Food for Thought

Playing With Power


Ever tried driving a bunch of very busy Londoners from their beds, insisting that they eat eggs and make conversation with total strangers, stimulated by nothing stronger than an espresso? More: in doing so, have you trusted that the hapless folk will speak authentically, think collaboratively and share generously with people they might ordinarily have never met and with whom they have a relationship that is less than two hours’ old?

If you have, you will know that you will do your level best to bring out the best in everyone at the table.

You will also know that the slipping sands that may undermine everyone’s best efforts (and best behaviour) are found in the vague, ephemeral, treacherous world of power dynamics: those conscious and unconscious biases, group assumptions, individual expectations, trigger points and cultural norms that colour our every human interaction.

By turns fascinating and frustrating, we have learnt to be closely attentive to the power dynamics of a group. Above all, we have learnt to be particularly alert during those first few minutes that everyone is introduced, which is when dynamics tend to be most unsettled and most pliant.

Gleaned from a host of Hot Breakfast, here are our 5 pointers to consider when designing and managing those initial 5 minutes of introduction.

1. Reject projections.

Undoubtedly the most effective way to deal with people’s assumptions and expectations is not to let them form. In the age of online social networks this means revealing next to nothing to the actors about the cast of characters they are about to meet.

It’s extraordinarily levelling to introduce a group with no preconceptions about each other. And, of course, the conversations are quite different: encountering a human is very different to confronting their profile.

If you really want people to connect, it’s nearly always helpful for all parties that no one knows that Jack has three million Instagram followers, that Jill is an ex-courtesan-turned-high-court-judge and that Jeremiah recently won the Nobel Peace Prize. You can trust that these things will emerge as, when and if they should.

2. The magic number…

Is six.

This is the number of people you ideally want around a table or in a group if you are to get a conversation that really takes off yet leaves no one behind. It’s small enough not to inhibit the introverts, and big enough to let the extroverts shine.

"Challenging is good, like good conversation, yes? Who wants to have dinner with the same old easy-listening-music-sounding friends all the time?" - Hilton Als

No, we have no scientific evidence to prove this; but yes, we will stand behind this statement with all the righteous zeal of a Scientologist on Oprah’s couch.

3. Be concerned about age.

Age differentials are often the crudest and rudest reason for a group never finding its groove. Although regularly misleading, we tend to equate a person’s age with their seniority and experience; and in turn, with their capacity to offer wisdom, knowledge or useful advice.

Ensuring younger voices are given the stage early in a conversation can help to dispel any dismissiveness among the older crew. Even more effective is finding some commonality that will bridge the generational gulf between the FTSE 100 retired chairman and the turmeric-latte-drinking coder.

4. The stimulating power of neutrality.

While commensality has a long and esteemed history, food and drink can be as alienating as they can be oiling. Serving a Buddhist a bacon sarnie is not going to make him feel at home. Neither is it necessarily going to be relaxing for an alcoholic to be the only person declining the martini, nor for certain demographics to be confronted with an activated chia pot.

Refreshments need to be delicious to all palates, and yet bland to their collective eyes. They should be a delicious, convivial conduit for conversation, not a source of distraction or discomfort.

5. Be seated.

The sooner you get people seated, the sooner you stop Abdullah towering over Alice, Delilah from assessing the cut of Doris’s suit, and Fred from wanting to run to the bathroom because he doesn’t know where to stand or quite what to do with his hands.

A chair gives people their own space; space makes people feel at ease; ease lets us think; and having time to think brings out the best in all of us.

"Better to eat porridge together than beef fillet alone."