1: Imagine a family gathering. Aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, nieces, and nephews.  

“Normally at such dinners, no one reveals anything fresh or surprising,” writes Priya Parker in The Art of Gathering. Cousins will hang out with other cousins, grandparents will talk among themselves, and most of the conversation will be small talk. We “eat, drink, get sleepy, and call it a night.”

Not necessarily a bad evening, but not an especially memorable one either.

Priya and her husband visited India to visit their grandparents and extended family. “We decided to gather both sides of our family for a dinner,” she writes. “There would be seventeen of us in total.”

To spice things up, they experimented with the 15 Toasts dinner framework, but with a few changes. When everyone had gathered, Priya explained that each family member would be asked to share a story, a moment, or an experience from their life that “changed the way you view the world” and then conclude with a toast to the lesson or takeaway.   

Then she added a twist: “It has to be a story that no one else at the gathering knows,” she writes. “This was, in a sense, a rather wild requirement for a gathering of family members in a tight-knit society in which relatives are a bigger part of life than friends.”

Because several family members had no problem singing in public, we ditched the singing rule and instead had each toaster choose the next toaster.

2: The evening started with a cousin who said, “the birth of my children.”  

“But now the group, having already absorbed the rules and their purpose, immediately protested: ‘We already know that!’ That false start and correction laid the groundwork for the others,” Priya writes. “People began to share stories that even their nearest and dearest had never heard before.

“One aunt, a geneticist, spoke of being told as a teenager that she couldn’t be a doctor because she was a woman. It shocked her into studying harder.

“Another aunt, a civil servant, talked about passing the Indian Administrative Service test, completing officer training, only to be put in a district magistrate’s office for months on end, never being let into the field. She finally went out on her own in a truck one day because she couldn’t understand why they weren’t letting her do her rounds, and a local government official told her that she would always be treated differently, no matter how smart she was, because she was a woman.”

As the toasts continued, Priya realized something remarkable was happening.

“Our original goal had been to get our relatives to continue the weaving of families that had begun with our wedding. But now something even more interesting was going on: Fathers and mothers and sons and nieces were learning about their own family members in ways they’d never expected.”

One of the family elders, who was in his nineties, shared a story about working for a big company and realizing that the advertising reels he was sending to the movie theaters were not arriving or were not being played. He told the group how he solved the problem.

“Suddenly, in this elderly man who often stays quiet, in part because he is hard of hearing, the table saw a young, sprightly, inventive businessman,” she writes.  

Her grandmother, who is shy about speaking in English, asked Priya to share “the story of how she became one of the first women in her caste in the conservative city of Varanasi to attend Banaras Hindu University,” she recalls. “She was the eldest of seven children, and her father adored her. He told her to go register for university and begin attending classes. Then he left town for a relative’s wedding on her first day of school.

“When his neighbors complained that he was letting his daughter attend university and violating gender norms, he wasn’t there to hear the complaints. When he returned, she was well into her classes, and he asked the same neighbors if they really wanted him to pull her out of school. Even if it was wrong for her to have started, should education ever be interrupted? The moment changed her perception of her father and educated her in how change happens (slowly and with people in privilege as protectors).”

3: Looking back, Priya notes what was striking about the evening was how the family members embraced something new. “We began to see parts of one another with fresh eyes. A grandmother as a daredevil college student. A grandfather as an innovative young executive. Aunts, who in Indian family gatherings are often relegated to the role of silent nurturers, as pioneers in their fields. It reminded me of how much there was left to know about people I thought I knew well.”

More tomorrow!


Reflection: How would my family respond to an event like the one Priya describes above?

Action: Try it out!

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