Book Review: “The Art of Gathering” by Priya Parker

The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker

One thing about this book that really resonates with me: Parker is all about what people do together and how they do it.  Where Martha Stewart and all those other guides to events talk about the logistical details, Parker is all about the social psychology of the thing. If Martha Stewart is about the stage, Parker is about the play enacted on the stage.

“That is what might be thought of as the Martha Stewart approach elevating the readying of things over the readying of people.” (p. 158)

Now, Parker is a “facilitator”, which is kind of like an event planner only she is deeply focused on people in groups, and making them do stuff that would never happen without the group.

This is her hammer, so every possible way two or more people might be together looks like a nail to her. 🙂  Business meeting, wedding, college class, dinner party.  Gatherings all of them.

I’m not totally sold on this generality, nor do I necessarily agree with some of the more aggressive approaches discussed.

But this is very, very interesting applied social psychology.  Parker gives us a ton of interesting observations and ideas about how to design a gathering, who to include and exclude, how to start, how to end, etc.

She draws upon a lot of sources and inspirations, not least theater and game design.  She describes her gatherings as a separate world, inside a magic circle—taking a cue from the classics of ludology [1, 2, 5].  Many of her techniques resemble improvised theater, setting scenes, ushering people into (and then out) of an alternative set of rules.

Some of this also resembles psychotherapeutic and healing techniques. Many of her ideas are about getting people to leave their resume at the door, and enter a risky level of personal revelation. This requires quickly building trust among strangers, about which Parker has much to say.

Her gatherings have rules, created and enforced by her own ”generous authority”. “In gatherings, once your guests have chosen to come into your kingdom, they want to be governed—gently, respectfully, and well.” (p. 74).

Parkerism is very definitely “generous” authoritarianism, also as in “author”.  What she describes resembles the craft of theatrical production and game design, and these days is also called “experience design”.

A gathering has invitations (and exclusions), preparation, ushering in, opening, and closing.  Parker explains these elements and how the apply to many different kinds of gatherings.

Figure out the goal, and then who should be invited—and who should not be invited.  Then prepare the participants, prime them for the gathering and its goals, and what is expected of them.

Usher them in, as a transition to your charmed circle.  Then open the gathering.

“Your opening should be a kind of pleasant shock therapy. It should grab them. And in grabbing them, it should both awe the guests and honor them. It must plant in them the paradoxical feeling of being totally welcomed and deeply grateful to be there.” (p.  178)

“Shock therapy?”  I dunno about that. But it’s interesting to think about  “welcome and grateful”.

Parker says that the body of the gathering should have “Good Controversy”. “Enough about warmth. Let’s talk about heat.” (p. 225)  Playing it safe is a waste of gathering, in her view.  Airing disagreement in a safe and respectful setting is both effective and rewarding.  (Of course, the controversy has to by gauged to the specific group and goals.)

At the end, there must be a closing.  “A strong closing has two phases, corresponding to two distinct needs among your guests: looking inward and turning outward.”  (p. 259)

Parker is distinctly favorable to the contemporary notion of “pop up rules”, rules constraining a gathering.  These rules are explicit and apply only to the gathering.  This is very much in the spirit of a game, with a similar spirit of contingency.  “Let’s try this and see what happens.  Next time we’ll try something different.”

She contrasts this with “etiquette”, which is supposedly implicit and universal, but mostly serves to exclude.  “Pop up rules” make no claims beyond the gathering, and are open to all comers.  Imposing something like, “everybody must wear white” is an arbitrary but level playing field.

I’m not a big fan of authoritarianism in any form, and probably am a bad example of the misguided “chill host” she criticizes.  Parker argues that “generous authority” is not just ego (or bullying) on her part, but essential to the art of gathering.   “In gatherings, once your guests have chosen to come into your kingdom, so they want to be governed—gently, respectfully, and well.” (Pp 74)

This attitude is justified by the classic rich people’s problem, too much choice: “That is the point and the magic. In a world of infinite choices, choosing one thing is the revolutionary act. Imposing that restriction is actually liberating.” (p. 139)

The result is a heavily designed gathering. I guess this is partly a case of “What would Disney do?”  E.g., ‘What would a PTA meeting look like if it were designed by Disney?’  I think it might well look like the gatherings Parker designs.

I think this book would be a really interesting reading assignment for a Social Psychology or Anthropology class.  There are tons of really interesting ideas in here, many of which could use some empirical validation.  I.e., grist for grad student’s mills.

And speaking of grist for mills:

It is interesting to think about Coworking as a sort of Parkerian gathering [3].

In the case of Coworking, there is a dedicated space where the workers gather and form a community.  Invitation and exclusion—usually.  Rules—usually.  A shared goal? Sort of.

However, there isn’t really a beginning or an end, and it may even run 24/7. Workers are generally free to come and go as they please, and workers do need to be left alone at times.

So it’s not a perfect match, though some have tackled it.

But it might be interesting to see how Parkerism might be adapted to creating and sustaining a coworking community. For one thing, coworking spaces often have events, which are ‘gatherings’ inside the continuing gathering, and these absolutely could be Parkeristic.

It would be particularly interesting to think about ‘ushering in’ and ‘closing’ as workers enter and leave the space.  Coming in, the workers should be made aware of who is there and what is going on, and put in a ‘coworking’ mood.  Leaving, the worker should check out with others, but then look inward to appreciate what has been accomplished, and outward to think about what comes next.  How would you make this happen?

As I said, there is a ton of interesting stuff here, grist for a lot of mills.

  1. Johan Huizinga, Homo ludens; a study of the play-element in culture, New York, Roy, 1950.
  2. Jane McGonigal, Reality is broken: why games make us better and how they can change the world, New York, Penguin Press, 2011.
  3. Robert E. McGrath, What is Coworking? A look at the multifaceted places where the gig economy happens and workers are happy to find community, Urbana, Robert E. McGrath, 2018.
  4. Priya Parker, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet And Why It Matters, New York, Riverhead Books, 2018.
  5. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, Cambridge, The MIT Press, 2004.


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