The Radical Act of Eating With Strangers

The Bright Side is a series about how optimism works in our minds and affects the world around us.

Julieanna Stolley showed up 15 minutes early to Anita Michaud’s party. It was too soon to arrive, she decided, so she paced up and down the block seven times before ringing the bell.

Ms. Stolley, 25, who studies acting at Brooklyn College, had never met Ms. Michaud or any of the other guests. She was attending Dinner With Friends, an event hosted by Ms. Michaud at which she invites eight strangers online to sign up and then convene for a meal at her one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn.

The event on this day was a Valentine’s adjacent, all-women “Galentine’s” brunch, with guests meeting at 2 p.m. for tea tastings and baked treats. Many of the other guests said they shared Ms. Stolley’s trepidation about arriving too early and being first in the door but, a few minutes after the event’s official start, the door bell was buzzing nonstop.

Nobody wanted to be the first to arrive, but everyone had come for the same reason: to connect with strangers in real life and potentially make a new friend.

Ms. Michaud, 24, launched Dinner With Friends in May 2022 after moving to New York the year before and struggling to find community during the pandemic. When she arrived in the city, she thought new friends would come with the territory, but she found she had trouble jump-starting relationships. So she had the idea to invite a group of strangers over to her apartment for a home-cooked dinner. As a test run, she gathered a bunch of people from different parts of her life who didn’t know each other. The results were promising. “It was really heartwarming,” she said.

A week later, she pulled together six strangers — a mix of friends of friends and people she messaged on Bumble BFF, an offshoot of the dating app that’s designed to facilitate new friendships — for her first official Dinner With Friends event. The group ended up meshing well and the party lasted late into the night. “That was the signal to me,” said Ms. Michaud. “OK, this idea actually does have legs.”

She has since posted about the dinners — most of which have a themed menu, often inspired by places she’s traveled — on TikTok and Instagram, and been met with an eager response. Over 800 people — mainly young women, like Ms. Michaud — have signed up for her events so far, a wait list that Ms. Michaud, who has a full-time job in financial services, said would take her four years to get through, one dinner-party-of-eight at a time.

The Dinner With Friends idea came along at an ideal moment — a time when, for many people, casual relationships had taken a hit and social circles had shrunk after three years of pandemic deprivation. Dr. Marissa King, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Social Chemistry: Decoding the Elements of Human Connection,” found in her research that, during the pandemic, people’s social networks decreased in size by an average of 16 percent, with most of the losses occurring among men.

Nurturing these networks is crucially important. A 2010 report in The Journal of Health and Social Behavior showed that low social connection is linked to poor health outcomes, including heart attacks and cancer, as well as other conditions. Lacking connection has also been found to be worse for your health than smoking, obesity or high blood pressure. As a predictor for a happy life, strong relationships are more reliable than such factors as wealth and I.Q.

“It’s such a human need to really be seen and recognized and heard by another person,” Dr. King said. We now realize, she said, that social connection “brings us lots of joy,” in addition to being critical “to our own mental well-being.”

‘The more we start to engage, the more joy we get’

After an initial warm-up period, the Galentine’s Day brunch was in full swing. First came a flurry of compliments, shared among unfamiliar faces. (I love your purse! Cool coat. Great boots!) Then the host shared some warm welcomes and brief introductions. After that, Ms. Michaud — seated at the table with the guests, near the kitchen for easy serving — left everyone to fend for themselves and, within a few minutes, the stilted mood among strangers turned cozy and natural.

One psychological trait that experts identify as essential to pursuing and creating new connections is optimism. After all, what could be more fundamentally optimistic than attending a dinner with a table full of strangers, expecting to make a new friend?

“Optimism is really critical for just starting to get us over the hump,” Dr. King said. After that, “our sense of social connections really do become a self-fulfilling prophecy: The more we start to engage, the more joy we get, and the more willingness we have to continue engaging.”

What the Dinner With Friends concept gets right, according to Dr. King, is that it provides a framework for meeting new people, which lowers the barriers to connection. Facilitating structured interaction (like limiting the guest list to a manageable eight people), as well as creating a sense of safety for guests to be authentic with each other, are some of the most powerful ways to make social connections happen, she said.

