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Sociability • Friendship

Dinner Table Orchestra

One of the most astonishing and moving of all sights is that of a well-practiced orchestra working together to perform a great symphonic masterpiece. Along with 47 other equally focused colleagues, Sigrid will be sawing away at the violin, Jai-wu bellowing into a trombone, and Kaspar pounding the tympany – but the result will be the opposite of chaos. Despite every human remaining (at heart) an unfathomable self-focused individual, for a time, the members of an orchestra are able to generate a sublime sense of harmony. Their collective work stands as one of the most beguiling metaphors for what we would ideally want social life to be like: a setting in which every person could make their own unique contribution in a beautifully coordinated way to a noble overarching whole. 

However, this kind of coherence is one we normally despair of ever experiencing ourselves, unless we started on the voila at seven and have acquired a deftness at following the intricacies of a conductor’s baton. 

At the same time, we know that when friends are gathered around the dinner table, each person’s individuality too often leads to disagreement and discord, or at least incomprehension and boredom. We may love our friends, but it is frequently not easy to get access to a feeling of collective harmony. 

Yet there is an exercise that can allow us to experience an echo of the kind of cohesion the members of an orchestra will generate – but that does not, fortunately, require us to practice for twelve years for four hours a day. One person starts by knocking out a steady beat on the table with their hand. The person next to them then strikes a fork (very gently) on a wine glass, to a different rhythm. The person beside them uses their plate as a delicate drum, carefully banging knife against the rim, in a complimentary beat. The next individual has the job of letting out a ‘hmmm’ sound in time with the knife or fork and another person joins in with an occasional ‘nananah … nananah’. And gradually a little social miracle occurs: by an engrained social instinct we collectively cohere around a harmonious tone. We’re started an orchestra, we’re making music; we’re almost ‘one’.

It is a useful strategy to try something along these lines quite early on in the evening, just for quarter of an hour or so, especially if a few of the guests are potentially agitated or querulous. The experience of being an ensemble has a lingering effect. It’s not so easy to get irritated by someone’s view on public holidays or the American Civil War if, only a little while before, you’ve been happily nanah-ing and plate clinking together.

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