98. When people have to touch each other – that’s when the magic happens

*Note to readers*

After posting this, I’ve gotten some really good feedback on some things that I felt were obvious, but weren’t. It’s sometimes necessary to be reminded of your blind spots and unspoken assumptions. I’m not going to edit the text – I wrote what I wrote – but I will add a few comments.

1. There are many reasons for designing parties. Making it easy for people to flirt is only one of them. At some parties it would be pretty awkward if flirting was the goal!

2. Any party not clearly labeled should have multiple zones (either explicit or implicit). People come to parties with different wishes, and that is very important to be aware of.

3. One person’s heaven is another’s hell. This is true for party design as well. Things like light design and sound design also play a major part. Design choices that make some people happy usually leave others unhappy.

4. I was told that the article comes off as male centered. It was not intended to, but I can see how that’s a fair reading. The conversation mentioned in the text was not of the “guys locker room” variety, even if it might sound that way. :-)

5. Now read on, if you’re still curious!

We were discussing how to design parties. Our board chairman, Anders, had a big grin grin on his face. The words were his. They hung in the air between us. The other Anders, my co-owner, nodded sagely.

I thought about it.

Grin-Anders saw me waver. His grin just widened. He knew my mind was helping him more than further words of his could.

Sage-Anders didn’t grin. He agreed, but in a more dignified fashion. He’s like that. But he definitely agreed, that much was clear.

One too many people in a sofa. Too many people to really fit into the hot tub. Someone sitting on a lap due to lack of chairs.

I was now grinning as well.

Grin-Anders knew he had me. And with good reason.

When people have to touch, that’s when the magic happens.

We then launched into a discussion about why.

Enter, the party design trio

We’re all three keen on tweaking reality, engage in social engineering and design experiences. And while parties can be spontaneous, they can definitely be designed experiences.

We talked about blurred social codes. How a hand that supports someone sitting on your lap can discreetly test if it’s also welcome as a caressing hand. How moving around on said lap to get more comfortable can also signal that there’s an invitation. How touching makes the distance from necessary touch to invitational touch much shorter.

We talked about possibility spaces. About the fact that we suddenly enter a new realm of options just by being that close. If there’s a person across the table, you may both think about kissing each other, but it’s impractical to say the least. If you’re pressed against each other in a small kitchen, suddenly it’s much clearer as a potential item on the menu.

We talked about vibes and body language. When you touch, your bodies have to adjust to each other’s movements. The physical connection is already there – it’s just a matter of what vibes to transmit through that connnection. And the closer you are, the easier it usually is to sense what the other person is saying without using words.

We especially talked about space. Why is the proverbial kitchen always the best one? Because it’s smaller, more intimate and crowded. People stand close, and rub against each other when they move around. The hallway party has a bit of the same. A crowded club opens up opportunity. An empty one just highlights distance between people – also physically.

To round it off, we talked about preferences. It’s not that I can’t on a friend’s lap without becoming flirtatious. Of course, I can. I can also be pressed up against someone in a sauna without there being any kind of action implied. But when there is that flirty feel in the air, then touching creates a much better climate for it.

A new lens I haven’t been able to take off

After that conversation, I started looking at the parties I went to with new eyes. Of course, now that I was actively scanning for certain signs, I saw them more often. But they were clear as daylight, once I knew were to look.

An expensive night club in Abu Dhabi. A hallway party at a conference hotel. A staircase jammed with people. They all had it. And it could be felt. At the Abu Dhabi night club, I introduced the theory to some of my companions. We cruised the premises, and found that the force was stronger in some places than in others. They all agreed, and the field testing itself was quite fun.

Now, how to use that in party design?

You can’t just throw people into a swimming pool and jam them all together like sardines. People have to feel comfortable and it has to be natural. If someone says “Ok, now let’s remove half the chairs and sit on each others’ laps”, it’s going to freak people out. Strategically having too few chairs (but having sofas that have more capacity flexibility) is much more likely to create a positive atmosphere.

Also, the social situation has to be the right one. I’m writing this on an airplane. We’re sitting pretty close together, and involuntary touching happens from time to time. Still, I’d be pretty surprised if the guy on my right gave my knee an exploratory caress, or if the woman on my left starting moving in close “accidentally”.

And perhaps most importantly, it’s important to note that magic isn’t without risk and sometimes goes wrong. The only way to be completely sure that someone will appreciate your advances, is to state them clearly. And even that may not an honest response, if the other person isn’t feeling secure in their ability to politely say no, thanks.

Still, it’s no secret that most flirting is done by sublety and not overt dialogue. And if your goal is to host a party, where that kind of flirting is to have a better chance of happening, I think you would do well to head the words of Anders.

After all, magic may not be real, but people still want to do magical things together. ;-)

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Director at The College of Extraordinary Experiences, Coach at McKinsey & Founding Partner at The Global Institute For Thought Leadership. Author of 31 books.

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