tl;dr if you want to change your life, the answer’s yes
We’ve all been there: the wedding receptions, office Christmas bashes and flat warmings where something happens that generates the stories that you’ll tell for the rest of your life. But why is that? Surely it’s not all down to the powers of alcohol?
I’ve been reading a paper today (h/t Marginal Revolution) by Alice Goffman called ‘Go to More Parties? Social Occasions as Home to Unexpected Turning Points in Life Trajectories’ (link / paywall). It posits that ‘social occasions hold an outsized potentially to unexpectantly shift the course that real life takes‘.
The type of social occasion here broadly covers anything that doesn’t comprise mundane daily work (sitting in an office, washing your clothes etc). There is often an affinity of sorts amongst those at the gathering. What’s more:
“By bringing together people who matter to one another more than strangers on the street, social occasions amplify our general concern to present ourselves well”.
And this leads to activities that are neither consequential with certain outcomes (an email you must reply to) or inconsequential with uncertain outcomes (playing a game on your mobile phone) but fateful – in other words both indeterminate and consequential.
These might be meeting a future spouse, deciding that you’ll tell your work colleagues what you really think of them or committing publicly to a decision from which you can’t retreat.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that these often happen amongst the heightened buzz of a social gathering. But it’s the five categories behind why this is the case that I found particularly interesting.
1/ You enter a different world – you’re surrounded by people you may not know at all well (wedding guests or a work event with colleagues from across different parts of the business). For evidence that it isn’t normal life, think of the amount of time it takes to prepare for some people (makeup, tidying, decorations).
“The frequency with which particular people meet for a social occasion is inversely proportionate to its fatefulness. The more an occasion brings together people who do not usually meet, the more likely it is to house events that unexpectedly shift people’s bonds, habits, thoughts and plans.”
2/ Events bring unique emotional energy – the paper talks about ’emotional effervescence’, a unique feeling that is created by a mixture of having people face to face, focused on the same thing (stag, wedding, birthday party etc), having barriers to prevent outsiders joining (invitations) and a shared mood (celebration, mourning etc). The energy might be crackling – but such environments can bring vicious repercussions for those who are viewed as having failed to make the grade (flirtations, bullying).
3/ Social occasions force you to publicly rank others – choosing who sits where, chats with whom or even who gets invited in the first place, shows clear decisions made by others. They can strengthen, weaken or plain insult others in a heightened atmosphere. And on occasion, trigger that life-changing decision.
4/ Set the stage for complex public choreography – who speaks to whom, about what, and as the stakes rise between people who don’t know each other well, how significant is it when you fall short? Think: choosing inappropriate topics for specific people, getting a knock-back when asking someone to dance.
5/ Set the stage for starting those chain reactions in life – we’ve all heard the stories of couples who met because they just happened to be sitting next to each other at a gathering. It will of course depend on your circumstances and stage in life but the heightened sense of occasion often bears outsized potential for unexpectedly shifting the course that real life takes.
Plenty to think about there – and it’s worth reading through the paper if you are interested.
“A rich variety of phenomena – the development of weak and strong ties… embarrassment… fortuitous encounters… the emergence of religious identity and belief… meeting one’s future spouse… activation of job networks… building up or draining of emotional energy… peer pressure… acts of acute disrespect… critical consciousness… binge drinking… sexual assault… become more meaningful by considering social occasions because social occasions are where they happen. It is here inside the electric, intense connected energy of occasions that people make new friends, heal old wounds, hatch plans and cross the line.”
“…Social occasions represent a pocket of fatefulness in everyday life, a form of experience more hospitable to bringing about some unanticipated change than many other things people do throughout the day”.
“Thus, a single hour spent in high school biology class, which happens every day with the same group of people and typically produces quite low levels of collective effervescence, is unlikely to be fateful for the students attending. That same hour spent at a best friend’s wedding brings a far greater chance of shifting a person’s course.”