it. Leisure time is a necessity; the question is how we choose to fill it. The fact remains that we are more likely to encounter the direct confrontation of the foreign at a party than at home on the computer, where we spend most of our non-work hours. (We encounter the foreign on the Internet, but there, the offending browser tab is easily closed.) Let us, then, cast the party as temporary utopia where we set aside the trials of the day and embrace the boozy camaraderie of the night; where everyone is beautiful and interesting; where all conversation sparkles under the glimmer of our collective wit.
But the utopia of the party is not the prelapsarian garden, which we one day awake to find we have been gifted by an omniscient benefactor. It is a space we must create—and herein lies the struggle, the answer to why so many parties go badly. The party is an act of will. We must choose to find our confederates beautiful and interesting, to hear the genius in their speech. The notion of “letting loose” does not particularly apply to this concept of the party, which has no room for the obnoxious, drunken lout. The conscious partygoer opts for a pose of expansive gregariousness—for she knows that guests, just as much as the host, bear responsibility for ensuring a party’s success. The degree to which a party succeeds or fails is determined not by location, time of day, or alimentary sophistication, but by the participants’ will toward collective care-taking. Can I get you another drink? I love your shoes. Tell me about yourself.
In an age that values authenticity as the highest good, consideration for the other may represent the truest radical act—or perhaps we ought to redefine authenticity to include the exercise of other-focused faculties, like empathy and sensitivity, and even politeness. It may well be that the well-mannered will inherit the Earth. For the superficial connotations of the word “manners” belie its gravity. Having good manners is not, at heart, about please-and-thank-you—it is about indicating respect and good faith, of saying to another: I will go slightly out of my way to please you. I will spend six minutes of my life talking about crockpot recipes, because I can see it would bring you joy. After all, if we can’t find something to say to someone with a different job or upbringing, how are we going to conceive of lives on the other side of the world, led in a different climate, language, geography?
* * *
These skills do not come easily to all. They didn’t to me, and maybe if I hadn’t met Rachel, I would never have developed them. But we should not balk at a task, or deem it beneath us, because it demands what essayist Leslie Jamison calls “exertion, that dowdier cousin of impulse.” That which happens by intention is not lesser than that which springs up organically. On the contrary: anything worth doing is hard. The person we find most difficult to relate to is the person for whom we most need to cultivate fellow-feeling.
Strengthening the social muscles mostly involves paying attention. Attention, more than any other human capacity, has shriveled under the weight of digital culture. Large segments of the population can barely sit through a novel or a movie, which were once considered the most frivolous of entertainments. How, then, can we be expected to notice the habits and particularities of our fellow man, except by purposefully redirecting our gaze away from an unending stream of distraction, back toward him? Party dynamics nudge awareness in the direction of people, because—if the host has done her job—the people are the most interesting thing going on. And if we revel at regular intervals, we may learn the party’s most important lesson: that people are the most interesting thing going on anywhere. We are social animals before we are individuals, and the faces we present to the world are as true, as authentic as who we are alone in the shower. We would each do well to cultivate a public self that reflects the attitudes and ideals to which we aspire.
Turn off the TV; close the laptop; go buy a case of pinot, and vacuum your place.