The Secret to a Great Dinner Party: Airtime

Bet this has happened to you: You are with two or three people having a good conversation. Another person enters the room and somehow shifts total focus to him/herself and his/her stories. No matter how interesting those stories are, the conversation now becomes one-sided. 

“Airtime” is an idea Mary and I developed that says everyone must get a chance to be heard. No on gets to hog all the attention. If, for example, you have four people at a dinner party, each person should get about 25% of the time to tell their great stories or make their insightful comments about politics, or religion, or sex, or whatever. I sometimes will ask a question of the quiet one to draw them out, as well as to deflect attention away from the blabbermouth. Often the quiet one has great things to contribute, but just needs a nudge.  

James W. Pennebaker addresses this idea in his book with the explosive title, “The Secret Life of Pronouns.” He shows us how the words we use say a lot about who we are. Duh. You are how you talk. 

Using sophisticated computer programs, Dr. Pennebaker and his team at the University of Texas at Austin analyze word usage in all kinds of documents from Shakspeare to college application essays and correlate that to psychological states. 

He also explores how we use words to control conversations. Analyzing word use can tell us who is dominate and who is subordinate in day to day conversations. All this got me to thinking more about “airtime” in social situations. 

 Now, back to our dinner party. It is interesting to watch the different communication styles people use. Note who changes the direction of the conversation, and for what reason. Who asks questions to draw others out, and who redirects attention to themselves? “You know, that reminds me of when I was on a recent business trip to New York…” 

It’s also interesting to track the content of these conversations. Are the pronouns predominantly self-referential, as in “I, me, mine,” or other-focused, as in “she, he, we, our, us”? In the stories, does the teller only brag about their accomplishments, or do they have the humility to cop to major screwups?

Does any given story make someone else look good (or bad)? Which listeners respond with, “Wow, that is interesting. Tell me more,” or something like “Yes, but you are wrong in that assumption”? Who is encouraging and who is argumentative? Some people, like lawyers, love to argue. Notice how you respond to the high-IQ people who want to debate or show how smart they are. Notice, too, how you respond to people like therapists and social workers, who are usually more accepting.  

Recently, in a small-group conversation, one of the smartest-guy-in -the-room types tossed in an obscure factoid to impress us, and someone else cut him down with “Are you telling us that so we’ll know it, or so we’ll know that you know it?”  The room fell silent. 

Just be aware of how you and others interact and respond. Some people like conflict, others draw back from it. Some prefer to sit and listen, others like to be the center of attention (speakers and trainers?) But one thing seems clear, groups work better when all are heard and there are no conversational bullies.

So, the next time that person sashays into the room and sucks the conversational oxygen out, watch the responses.  Maybe there are other options. Pull out your stop watch and exclaim, “Oooops, your time is up. Let’s move on.” Sure way to have a great party.

3 thoughts on “The Secret to a Great Dinner Party: Airtime

  1. John Warren says:

    I have gotten so much use out of this concept of "air time" since you first told me about it years ago!

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