What Hosting Weekly Dinner Parties Taught Me About Friendship

Making friends when you’re an adult can be hard. When my wife Kristan and I moved to Chicago, we had no friends in the city. When I joined a marathon training group, I thought I had found the answer. Throughout marathon training, we ran with the same people for 18 weeks, sometimes three or four hours at a time. We didn’t have to juggle schedules or make appointments. We were just there. Small talk doesn’t last when you run together that long, and the runner’s high lowers inhibitions, making it easy to confide in each other. I made some great friends.

After training was over, we’d try to get drinks or coffee, but our schedules never lined up. Without our weekly long run, we drifted apart. Life got in the way. That’s what happens with most adult friendships. You meet a new friend and have a great time. “Let’s do this again sometime!” But it doesn’t happen.

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There’s a reason our running group was so good at bringing friends together. Sociologists long ago identified the patterns of behavior that make establishing good friendships possible. Alex Williams, in the New York Times, describes what sociologists claim are the conditions “crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.”

There are many groups that have these qualities — clubs, community programs, and sports groups gather people regularly around a common interest. Worship services at a church, mosque, or synagogue do the same thing. They all provide repeated interactions in a setting that makes it easy to talk.

I longed to create a space like that for friendships to grow. Kristan’s Aunt Irma used to cook pasta for the whole extended family, that’s 20 or 30 people, every Thursday night. She never took reservations or RSVPs. Show up, and you’d get your fill. It was a simple way to keep the family together, like a family reunion every week.

So, after some convincing (and bribery), Kristan and I started throwing our own weekly dinner parties for all our friends, runners and non runners alike. Social media makes it easy to get the word out and find out how many people are coming. We send a Facebook invitation and wait for people to show up. All we ask is a “yes” by 3 p.m. that day.

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I love watching people I care about eat the food I cook and drink the beer I make. In my family, food is love, and it’s our way to show them how much we care that they’re in our lives.

We’ve hosted a dinner party nearly every week since December 2016, and we’ve learned so much.

When I see my friends more, we like each other more. Not a surprise, right? Turns out, the key to being more than an acquaintance is repeated contact. The more we talk and laugh together, the more we learn about each other, and the closer we get.

Friendship takes work. There’s a persistent myth that relationships, whether between friends, family, or romantic partners, should be easy.  Of course, that’s not how it works. Anything worth having will take effort. When Kristan and I started, we didn’t realize how much work it would be. I knew that cooking would take a lot of effort, and I was ready for that. We also had to make sure the house was presentable and make sure invitations went out. The most challenging part, however, was ensuring that our schedule was open each week.

The work is worth it. My friends are worth it. My friendships have deepened, and I have more people in my life that I can trust, who will be there to listen and when I need them. I hope they feel the same way about each other, too.

When Kristan and I started hosting weekly dinner parties, we were excited for the opportunity to deepen our friendships. As we see them more and more, we are more connected and happier. Instead of seeing our friends slowly drift away or be stuck as acquaintances, we are working on real friendships that are as great as the ones we remember from our youth.

Originally published on July 13, 2017.

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James is a pastor, writer, and geek who lives in Chicago. He's currently researching the work, history, and architecture of Lutheran Churches in the City of Chicago. You can read some of his initial results at Medium or follow him on Instagram, Twitter, or MeWe.