With all the distractions of 21st century American life making it increasingly difficult for families to sit down together for dinner, it seems outlandish to invite a neighbor or coworker that you barely know over for a meal. But local communities are taking time to encourage residents to break bread with their neighbors in an effort to "build bridges, not fences"–the motto of the annual "Dinner Day" in Pennsylvania. In Tennessee, the residents of Old North Knoxville host Porch Night, where everyone sets out a spread of food on their porch and wanders from house to house, just visiting. Supper clubs that meet all over the country also encourage fellowship over food.
While simple in concept, events like Dinner Day have potential that should not be underestimated, says Jeffrey Smith, co-founder of Pennsylvania's Dinner Day. "You might think of where you live and who your neighbors are as completely random," he explains. "But I think there are no accidents in the world; the people next door, the widowed man across the street, and the family of eight around the corner are all there waiting for you to take the first step. You can change the fabric of your neighborhood, give something special to yourself, your community, and the world, just by stopping neighbors in the street and inviting them to dinner."
One of the most important aspects of hosting your own Dinner Day is inviting people that you don't know very well. Though it might feel stilted at first, entertaining people in your home is a great way to connect with others and build community. For the first official Dinner Day, the Smiths invited their next-door neighbors, the Danilo family, with whom they had only exchanged pleasantries in passing. "We would wave, but there was no special bond. It was a little awkward making the invitation and explaining we were creating this holiday. But when we invited them, they told us they were honored," recalls Smith. Over a dinner of simple roast chicken, vegetables, and a dessert of candy mice made from marshmallows for the kids, the neighbors learned more about each other in four hours than in the previous eight years. Mariette Danilo says her family had always thought the Smiths were kind people, and Dinner Day proved it. "When people cook for you and entertain you, they tell you they value you. They are saying that your relationship is important, and that suddenly changes everything," says Danilo.
How to invite a neighbor for dinner
- Select a neighbor: Forget the first person you think of. This is an opportunity to invite someone you would not normally invite. And a neighbor doesn't have to be someone who lives near you. It can also be someone from the next cubicle at work or a fellow committee member–anyone you'd like to get to know better.
- Extend the invitation: It can be a little awkward to suddenly wave a neighbor down when you've only waved at him, but a personal invitation is best. You could also accompany the invitation with a copy of this article, leave a note in the mailbox, or make a phone call.
- Plan the meal: It's a good idea to ask guests about their allergies or dislikes once they've accepted your invitation. If a guest offers to bring something, feel free to accept–it can be anything from a loaf of bread or bottle of wine to a home-baked dessert. Kick off the conversation: Candor dissipates awkwardness. Try opening with, "We were a little uncomfortable about this. What did you think when we asked you?" to get the conversation flowing. You'll soon have plenty to talk about.
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