At a dinner event on Feb. 25, guests shared cocktails, wine, a mezze platter and desserts served by Ms. Michaud. Over 800 people have signed up for the events so far. Credit…Jutharat Pinyodoonyachet for The New York Times

“Having that resilience, the ability to cope, having hope, being curious about other people: All of the assets of optimism, as I’ve observed them, are so necessary for forming community,” said Danielle Bayard Jackson, a friendship coach who has a quarter-million followers on TikTok, where she gives advice for making new friends and having healthy relationships.

When pursuing new relationships, optimism can work both ways: It can prompt you to seek out new friends, and it can also draw new friends to you. People who demonstrate optimism may also enjoy higher quality interactions, according to Dr. Emma Seppala, a lecturer at Yale University’s School of Management and the author of “The Happiness Track.” People are often attracted to those who are “positively re-energizing,” in what Dr. Seppala describes as a heliotropic effect: Just as plants are drawn to the sun, we are drawn to those who have life-giving qualities.

Dr. Seppala also called attention to an important distinction around cultivating new friendships: It’s not about how many relationships you have, but about how connected you feel to the ones you do have, she explained. “I think that’s really good news because there’s not always something we can do about how many people we interact with,” she said. She cited the example of a person at home taking care of a baby, or who considers herself an introvert.

Or, perhaps, someone who’s just moved to a new city in the middle of a pandemic.

Ms. Michaud, who is from Ann Arbor, Mich., got the inspiration for Dinner With Friends after traveling to Lisbon with her parents in April 2022. Her mother, Peg Foen, who is Chinese American, had learned about clandestine Chinese restaurants in Lisbon that operate in private apartments and are typically discovered by word of mouth.

Ms. Michaud also comes from a restaurant family. Her grandparents, who immigrated to the United States from China, opened a Chinese restaurant in Plymouth, Mich., in the 1980s. Her mother, Ms. Foen, grew up spending afternoons in the restaurant — and, as an adult, opened a French bistro in Plymouth with her husband, Michael Michaud, Ms. Michaud’s father.

“Anita has always been very good at being a superb host,” said Mr. Michaud, who currently owns a distillery with Ms. Foen on Harsens Island, Mich. He added, “I’d like to think that she got that a little bit from just the way that we lived our life.”

‘Allow yourself to feel your feelings’

Though Ms. Stolley reported experiencing some social anxiety at the beginning of the Galentine’s brunch, she ultimately eased in — and was even able to open up and be vulnerable at times. She recalled one specific moment when, all at once, everyone erupted into their own side discussions. “I was like, oh, this is awesome,” she said.

Ms. Jackson and Dr. Seppala agree that people should feel OK with moments of awkwardness when meeting strangers. Dr. Seppala pointed out that research indicates that people can tell when someone is wearing a mask, so it’s important to “be your awkward self.” This will give permission to others to be themselves, too.

Ms. Jackson suggested that, when meeting new people, you “allow yourself to feel your feelings” in the present moment. “Allow yourself to have moments where you don’t really know what to say, and give yourself permission to experience, you know, maybe forgetting somebody’s name,” she said.

As everyone finished eating, Ms. Michaud passed a guest book around the table for everyone to sign, a tradition she picked up from her grandparents’ home.

As they gathered their coats and said goodbye, the women eagerly suggested future plans for yoga classes and dinners together; Ms. Michaud creates a group chat for attendees after each event to facilitate further socializing. There were a few people Ms. Stolley felt she hit it off with, and while she didn’t express any imminent plans to reach out to them, she did say that, if anyone asked her, she would be happy to hang out again.

“I know that not everyone is going to be my friend and everyone I reach out to is not going to want to talk to me,” she said, “but it doesn’t mean I won’t keep going.”

Whatever the outcome of an event like Dinner With Friends, Ms. Jackson commended the participants for making the effort. “They have already demonstrated a certain level of optimism that is necessary to not only create a friendship but sustain it,” she said. “The fact that they’re even showing up demonstrates a hopefulness about what is possible.”

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