While we live more densely than ever before, proximity alone does not create the conditions for close friendships to develop. According to Alex Williams’ July 2012 New York Times article, two other conditions are also needed: “repeated, unplanned interactions” and “a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.” It is no surprise that many people meet their lifelong friends in college, where all three conditions are present in settings like dorms and dining halls.
Why limit the dining hall experience to college students? Community members should partner with local restaurants to set up weekly or twice-weekly neighborhood dining halls. You could eat and commune with others without the social investment of extending invitations, the effort of making plans, and the stress of figuring who will pay the bill. At a dining hall, you could casually bump into neighbors and catch up, circulate among several groups, and stay much longer than a restaurant would allow. Unlike restaurants or coffee shops, neighborhood dining halls would be laid out to encourage dining in larger groups than most nuclear family units. Name tags could have conversation prompts to fill in (e.g., “Ask me about… coaching my daughter’s chess team,” or “I like… posting videos of my cat on YouTube.”)
Neighborhood dining halls would be conveniently located close to home. Families and individuals would purchase meal plans allowing them a certain number of meals per week, month, or year. Low-income members of the community could apply for subsidized meal plans. Members could bring guests who would pay a higher, non-member price for a meal.
In partnership with the restaurant, members could vote on whether to boycott certain food suppliers, or only buy organic, local, or healthy ingredients for the meals served in the dining hall. They could establish types of foods that would be regularly served on certain nights so that members would know what to expect when signing up.
Neighborhood dining halls would have three types of tables:
- Challenge tables. Through the dining hall website or app, members submit issues for the community to address. Issues can range from the local (e.g., “How can we reduce traffic congestion?”) to the national or global (e.g., “How can we prevent overfishing?”). When members arrive at the door, they see the challenges labeled with table numbers. If a challenge piques their interest, they sit at that table and discuss it over dinner. The member who submitted the challenge acts as table host. With the help of a printed guide or app, she guides the participants through analysis of the problem, inspiration, concepting, and refinement. White boards on wheels provide a chance to diagram solutions and develop action plans. The table host records the action plans and follows up with those who volunteer to take action. Some challenges span several nights or several tables.
- Social tables.The list of tables at the door also includes tables with social discussion topics or themes, also submitted by members through the website or app. Examples include: “international travel,” “advice for new parents,” language tables, newspaper articles, and book club discussions. As with challenge tables, the member who submitted a social table topic is the table host for the evening. He invites newcomers to join and makes sure that everyone feels welcome at the table.
- Open discussion tables. A number of tables are left with no assigned topics for those interested in normal, unguided conversations.
The dining hall could calibrate the number of tables in each category based on experience and the number of topic submissions by members.