Lizette Louw
Lizette Louw

How to survive dinner party small talk

If you or anyone close to you has ever made the big move of relocating between the Cape and Gauteng you are probably aware of the stereotypes around their divergent social cultures. Residents of the northern twin cities, after moving south, often describe the social scene in their new home town as clique, and the existing in-group almost impenetrable. Capetonians moving north, in contrast, find the people of Gauteng to be welcoming and inviting. Or so they say …

Having studied, lived and worked in Cape Town and the surrounds for more than a decade I recently found myself starting afresh in Gauteng with the idea of “putting down roots”. How difficult could it be for a single, young(ish) individual with a wide range of interest to connect with the locals and integrate into the social environment?

Alas, by the time I had been in Gauteng for almost a year there was just no way to deny that, despite having been invited to many enough social gatherings by the locals, I could not think of a single friend with who to celebrate my birthday — The Big 3-0. As I said, I had indeed been invited to the seasonal social events, you know, in the way someone is invited to add to the number of guests to mill around the generous host to coo over the delectable catering, complement the tasteful interior and faff in gratefulness at being invited to partake in the hallowed ritual of it all. What I encountered was buckets of, “Oh, what a marvelous fortune to have met you tonight — we simply must stay in touch!”, but very little post-event effort to, say, even respond to a text message.

As my attempts to get in touch went consistently rebuffed it started to dawn on me … the value I had added to their parties was no more than that of a show pony — someone who could share entertaining anecdotes about my unusual travel experiences, someone to be introduced for being a relation to that particular individual who is so well-known and admired by the present company, the token gypsy to provide the hallowed host with a bit of diversity credit. It is the modus operandi of these type of events — we all show off our particular talents and perform our individual party tricks, after which we toss our heads back in glee, “aren’t we all stylish for hanging out with such a tasteful group of people”.

Then one day I cracked. When I was asked about myself at the next dinner party I responded off the cuff, “Oh, I’m very much a walking cliché. I studied theology for six years to qualify as a church minister, got married and divorced before the age of 28, I quit on all the religious business and currently find myself, happily divorced, and less happily selling insurance policies to make a living. It’s like I escaped from the pages of a Koos Kombuis novel, right?” Yeah, that should do to get me voted off the shiny-happy-people island, I thought.

Only, it didn’t. Quite to the contrary, the minute I had finished my declaration I noticed that everyone around the table was leaning in. After a five-second pause the table erupted into a Q&A session as five women vied for my attention to have their questions answered.

I never looked back. Once you’ve experienced belonging, being accepted for whoever you are, it’s hard to return to forcing yourself to fit in. As Brené Brown says, “I get to be me if I belong. I have to be like you to fit in”.

A few days after the dinner party of my Big Reveal one young woman contacted me to admit that, despite the way she had been singing the praises of her husband on that night, their marriage had been a facade right from the start. I invited her over for coffee and she continued, “I want to ask him for a divorce, but I don’t want to go to hell … ” to which I first burst out laughing … and then crying. To my new friend I pointed out that it didn’t make sense to endure a hellish marriage out of fear of eternal damnation. I assured her that it would not be an easy journey to break out and start from scratch, but I also reassured that she would not be walking the road alone or in shame. Of that I would make sure.

Reflecting on the conversation I became convinced that, beneath all the happy faces at the dinner party table, many of us are suffering in silence. At least for my own sake, I vowed to quit on the sham of the soiree and to engage wholeheartedly despite my own imperfections and insecurities. As a result I chanced upon a two-fold insurance policy against the play act of the dreaded dinner party: the host who requires a quintessential performance from party-goers generally leaves me off their guest list, while the folks who do invite me are the ones who accept their guests for whoever-the-hell-they-are.

These days the shindigs I get invited to leaves room around the dinner table for discussing our fears and failures as well as our successes and celebrations. It may be uncomfortable at times, but these conversations are authentic and I find it ever accurate that “ … true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world”. (Brené Brown)

It is a risk to be authentic within a culture of pretentiousness because it leaves us vulnerable to rejection and ridicule. And yet, the ease with which I have found my own engagement with authenticity accepted and reciprocated makes me wonder: how many of us are sick of the game of social charades and would be just too happy to have an honest conversation? I know that I am.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  • Negotiating my identity as an introvert in an extroverted society
  • Who died and made you a marriage expert?
  • The wonder and mystery of doors
  • Rocking the cultures of the aftermath