How to throw a messy, awkward, diverse, real-life party (sorry, Instagram)

My parties are never very “Instagrammable,” but gathering such a diverse group of people provides extraordinary benefits.

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According to Instagram, the best types of gatherings involve a lot of reclaimed wood, artfully arranged flowers, organic and luscious food piled to overflowing, and beautiful people in stylish but unfussy clothes gathered together and laughing at a joke we are not privy to. I love to look at these photos, immerse myself in theme ideas or specific aesthetics. But after a while, these lovely parties all start to look the same, and I’ve noticed that none of my parties ever looked a thing like these carefully curated events.

The best parties I have ever had all had the same element to them: they were pretty darn awkward. Long pauses in conversation, people milling about, a general sense of searching to connect and coming up empty, little children running wild and shrieking loudly. At the time, these moments caused me a bit of hostessing anxiety. But later, after all the debris was picked up, I realized that the un-smoothness of my party was actually one of its blessings. It meant that I had invited over a diverse group of people, that it had not been an insiders-only event, and that I was trying to grow and stretch my definitions of hospitality. And that, it turns out, is a life skill that we all need more practice in.

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The truth about many of us is that we live segregated lives—we live, go to school, go to church, and even shop in places where people tend to look like us. In an increasingly diverse and pluralistic world, it becomes important to look for ways to extend our social circles beyond those who are similar to us. But this isn’t easy work—bridging cultural, ethnic, and class differences takes intentionality and copious amounts of time. We must be committed to thinking through all areas of our lives and being creative about ways to be more inclusive. The holiday season, with all of its attendant parties, are a perfect time to practice this.

My mother often modeled this way for us when I was a child. Instead of focusing solely on our little nuclear family, my mother was always inviting other people to our holiday gatherings. One year we lived next door to an elderly neighbor named Marguerite. After school, my mother would sometimes have me go check on her to make sure she hadn’t died (a terrifying task for me, to be sure). Marguerite was a staunch atheist, but when invited over for Christmas dinner with my Christian family, she said sure without pausing a second to think about it.

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Growing up, this was our normal. Gaggles of young single people, the recently divorced, the grieving, the widowed, friends from college with no place to go, co-workers too broke to fly to be with family—whoever was around, they were always welcome. Setting extra place settings became our norm, as did keeping our eyes open for those who might not have any gatherings to attend.

Once this becomes your way of life, it’s hard to go back to the more picturesque holiday parties.

Here are some of the benefits I have discovered from opening up my parties in new (and sometimes awkward) ways:

1. Your family has to behave better

Holiday dinners or parties can often be awkward times where politics, religion, and other hot-button topics are studiously avoided until they flare up and engulf the entire conversation. By extending your gatherings to include people you aren’t as familiar with, you and your family have to try to be more understanding, to extend a little more grace to each other. Outsiders can have the effect of helping us move past petty disagreements and entrenched patterns of interaction. It’s a win-win where people can experience family, and your family can experience being kinder.

2. You get to practice including people without changing who you are

My husband and I have lived and worked in refugee communities for over a decade. We always invited our neighbors to whatever parties we threw, but we also had church and college friends and family members as well. This created quite the mix of cultures and expectations. We had Muslim, Hindu, vegan, and gluten-free dietary restrictions to think about. We had multiple religions present. We had people with different music preferences. We had some people who couldn’t speak English and some people who had never chatted with a refugee before. For us, learning to navigate these differences has been so rewarding. Not only do we learn how to build bridges, but we can invite others in to do the same.

Learning how to make small talk, to listen and learn from one another, while still retaining our own culture and background, is a life skill that will keep on giving.

This isn’t to say that we don’t still retain a part of our unique selves at our parties. Once I held a Harry Potter-themed birthday party for my husband, complete with snacks from the popular books. The only problem? Many of our guests were either from East Africa or fairly conservative Christian communities, and none of them were fans of the books. No matter, we still ate and drank and chatted with each other, spilling out into the backyard to watch as the children played with hula hoops. My husband was touched by the personalized nature of the decorations and treats I made, but we still made it inclusive enough that others could enjoy the party without necessarily buying the theme.

Learning how to make small talk, to listen and learn from one another, while still retaining our own culture and background, is a life skill that will keep on giving.

3. You get to model a way forward for a more diverse & integrated world

Here are some things we never have at our parties: pork products, beef, seafood, and alcohol. While this surely disappoints certain guests, it is a kindness to those who due to religious and moral convictions make certain choices. We have made it a personal quest to be on the look-out for food and decorations and music that people from a wide variety of backgrounds can appreciate. Some crowd-pleasers in our repertoire are spicy chips, fruit-flavored soft drinks, rainbow cupcakes, and Bollywood music.

Finding a few common pleasing elements in a party is a great metaphor for how we can move forward in a world that is becoming more diverse and also threatens to splinter. While I was raised to view the U.S. as a “melting pot” where everyone was expected to assimilate into a certain kind of life, I now see it being more of a “salad bowl”—a community where people retain their unique identities in order to contribute to a unique and delicious whole.

I’ve come to terms with the fact that my parties are never very “Instagrammable”—and that’s because they are made up of messy, diverse, real-life individuals. It’s hard work, and there are more often than not several (or multiple) awkward moments to be endured. But it is all worth it, as we work against curating the perfect life in favor of building stronger communities.

DL Mayfield
DL Mayfield
D.L. Mayfield writes about refugees, theology, gentrification, and Oprah. Her work has appeared in McSweeneys, Geez, Christianity Today, and Conspire! among others. Her book of essays, "Assimilate or Go Home; Notes from a Failed Missionary on Rediscovering Faith," is now available.

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