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Sociability • Friendship

How Often Do We Need to Go to Parties?

One of the major reasons why our lives are busier than they might be is that we come under immense pressures to ‘go out’, usually in the evening, typically to one of the most peculiar and paradoxical of all human social inventions: parties.

It is because these parties are so ubiquitous and benefit from such widespread approval that we’re liable to miss how confusing and, along the way, unhelpful they can be to our always sensitive inner selves. 

What draws us to leave home isn’t merely a sense of duty, it is the desire to connect deeply with other humans, to attenuate a perhaps painful sense of isolation and to find an echo of our fears and longings in the eyes of others.

But what typically happens when we reach the party should lead us to interrogate, at a minimum, the pressures we are under to leave home. It is usually evident that our hosts have been to a lot of trouble: their place may look charming, glasses may be sparkling on a side table, some plates of interesting canapes might be circulating and the room will perhaps be crowded with a lot of well-turned out individuals enjoying energetic conversations.

But if we were to conduct an anthropological investigation into what was actually being said, we might discover that the guests were all acting in accordance with a well-established and rigid social code that might lead us to doubt why we had ever freely opted to stand in the center of a room holding a glass and wondering who to talk to next. At least 8 rules come to mind:

1. Emphasise your successes, though boast only covertly.

2. Never allude to troubles, doubts or worries; apparently no-one comes to a party to hear what is going on in another’s heart.

3. As much as possible, agree with others. If someone is talking about their new puppy, say ‘how lovely’ – especially if you dislike dogs. If someone mentions that they’ve been on a skiing holiday at the foot of a mountain you’ve never heard of, remark ‘oh that’s amazing.’ 

4. Keep it light: laugh even if you don’t especially find anything funny; look for the amusing side of every topic.

5. Don’t reveal any earnest aspiration to connect with a fellow broken ailing human. 

6. Mingle: it’s rude to talk at length with anyone; speak to as many as possible, even if only for a minute.

7. Hug people you would normally cross the road to avoid.

8. If anyone fails to stick to the rules and says or does something ‘wrong’ (like being sincere), slip off rapidly to talk to someone else who knows how to behave ‘properly’. 

It’s tantalising. All of us have rich and complex histories. All of us have dazzling minds that can record the most subtle impressions and are filled with tender and poignant scenes accumulated over decades. We all had complicated childhoods, are ambivalent about our careers, troubled by despair and anxiety, worried about our relationships, puzzled by sex – and heading towards decay and death far sooner than we can bear. And yet still we continue to mention the traffic and ask about each other’s recent holidays. 

How many sincere sides we might long to discover in our new companions if only we could: what happened in their childhoods, how did they find their way through adolescence, what do they make of their parents, what do they dislike about themselves, what makes them fall into bed sobbing, have they ever thought of suicide? But the social codes governing parties ensure that we will never come close to any such enquiries. We may have been asked along to the evening; our deeper selves have not been invited. 

The moral is clear. If we seek others, we should stay at home, if we wish to alleviate loneliness, we should turn down invitations, if we want company, we would be better off communing with dead writers and poets rather than hunting for solace at large gatherings.

We should cease to be ashamed of our buried longings to remain by ourselves. It is very normal, and highly understandable, for properly social people – that is, people who really wish their souls to connect with those of others – to feel anxious about parties – and to prefer to see people very seldom and then only in the smallest and most intimate of contexts. If we properly crave the love and understanding of people, it will be too much to bear the humiliations and betrayals involved in the average get-together. We should restrict our social lives to the exceptional evening out with a true friend who can weep with us, sympathise us with and exchange authentic and heartfelt notes with us on the fleeting ecstasies and long-running sorrows of being human. That will be a ‘party’ worth breaking our isolation for.

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