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Party time

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It’s party season, or so they tell me. We may be obstinately anti-social for the rest of the year, but between Thanksgiving and New Year, we feel the urge, or even the compulsion, to go to parties, and perhaps even to give one or two.

Parties are hard work for the hosts, and even harder for the guests. Many of us have lost or never had good party-going skills, especially the essential fund of sparkling social small talk. We worry about being dull and, by a certain age, we can’t hear what anyone is saying in a crowded room anyway. Such guests can, as the saying goes, brighten up an event just by leaving it.

In this dilemma, as in so many others, my Bible is Parkinson’s Law, by the great C. Northcote Parkinson, one of the most useful books ever written about how to get along in society. Parkinson recommends the following strategy: arrive at the party forty-five minutes late when the room is full, circulate around from left to right (the natural human flow pattern), avoid the corners where introverts gather, avoid the center of the room, where loud and over-confident people gather, never sit down, never dance and never get into deep conversations with people you see every day.

The latter habit, says Parkinson, is the sure mark of a loser. Having circulated once and spoken to all the guests briefly, linger conspicuously by the door for ten minutes and then quietly slip away. Everybody at the party will remember that you were there, and how sociable you were, but the whole performance should take no more than 30 minutes.

I used to enjoy parties more and stay longer, I can remember (or at least I think I can) parties that started at 11 p.m. on Saturday and ended sometime on Tuesday morning. But I don’t get invited to parties like that anymore, which is probably just as well.

This may be because such Bacchanalian parties no longer exist, at least not out here in the suburbs. They have become shorter, more sober and much less fun. Economically we are back in the age of the robber barons, but socially we are living in a new age of Puritanism, or at least moral Puritanism. Parties and Puritanism don’t go together, as any teenager can tell you.

Smoking and drinking are as essential to a good party as music. The alcohol makes conversation possible while loud music makes it impossible, so that the partygoers can only smile at one another through the smoke and dance with their hands in the air. This total lack of rational communication is essential to any good party. But these modest pleasures are heading for extinction.

Smokers are treated pretty much the way lepers were in the Middle Ages. Effectively, we already have tobacco prohibition, and we may be only a few steps away from the kind of Prohibition that America enjoyed in the 1920s. This is not just about road safety. Alcohol is beginning to attract the same kind of puritanical distaste as smoking. We’ll soon start hearing about passive alcoholism, caused by inhaling a few molecules of Chardonnay in public places. Then the excluded drinkers will have to huddle out in the driveway along with the excluded smokers, which might be the beginning of a much better party.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.