Science shows that the more small talk you have in your life, the less happy you're likely be. The same truth applies to dinner parties too -- only more so.
It takes a long time to get through an appetizer, a main, and maybe a dessert with a group of friends of colleagues. Try to pass that time with chit chat about the weather or the local sports team and you're likely to be eying the door with desperate longing before you put down your salad fork.
But the opposite is also true. If several hours or vapid chatter is enough to drive most of us to contemplate if life is worth living (or at least if hosting is worth the hassle), there are few greater pleasures in life than deeply engaging with other minds. Great dinner party conversation will leave you smarter, more inspired, and with a feeling of true connection (and hey, that's certainly not bad for any business conducted over such meals either).
So how can you make your next dinner energizing rather than life-sucking? Quartz's Sarah Todd recently rounded up a trio of techniques. While they might seem somewhat extreme, they are pretty much guaranteed not to be boring.
1. Science stories, portmanteaus, and unusual art exhibits
The trick when coming up with topics for dinner party conversation is walking the fine line between engaging and polarizing. Wander too far in one direction and people will soon be storming off. Wander too far in the other and they'll be dozing off instead.
So what topics walk this tightrope? Rico Gagliano, co-author of Brunch Is Hell: How to Save the World by Throwing a Dinner Party, suggests three: science stories, portmanteaus, and unusual art exhibits. The first and last are pretty self-explanatory, but what's the middle one?
"Portmanteaus--new words made out of smashed-together vocabulary--are indicators of cultural trends," explains Gagliano, who gives the example "blowtox." The word apparently signifies "people getting botox injections into their scalps so their blowouts won't re-curl."
If that's not the type of thing that would inspire your dinner guests, then opt for Brexit, staycation, or one of the hundreds of others available instead. Or just talk about that new study on how kitten pics can save your marriage.
2. Give them homework.
If your guests are more of the serious sort and are unlikely to be entertained by dissecting the cultural significance of the blowtox, then Quartz science and health editor Elijah Wolfson suggests another approach -- give them some homework before they come over.
"I've had dinner parties where I specifically set out a topic of discussion in advance," he tells Todd. Examples include "Does the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice?" or "Should we adjust the free market to safeguard blue-collar jobs?"
In a similar vein, another of Todd's colleagues, Annabelle Timsit, suggests assigning a thought-provoking article for your guests to read ahead of your get together. "We did dinner parties where we started with a controversial article (usually a Bari Weiss or Kevin Williamson piece) and discussed that for the first half of the dinner. Most of us had different political backgrounds, so those were always fascinating discussions," Timsit reports.
Just be sure that if you're discussing something as heavy as a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote or controversial article, you give your guests ample time to get their thoughts in order.
3. Play "For It or Against It."
One final option comes from Quartz staffer Molly Rubin: try playing For It or Against It. No big preparation is required for the game. Simply throw out a product, activity, or trend and require your companions to weigh in (you guessed it) on whether they are for or against it.
If you play, Rubin suggests staying away from much discussed controversies and stick with the offbeat. "The more neutral the thing, the better the game," Rubin says, insisting "bread" beats "Brexit" for a possible topic. Also, outlaw waffling. "There's no in-between. You have to say why and justify your reasoning," she further explains.