Eight Lessons from Jim Haynes’ Wonderful Dinner Parties

Jim Haynes is an American academic living in Paris who has been hosting regular dinner parties at his home for the last 40 years. The dinners are open to anyone who drops him an email, asking if it’s ok to join him, so what you typically find in any of these gatherings is a group of a few dozen strangers, socializing in a homey environment. Jim’s open-dinners are so popular that they have become one of those little gems in the guides of “Things to do in Paris”, undoubtedly an achievement in a city that is packed with world-class touristic sites.

Read my previous post, Eating with Strangers, for my recount of how I learned about Jim and the night I attended one of his dinners.

Consumerism can make us cynical of spending an evening at Jim’s, though. After all, you could think of his dinners just as another example of a supper club, those alternative hybrids between private dinners and public restaurants that have been popping up all over the world for the last ten years. You can notice that this is the mentality behind some of the reviews in the Trip Advisor discussion forum under the title “Dinner with Jim Haynes – Should I go?” For some people, the real success of the experience boils down to some simple assessments: “Was I entertained?” “Was I provided an exquisite meal?” “Was I shown an exceptional venue?” With those criteria, a well-established supper club might seem like an obvious choice over the more modest dinner at Jim’s.

And of course, there is nothing wrong with that way of thinking – particularly when you are on holidays and managing your risk budget. But notice the prevalent passive voice you assume when you transform yourself from a Homo sapiens into a Homo consumens. You get blinded to the obvious fact that instead of just buying a ticket and ticking off a box from a list, you could turn around the roles and become the host yourself. Among the hundreds of positive reviewers of Jim Haynes’ dinners, I have yet to find the first one reflecting on how to emulate in some form the experience he creates seemingly effortlessly. In this entry, I intend to fill that gap.

Why strangers?

There are many ways in which you can make your life more exciting. You can plan a trip, or learn a new skill, for example. I have observed that for me, getting to know new people is a sure way of shaking things up and infusing my life with a dose of thrill, and I know I’m not alone in that feeling. Again, there are many ways in which you can do that, but I find something particularly intriguing in Jim’s proposition of creating a space in your own home where you can welcome people that you haven’t met before.

Obviously, all this may sound like hell to many, who could find truth in Jay Pritchett’s rant to Gloria in an episode of Modern Family: “We have been over this before… I don’t want any new friends. I have the exact right number of friends!” But for others, Jim’s dinners might be an inspiration for doing something similar.

In my case, right after attending one of Jim’s dinner parties at the end of last year, I started planning with a friend to host our own, at a much smaller scale than Jim’s, but still with the intention of bringing together people that didn’t know each other or that we didn’t know directly. Unfortunately, my friend left England shortly afterward, and then, well, the whole coronavirus nightmare punched us all in the face, so there has never been the right time to think about these sorts of things.

Still, I wanted to remind myself about the lessons I learned from Jim’s way of congregating strangers for so many decades and putting them on the perspective of my own experiences. One by one, they are pretty obvious, and kind of plain, but perhaps their value stems from putting them all together, in a list as the following one:

  1. Not all of them should be strangers
  2. Keep it simple
  3. But not too simple
  4. Make it a regular event
  5. Adjust it to your city
  6. Expect nothing in return
  7. Make it personal
  8. Say goodbye

Below I give a brief explanation of each item in this list.

1. Not all of them should be strangers.

Jim didn’t open his doors to every person on Earth on day one. It was a gradual process that started with friends, who eventually started bringing their own acquaintances. Even today, many people that you find at Jim’s dinners are old friends of his, who have been attending these events for years. Since they know the logistics of the evening, they are facilitators to newcomers, making the social dynamic more fluid and natural. They create a relaxed atmosphere and somehow give the impression that someone in the room knows what to do. Compare that to a regular networking event, where nobody knows anybody, and you need to put an extra effort to overcome the inevitable awkwardness of being in a place where everybody is a stranger.

I don’t know what the right ratio of old friends versus new faces should be, but I presume that unless you are really experienced in these matters, the former should outnumber the later. A possibility would be to pair up with a friend to host such an event, each of you inviting a handful of friends that the other person doesn’t know. In this way, every guest is a stranger to one group of people, but familiar to the other.

2. Keep it simple

What surprised me the most about Jim’s dinner was its simplicity. His home is not overly luxurious, the food was not lavish, and the wines were certainly not the best that France has to offer. However, I struggle to think about how changing any of those things would have made my experience significantly better.

While I was there, I couldn’t help thinking that his living room is probably as small as mine, but that didn’t stop him for a second from welcoming dozens of guests that evening, thousands over the decades. Of course, standing up while having a plate in your hand is always a tricky balancing act, but one that you stop caring about after a few minutes of being engaged in an exciting conversation. Preparing any food for that many people must be quite a challenge, but from my own experience, I know that for a few friends, just a couple of hours are enough to make some salads, some dips, and putting something in the oven for when everybody arrives.

