Guests Can Change The Rules

I was out taking a walk this weekend and flipped over to the NPR livestream just as an episode of the Splendid Table came on. As they introduced the second guest, Priya Parker, I wondered why her name sounded familiar until I recalled Ruth Hartt frequently cites Parker’s book, The Art of Gathering.

The interview with Parker starts at about the 35:30 mark  (if you want to miss Chef Vivian Howard’s discussion of a pine needle and rosemary turkey brine that makes you house smell like a Thanksgiving scented candle as you cook the bird, that is your business). She talks about the power of the guest in a social situation. While the host has a type of power, the guests decide whether they will assent to the rules.

Among the examples she gives are a guest at a housewarming party who asked everyone to go around and talk about what they liked about the house. Parker points out that for a host to initiate that would seem a bit arrogant and self-centered, but for a guest it is something of a gift to the host and centers the event around the reason for the gathering.

At host Francis Lam’s encouragement, Parker also shared that while she was on her honeymoon, a wedding guest emailed them with a list of 20 things they loved about the wedding. Some were things that Parker and her husband knew about, but quite a few on the list were moments of delight that the newlyweds didn’t witness. Parker says this is an example of a guest contributing to the “meaning making” of an experience. It is a reflection back to the host and perhaps other guests on those things that made the event special.

It occurred to me that social media helps people in doing that reflection, though it also can cause people to strive to manufacture meaning they hadn’t felt so that they can participate with the rest of the group. Perhaps much like the surfeit of standing ovations at the end of performances.  Though she says there is a specificity that delineates meaningful reflection from an expression of gratitude.

I figured I had enough to turn into a blog post and apply it to performing arts when Parker launched into a anecdote about how guests impacted her experience at Bemelmans Bar in NYC’s Carlyle Hotel. The bar features murals by Ludwig Bemelmans, the creator of the classic Madeline children’s books.  She related how she had been there with friends when a pianist emerged and began playing at about 5:30 pm.

About a half hour later, three people came in and sat at a table near the piano, turned their seats to face the performer rather than each other and then applauded at the end of the next song. That drew the attention of the rest of the bar  to the pianist and they began applauding as well. From that point on, there was applause after every number and people shifted their chairs around to face the piano.

Parker said the conversation didn’t stop at that point, but the pianist was acknowledged at every interval for the rest of the night. She said the action of those three people contributed to the magic of the experience for her because they “change the social contract among the guests” with a small gesture and “suddenly we belonged to a place.”

As I referenced earlier, this is an illustration of the power that guests wield in a social situation. At first, the agreed rules were that guest could ignore the musician. Then three people came in and changed the rules of the room from the musician is providing background music for your conversation to the musician is providing a performance for all of us. It would have been difficult for the host/management to demand the room pay attention to the pianist when he started playing, but three people were able to non-verbally communicate a new lens for the experience and the group complied.

It make you think about how much we should be grateful to audiences for contributing to the success of an evening.  Of course the logical extension of that is that we need to focus more on the experience and enjoyment of the audience.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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