First published by The Pool on 30 September 2016
Important information for anyone updating their diary: the first week of October, for some reason, is National Champagne Week. I know this because I received a press release from the organisers, full of facts and figures to bump up any potential coverage I might be planning. Over the average adult’s lifetime of 60.3 years, it told me, he or she will drink 1,869 glasses of alcohol at parties, make 121 new friends, and chat to 4,462 different people. “That’s all very well,” I thought. “But how many of those chats do we spend silently wondering how to bring this tedious nightmare to an end?”
I love parties, but there’s always someone who doesn’t understand how a conversation works, and they’re inevitably going to set up camp next to the booze, where you can’t avoid them. I recently went to an art event at which I spent the whole night unintentionally interviewing strangers who demonstrated no desire at all to ask me anything. “How interesting,” I said repeatedly, as they waxed lyrical on their work and their private lives – and it was interesting to learn about them, for around the first 10 minutes. At that point, having not fielded a single enquiry about myself, I began to feel a bit huffy, and baffled that anyone could talk to another person for so long without experiencing a twinge of human interest in who they might be. When I ran out of questions, a palpable silence would settle between us, as I waited in vain for them to say “So, what about you?”
This party was not a one-off: you’ll encounter the same phenomenon anywhere that you can find canapés (or even just large bowls of Doritos). At a recent exhibition opening, I was literally talked into a corner by a man who seemed to be giving an experimental monologue about his career history. I kept edging away and he kept lunging in, his breath on my face. And anyone who has tried internet dating will have endured an evening or two with a non-asker – someone who entirely lacks curiosity about the rest of the world, but deeply enjoys talking about themselves. These occasions can feel like the Longest Nights of All Time, eating into hours that you could be spending with your actual friends, who know you well because they grasp the basic concept of conversing: you talk for a bit, then they talk for a bit, and so on.
Apart from the superficial rudeness of this behaviour, it also presents a serious barrier to the development of real friendship. Intimacy, as I have argued here before, requires a give-and-take of honest discussion. It’s about really knowing someone, because you’ve genuinely listened – and feeling truly accepted, because they’ve really listened to you. It has to be a two-sided dynamic, and if you get it right, it’s one of the most rewarding elements of life – but it will never have the oxygen to grow if one of you doesn’t ask a single bloody question.
As for the 121 new friends we make at parties… well, I’m dubious about those too. A few years ago I found myself sitting next to a man on the tube who looked familiar, and it was only after a few minutes that I realised I’d met him once at a friend’s birthday, and that we’d enthusiastically connected on Facebook. Now, we sat awkwardly side by side and pretended not to know each other. Of course there’s always a chance you’ll meet a soulmate at a party, but you’re more likely to form a short-term bond with someone called Dave, because you’ve had 1,869 drinks and he does a surprisingly hilarious impression of George Alagiah. Just beware: if he doesn’t reciprocally ask to see your favourite newsreader impression, then the friendship has a shorter shelf life than an open bottle of fizz.