Cocktails and Creating Community

What can happen when you give people an opportunity to bond rather than wishing they would.

My wife and I have lived in a mainly suburban city (Colorado Springs) for six years now. We spent the first couple years longing for community, and wishing we were somewhere else. Then we decided to put our best foot forward and try to make the place better. That decision by itself ended up expanding our network of friends pretty considerably. But what we started doing at the end of last year has worked so well, I thought it was worth sharing.

We decided to host a monthly cocktail open house. On the last Friday of every month after 6pm, our house is fair game—the bar is always stocked, there are always a couple featured cocktails, and there are always interesting people and conversations to be found. No RSVP required—come when you like, leave when you must.

This might not sound like a big thing if you live in Manhattan or D.C. But in Colorado Springs, it was akin to opening a speakeasy during Prohibition. There are few natural hubs around which people of like minds can congregate and meet each other. We’ve had groups as big as 30 in our little apartment, people coming and going as their schedules permit, some staying into the wee hours of the following day earnestly discussing Things That Matter. Our guests are single and married, old and young (some get babysitters but some bring their kids—on the understanding that this is adult time; the kids are welcome but they’re here on the grownups’ terms, which is good for everybody).

The best thing about all this has been what precisely count as Things That Matter. They’re not abstract philosophy like you might find in a university town—they’re more along the lines of applied philosophy; how to make the neighborhood, the church, or the city a better place. People meet other people like them, and friendships and ideas blossom (including outside of the open house hours). There are conversations that begin with “What if we started doing…” that culminate weeks or months later in something exciting happening. Rather than a place to complain about what’s not there, it’s turned into a place to enjoy what is…and an incubator for ideas to make stuff even better.

“Happy hour” is now the highlight of my month, every month. People much cooler than me come to my house by the dozen and enrich my life, so at this point I’d do this purely for selfish reasons–if I needed any additional incentive. I’ve had nights where all I did was madly mix drinks for hours, then incoherently try to contribute to wonderful conversations that were doing just fine before I tried to butt in. There are so many people with hidden talents and expertise, things that get teased out after a few evenings and a couple drinks each, that it amazes me how little I actually had to do to make this happen. All my wife and I did was provide a humane environment, and let people to do what they do best.

People are awesome. It’s inhumane city planning, poorly designed homes, busyness- and career-driven lifestyles, and the corresponding lack of opportunities to act like people that hide people’s awesomeness behind credentials and job titles and ideologically silo-ed neighborhoods. Put the human back in his natural habitat and good things happen.

What we learned

If you want to try something like this, here are a few things we learned in the process:

  • Start strategically. Invite people from a couple different networks, so that initially everybody has a familiar face or two. Invite interesting people and tell them there will be more people like them. These things lay the groundwork for good conversation and people committed to helping create it—at which point you can broaden the invitation; any new people will be habituated into the culture by what they see going on around them.
  • Practice good hospitality. There’s no substitute for a tasteful, well laid-out room that’s conducive to multiple simultaneous conversations, for hosts that introduce the right people to each other…and for good booze at the middle of it all. (We tried food too, but found that most people came after dinner and weren’t hungry, so we’ve scaled back to salty snacks.) On the last note…
  • Take your drinks seriously. Whether your style is cocktails, wine, or microbrews, take it seriously. It’s a great thing for people to bond over, and an instant conversation topic if the early crowd isn’t yet sufficiently socially lubricated. So take the trouble to do it well. (If you need more pointers on why, try Roger Scruton’s wonderful little book, I Drink, Therefore I Am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine.)
  • Let people contribute. You can ask people to chip in $5 to cut costs if you like, but there’s more to it than that. We made cocktails the excuse for holding our open house, so it attracted a number of cocktail aficionados. Next month, I’ve announced guest bartenders, and challenged two of them to make their favorite mixed drink and go head to head. People are also encouraged to bring friends they think would enjoy this, and to conspire together to do other cool stuff. Ownership matters.

Good luck!

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