Before the novel coronavirus burst into the public consciousness, three rules dictated most dinner parties: a carefully curated menu, no screens at the table and no takeout. But now, with many people hunkering down at home to try to staunch the spread of COVID-19, the rules of engagement have changed.
Enter digital dinner parties.
Psychotherapist and relationship expert Stephanie Regan already used the video conference app Zoom to meet with clients, so using it to “host” a dinner party with her niece and her husband seemed like a natural next step.
“We placed the phones so that both people were viewable and chatted away,” says Regan. “It felt real, with the usual interruptions to get wine from the fridge and setting up my dessert. But the conversation flowed easily and we had absolutely great fun.”
For Caitlind r.c. Brown and Wayne Garrett, co-founders of The Hibernation Project, digital dinner parties help their artistic community stay connected even from afar. Started in 2019 as a means to combat isolation during harsh Canadian winters, The Hibernation Project gathers participants together for a collective experience each week.
“Food is one of the great unifiers,” says Brown. “Breaking bread together is usually an act of solidarity, of hospitality, of vulnerability, and a gesture of friendship.
“The digital dinner party satisfied our need to be with other people, to laugh and make jokes, and to distract from the anxieties of now. It felt like making digital space a little less digital, more social,” Brown adds.
Hosting a digital get-together also enables socially isolated people to stay connected in a way that’s important for bolstering one’s mental health in an anxiety-provoking time.
“Having fun and a laugh is not only good for our mood but is a stress buster, lowering our cortisol levels, all of which is really important at a time like this,” Regan explains.
And for Joy M. Hutton, digital dinner parties also provide an opportunity to help support small businesses that are struggling in the wake of dining room closures. In her work as a business development consultant, Hutton sees firsthand how much the hospitality industry is hurting.
To help support isolated individuals and restaurants in need of patrons, she launched Don’t Dine Alone, a thrice-nightly Zoom dinner party that will run through the end of March, or as long as demand continues. Interested parties can sign up via the Eventbrite page, where she is also accepting donations to help give back to the restaurant community.
“I thought Don’t Dine Alone would be a great way to not only help people interact with each other in a new way, but also help restaurants and give back to our communities,” she says.
While the free version of the platform caps meetings at 40 minutes, Hutton hopes isolated people the world over will order takeout or delivery from their favorite local business, sit down with their screen and their plate, and help create community from afar.
When hosting your own digital dinner party, set up your food and beverage ahead of time so you can stay in front of the screen, and take turns talking so you can all hear each other, just like your in-person table manners taught you.
And while a traditional dinner party is all about the food and wine, Regan says focusing on the faces around your digital table is more important when people are feeling isolated. Quarantined digital dinner guests might want to tell their companions all about the special bottle of wine they’re opening for the occasion, or they might simply want to hear a friendly voice during a difficult period. Either way, setting aside time for a digital get-together creates a sustained connection, which can help everyone feel less alone.
“The dinner party wasn’t a replacement for human contact,” Brown acknowledges. “But it was a nice supplement.”