If you want to find great excuses not to throw a gathering at your place, try overcomplicating things. Like most things in life, the enemy is not the potential embarrassment in front of many people but rather laziness and procrastination. The curious lesson from Jim’s dinners is that you can find a basic setting that most guests will appreciate and that allows you to repeat it for decades.

3. But not too simple

Jim wants to make you feel welcome and comfortable when you attend one of his dinners. The point is to create an experience removed from your ordinary life, where you can feel that you are taking part in something special. Though much of the magic happens just because the dinner takes place in a very nice little flat in Paris, surrounded by people from all over the world, you can tell there is some real effort for the whole thing to flow nicely.

Creating such an environment requires a level of preparation beyond the effort you put when you invite your mates for a pizza and a card game. It’s probably not so much about the money you spend in such evening, but rather about how much care you can provide to your guests within your own limits and budgets.

4. Make it a regular event

There is something surprisingly remarkable about an event that is repeated over and over again. This is the case of Jim’s dinners, whose sheer persistence and reliability over four decades are the immaterial qualities that set it apart from modern supper clubs.

By regularly bringing together a group of friends and strangers to his place, Jim has instituted a tradition, with a positive feedback loop. The more he organizes these dinner parties, the better he gets at hosting them. By fixing them in the calendar, he removes the uncertainty of when to do the next one. And by always having strangers in the mix, he guarantees a novel element in his dinners that he would not have if he only invited his friends.

5. Adjust it to your city

Transplanting Jim’s open dinner-parties to other cities might require addressing particular considerations. In large, international cities, like Paris, London, or New York, one is used to interacting with new people all the time, so the prospect of spending an evening with a bunch of strangers might not sound so weird. But in the rest of the world, I have the impression – perhaps incorrectly – that people tend to form tight cliques of friends, outside of which rarely anything happens.

I can imagine some of my friends in Bogota being less than enthusiastic at the prospect of opening their houses to people they don’t know directly. Not only because of the understandable safety issues but also because of the way that social dynamics are played in this part of the world. Not that I am saying that is not possible, just that it requires being aware of idiosyncratic sensitivities in different cities.

6. Expect nothing in return

You might expect that you got the ball rolling after you put all that effort into organizing the dinner. For next time, perhaps one of your guests will offer to arrange the gathering or propose another fun plan for you to attend. However, chances are that nobody will take the lead, and nothing will happen unless you volunteer again to host the event. Let this happen a few times in a row, and surely you will get annoyed and frustrated by the passivity of the others.

However, one should restrain from judging others too harshly. The truth is that most people really don’t like organizing these sorts of things. They will be genuinely excited to attend your event and will look forward to being invited to the next one. But bringing people to their lives is not a priority, and they are perfectly happy without ever going through great lengths to reach their friends – let alone strangers.

The lack of responsiveness in others should definitely not be interpreted as something that is wrong with them, but rather as a rare and positive trait that you have. You put the effort, and you organize everything because that is how you have fun. Connecting with others is a necessity you have, and getting it done is your reward.

7. Make it personal

An alternative to hosting at your house is organizing the gathering at a pub or a restaurant. Not only it saves you from all hassle but also reduces the chances of ruining the meal if you happen to be a beginner cook. However, regardless of how small your place is, or how simple the food you prepare is, no commercial venue will match its level of intimacy and warmth.

Although I only spoke briefly to Jim, I got to know him just from visiting his house. This is not surprising. The place where you live projects in quite a unique way the kind of person you are, and by allowing others to step inside, you are giving them the possibility of knowing you better. In a world that encourages people to distance themselves from others, this openness might be slightly uncomfortable or even intimidating for you. But for your guests – like the thousands that have been at Jim’s – it will be a refreshing experience, and they will be grateful for your generosity.

8. Say goodbye

Most of the dozens, hundreds, or thousands of new people you meet every year will disappear forever from your life just after one fleeting encounter. What Jim teaches us is that this is the fate shared by most of the strangers that attend dinners like his, but that this should not stop you from inviting every so often a new batch of them. This may sound pointless, but in fact, it summarizes the value of doing it in the first place.

Anyone who has backpacked knows very well the ephemeral nature of the relationship you establish with the strangers you meet in hostels. You wake up one morning and in the beds next to you are sleeping two people you have never seen before. You introduce yourself, learn their names, and where are they coming from. You share a meal with them; perhaps go together for a hike or to visit a local temple. You exchange stories and learn from them, and your views of the world change – not much, perhaps just a fraction. Then, in the morning over breakfast, you compare notes and realize you are on different trajectories; you shake hands and go in opposite directions. You never see them again.

Of course, you could have avoided all that, and set your own pace without the interference of anyone. But, wouldn’t that be just a tad boring?

Life is about meeting and connecting with strangers as much as it is about letting them go.

Coming up next (November 1st 2020): The Market as a Villain

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