If you're organizing a social event, I strongly recommend that you structure it in a way that encourages small group discussions over large ones.

What's the point of an interest-specific social club?

To socialize, of course! With people who share a specific interest. I would argue this isn't as obvious to people-organizers as it might sound.

Last Friday, I attended a meetup with my university's philosophy club. I went in expecting many opportunities to meet other thoughtful people, but I left the main event without seeing them. Instead, the meetup was a guided large group discussion about quotes from Emerson. While I did learn a lot by following the conversation, and it was somewhat entertaining, I was disappointed that I didn't have the chance to engage in more personal conversations and get to know the other members of the club.

If you get to decide what ~15 thoughtful people will do for two hours on a Friday afternoon, this is a rare opportunity, and you should be strategic about it. It represents 30 synchronous human-hours of opportunity cost, plus transportation. While you could use these hours to help people learn more about philosophy, I don't think this is the best use for the time. Rather, I believe human connection is more important. I could have learned about Emerson much more efficiently by reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or been entertained more efficiently by taking a trip to an amusement park, for two hours. But instead, I blocked out that time because meeting the right person could have a huge positive impact on my life. I might make a great friend. We might spend a lot of quality time in the future. They could be a future romantic partner, or a professional connection. Indeed, I won't have a better opportunity to meet lifelong friends than in college – in no other point of my life will I have as much time at my disposal to socialize and be in the same physical location as so many similar people in the same position. Meeting people has a huge mutual return on time investment.

Small group discussions are more fun and facilitate more interpersonal connections

With this motivation in mind, how does one facilitate better mingling? My suggestion: structure your meetup to encourage small group discussions.

  • Most people prefer talking to listening. The fewer people present in a conversation, the more space each person has to talk. is larger, making the conversation more enjoyable.
  • Smaller discussion groups give each person more control over the flow of the conversation, which also makes it more enjoyable. It's easier to interject about things that you find interesting and ask questions about things you don't know about.
  • Talking to a smaller group allows you to speak less reservedly. It allows people to be more vulnerable and talk about things that have more personal significance. I see this as vital for interpersonal bonding.
  • Smaller groups tend to talk about things that have less broad appeal. They give people the room to talk about more personal things and tell stories and anecdotes. Tautologically, you have to learn about the people around you to get to know them.

How to encourage small group discussion

One big conversation can be an equilibrium of your social event, depending on how you engineer the environment. I call this the "committee" style of conversation, and I see it as a failure mode. Once it reaches this point, it's awkward to split it up. You have to find an opportunity to begin a private conversation with the people next to you, which can feel like talking over the person who's currently speaking in the large group. Most people aren't agentic or brash enough to step in the middle of the circle and announce "Okay guys, let's split this conversation up. People on this side, go over here, and people on this side, stay here! 🤓".

So you have to coordinate from the onset if you want a better conversation structure. Here are some ideas.

  • Invite enough people so it can't become a committee in the first place. A circle of 25 people would be so awkward and ridiculous that people will be forced to break off.
  • Host the event in a place with enough room for people to spread out. Ideally, there will be different rooms or partly sheltered areas for some insulation between groups.
  • If you're the host, maybe it isn't so brash to manually split up a large group if it forms. You could, for example, instruct guests to move to a different group when they hear a bell you ring every 30 minutes. This might bring a "forced" vibe to the party, but it also gives people plausible deniability when they want to leave a conversation. If they're engaged, they're totally allowed to ignore the bell and continue the conversation. But if they're bored, they can say "Sorry, looks like I have to move to a new group. What can you do? But it was nice meeting you!".

Putting my money where my mouth is

I don't make this post to rag on the organizer of the philosophy club, or anyone else who has held a suboptimal social gathering. In fact, after the event, I pulled the philosophy club leader aside after the meeting to give him my thoughts constructively, and he was receptive to experimenting with a different structure for the next meeting. Different hosts have different goals for their events, and that's fine. I just value human connection a lot. It brings me a lot of joy when I witness two people meet and get along well because of something I initiated. I'm not trying to be cheesy – it genuinely makes me super excited when I hear I've created a friendship.

I've attended many social meetups in college so far, but recently I decided to step up and host two of my own, and my third and most ambitious is coming up this weekend. With each iteration, I've changed things to facilitate more interpersonal connection. The first party was awkward, reserved, and small, and I was late because I didn't give myself enough time to prepare the food. The second was bigger, and I was ecstatic to see banter, deep conversation, and people exchanging contact information before they left, but it went too late into the night and still had a bit of a committee feel. The upcoming event will have even more people, take place in a small building with partially insulated rooms to break up potential committees, and have a definitive closing point.

I hope this post inspired you to think critically about how to help people meet each other. Those with an entrepreneurial spirit towards socializing, go forth and foster connections!


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1 comment, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:47 AM

I agree that college is an unusually valuable time for meeting people, so it's good to make the most of it. I also agree that one way an event can go badly is if people show up wanting to get to know each other, but they do not get that opportunity, and it sounds like it was a mistake for the organizers of this event not to be more accommodating of smaller, more organic conversations. And I think that advice on how to encourage smaller discussions is valuable.

But I think it's important to keep in mind that not everyone wants the same things, not everyone relates to each other or their interests in the same way, and small, intimate conversations are not the be-all-end-all of social interaction or friend-making.

Rather, I believe human connection is more important. I could have learned about Emerson much more efficiently by reading the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or been entertained more efficiently by taking a trip to an amusement park, for two hours.

For some people, learning together is a way of connecting, even in a group discussion where they don't get to say much. And, for some people, mutual entertainment is one of their ways of connecting. Another social benefit of a group discussion or presentation is that you have some specific shared context to go off of--everyone was there for the same discussion, which can provide an anchor of common experience. For some people this is really important.

Also, there are social dynamics in larger groups that cannot be replicated in smaller groups. For example:

Suppose a group of 15 people is talking about Emerson. Alice is trying to get an idea across, but everyone seems to be misunderstanding. Bob chimes in and asks just the right questions to show that he understands and wants Alice's idea to get through. Alice smiles at Bob and thanks him. Alice and Bob feel connection.

Another example:

In the same discussion, Carol is high status and wrote her PhD dissertation on Emerson. Debbie wants to ask her a question, but is intimidated by the thought of having a one-on-one conversation with her. Fortunately, the large group discussion environment gives Debbie the opportunity to ask a question without the pressure of a having a full conversation. Carol reacts warmly and answers Debbie's question in a thoughtful way. This gives Debbie the confidence to approach Carol during the social mingling part of the discussion later on.

Most people prefer talking to listening.

But not everyone! Some people really like listening, watching, and thinking. And, among people who do prefer talking, many don't care that much if they sometimes don't get to talk that much, especially if there are other benefits.

(Also, I'm a little suspicious when someone argues for event formats that are supposed to make it easier to "get to know people", and one of the main features is that they get to spend more time talking and less time listening)

Different hosts have different goals for their events, and that's fine. I just value human connection a lot.

I think it's important not to look at an event that fails to create social connection for you and assume that it does not create connection for others. This is both because not everyone connects the same way and because it's hard to look at how an event and say whether it resulted in personal connection (it would not have been hard for an observer to miss the Alice-Bob connection, for example). That said, I do think it gets easier to tell as a group has been hosting events with the same people for longer. If people are consistently treating each other as strangers or acquaintances from week to week, this is a bad sign.