One day late in the summer before my senior year of high school, my sister and I stumbled on a piece of trivia: August 17 was the birthdate of Davy Crockett. With that little bit of information, we did what bored teenagers in rural America before the Internet often did. We planned an elaborate party to celebrate his birth.
That last part may have been made up. I’m unaware of any documented evidence that bored teenagers in rural America routinely planned elaborate parties when they learned new facts otherwise irrelevant to their lives. But the second part is true. We planned a party for the King of the Wild Frontier. It was a wildly successful event, though it broke Priya Parker’s biggest rule of gathering engagement before it even got started: I have no idea why we did it.
We organized the heck out of this shindig like a couple of professional party planners. We designed invitations and printed them out at my parents’ office. Remember, this was pre-Internet, and really, pre-personal computer. It was just us and an IBM Selectric typewriter. (But it had lift-off correcting type, Baby. We lived on the cutting edge.) We hand-addressed envelopes to our very long guest list and carted them off to be mailed at the old Post Office a block away from our house.
The party for this American folk hero was a hit. The sprawling lawn between our house and the only other house on our side of the block was filled with teenagers in bandanas and cowboy hats (blame the lack of Amazon.com in those days for the absence of coon skin caps on such short notice), eating grilled hot dogs and corn on the cob and bopping to the likes of Johnny Cash, Hank Snow and yes, Fess Parker blaring from the giant 1970s era brown speakers I’d dragged out of my bedroom and into the yard. At some point, a neighborhood-wide game that I would now find culturally inappropriate commenced, though it was really no more than an episode of Capture the Flag using team monikers of questionable taste.
In the end, the kids went home, the yard was cleaned up, and, in the words of the local newspaper that ended up covering the event, “A good time was had by all.”
In The Art of Gathering, author Priya Parker argues that the myriad listicles on the Internet today promising “10 Tips to Spice Up Your Next Gathering” fall short in one key respect, in that “our bland gatherings cannot be saved by one-off interventions and tricks that are disconnected from the context of the gathering.” She goes on to say that the biggest challenge is that “the gathering makes no effort to do what the best gatherings do: transport us to a temporary alternate world.”
The alternate world of the wild frontier certainly took shape on my lawn that August afternoon, though we had no idea we were creating such a world. Part of what made that alternate reality possible may have been the rules. The truth is I don’t recall the specifics now, but the invitation was clear about expectations. When to be there, what to wear, what to bring, how to act (in character, of course).
Parker contrasts longstanding rules of etiquette and alternative, “pop-up rules” that are imposed by an event’s host for that one-time purpose, such as refraining from using your last name, not saying anything about your profession, only talking to the person on your left, being unplugged, etc.
At times, these rules struck me as unreasonably demanding. Who are you to tell me who to talk to, which of my names I can reveal, what I can talk about, whether I seek alone time or not, whether I check my texts or not, whether I update my Instagram feed or not? These rules could seem like the stuffy old etiquette that ruled many older gatherings, but on steroids. What’s nice about etiquette is no one clogs up your inbox about it. No one tells you what it is in advance. No one forces you to practice it. You just may not get invited back if you mess it up.
It took me a while to understand that what these gatherings signified was not a doubling down on etiquette but a rebellion against it. In the explicitness and oftentimes whimsy of these rules was a hint of what they were really about: replacing the passive-aggressive, exclusionary, glacially conservative commandments of etiquette with something more experimental and democratic.
The Davy Crockett party had little to do with the general etiquette that may have marked a typical party hosted among our friends. All of it had a bit of the unexpected, from the occasion itself to the idea that teenagers on the cusp of adulthood would so delight to recapture a sense of their childhood in neighborhood games. As Parker explains, focusing less on the fixed rules of etiquette in favor of the unexpectedness of pop-up rules has the “power to flip these traits on their head.”
It was tempting, I’ll admit, to want to make the Davy Crockett Birthday Party an annual event, to somehow recapture that same energy and warmth among good friends and repeat it again and again. Whether from a momentary flush of wisdom, or just the usual complications of the calendar, we didn’t try. I suspect we may have understood intuitively that when we create these “temporary alternative worlds,” they are just that fleeting, and our best efforts will go into creating, as Parker observes, “a world that will exist only once.”
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This month, we’re discussing Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering. We invite you to share in the comment box around this topic. If you’re reading along, tell us what most intrigued you about this week’s reading. What’s the best gathering you’ve attended with “pop-up rules”? Do you find etiquette to be a helpful social guide, or do you find it to be exclusionary or stifling?
No matter what kind of gatherings you’re a part of—dinner parties, business meetings, birthdays, conferences and more—gather here with us first, and let’s rethink together.
Buy The Art of Gathering now
Photo by Abby Gillardi, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by LW Lindquist.
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