Nadine Elali

What is a silent dinner party?

any people think it is impossible to stay silent for a long time, and while language is our primary way of communication, it is not the only way. So what if the situation involved you being at a dinner party, chewing your way into the night without as much as a peep? This is what the silent dinner party is all about.

At a silent dinner party, guests are requested “not to use words or voice, not to read or write, to make as little noise as possible, not to interact with personal technologies, as phones or smart phones and to stay with it for at least two hours.”

The brainchild of interdisciplinary Australian artist Honi Ryan, she has been hosting this kind of parties since 2008 all over the world, from Sydney to Shanghai to Cologne.

With the help of her friend and Australian-Lebanese artist Dei El-Ayoubi, they hosted Beirut’s first silent dinner party on Thursday night at Zico House in the Sanayeh neighborhood.

The Australian artist came up with the concept while she was studying in Germany back in 2006. “It was a social experiment that combined a variety of things I liked to do. It varied between meeting new people, socializing and cooking, but the one major factor that played a role was the language barrier that I was feeling in Germany,” Ryan told NOW Extra.

She explained that the concept developed into an experiment about social behavior and social interaction in a certain environment where one element is missing from what would otherwise be considered normal. “The silence,” Ryan said, “is more about having no words as means of communication.”

When Ryan and Ayoubi talked to Lebanese about what it would mean to get a group of people together at a silent dinner party, they got varying responses. While some were curious about the concept of exercising self-discipline and remaining silent for a few hours, others said it would be impossible for the Lebanese not try and communicate their religious or political views. 

Ayoubi explained that when language was not an option in a given situation, it shifts the social hierarchy and everyone becomes equal.  “Lebanese are very social people,” she said.  “I thought being around food and sharing it but not being able to talk can be an interesting challenge for them, and it was. The way people responded in Lebanon was really interesting.”

Upon arrival, guests were greeted in silence with a smile, a nod and then a wave before being led into the dining area. Ryan and her friends cooked a spread of vegetarian Lebanese meals and then served them to be eaten in silence.

But the silent dinner party was anything but quiet. Attempts to adhere to the party rules only ushered giggles and then broke out into hysterical laughter. Yet guests found ways to communicate with one another: Some played hop scotch, some resorted to charades, and others mimed their way through a conversation.

According to Lina, a guest who requested not to use her real name, the experience was an interesting one. It was humorous and more natural than she thought it would be. “It was fascinating to see how quickly people pick up on being quiet, a proper reflection of our natural tendency to conform,” she told NOW Extra following the dinner.

Another guest, Ana Maria, said she found it difficult to express herself and admitted to cheating a couple of times. But the silent dinner party reminded her that people sometimes over-express with words. “It made me rediscover my inner child and how I can have fun without my phone or laptop, just by trying to communicate with another person without using words,” she said. It also made her realize how much people take “communication for granted.”

But just when you think it is over, you are mistaken. Toward the end of the night, one woman, clearly fed up with the silent treatment so to speak, got up and screamed out, “What is the purpose [of this]? We are humans, and we are not silent.”

“I believe that was great passionate response,” Ryan said. “I believe her questions were true and worthwhile, but what was interesting is that usually people who feel such a way about the concept choose not to come. However, she chose to come even though she had an adverse and almost aggressive response to the experiment. I created an environment for people to respond to and she did just that.” 

Ryan’s silent dinner party makes one think about communication, and how we interact and behave when our words are taken away. Some people have their way with words, while others suffer from them.

One girl toward the end of the night told Ryan that she is usually a very shy person, and often times in big groups, she feels like an outsider. However at the silent dinner party, she said she was able to be herself and she felt like she belonged.  To her, the silent dinner party experience gave her the chance to shine.

  • axan


    January 25, 2012