NEW YORK CITY (SBG) - There are many guidelines for polite conversation around the dinner table, particularly when dining amongst a group of strangers. At Dinner Confidential, I must have broken all of them.
For eight minutes straight, I spoke to the other guests about my personal history of dealing with any and all issues related to the topic of trust, without sugarcoating or omitting any embarrassing, awkward, emotional details. Nothing was off the table, if you’ll pardon the pun. It felt like I was writing a diary entry, something to be locked away and tucked underneath my mattress, but instead of scribbling it down in invisible ink, I said it all out loud, fully able to be taken in by those surrounding me at the table.
In a society that often values a disguising of negative emotions, what encouraged my openness? Although wine was tangentially involved over the course of the evening, the alcohol wasn’t to blame for my willingness to spill my secrets. In fact, the word “blame” feels a bit misplaced here, as if it’s implying that there was any shame involved in what I chose to divulge to this group of people I had met under an hour prior. That wasn’t the case at all, because when you attend a Dinner Confidential event, getting personal stories off of your chest is a goal of the gathering.
When sharing deep emotions, personal traumas, and impactful moments, there’s an obvious level of fear involved, particularly when you have no previous relationship with any of the eyes staring into the depths of your soul. Will they judge me? What if they don’t understand? What if they take someone else’s side? Even understanding the premise of the event and its promise of confidentiality, I went into the dinner expecting to have some sort of a guard up, to share just vague details rather than diving deep into stories that I’ve kept private from even my closest friends. But by the time that our host started serving dessert, I found myself astounded both by how much I had revealed and how OK I felt about that fact.
“It’s almost shocking how you can come into this space of not knowing anyone and literally be more open and vulnerable than you’ve been with people you’ve known your entire life,” said Sybil Ottenstein, co-founder of Dinner Confidential and the host of the New York City dinner that I attended.
Ottenstein pointed out that we fall into specific roles and build certain dynamics within friendships, and it’s often those familiar patterns that prevent us from presenting our most authentic self at all times to the people in our lives. “When you’re at Dinner Confidential, you don’t have to be anything for anyone except yourself. You can remove the mask, remove the layers, and just be your true, messy, vulnerable self. And I think, in that mission, comes this tremendous openness,” she said.
Dinner Confidential began out of a feeling of isolation about a year and a half ago and has since blossomed to its current form, a monthly dinner party, held in over 20 cities worldwide, that brings together a small group of women to discuss a particular topic.
“It really started as an experiment,” explained Veronica Marquez, the event’s other co-founder. “I was feeling alone in my head and trying to find community. I decided to invite some women into my house to talk about these issues that I was personally dealing with, to see if they were experiencing something similar.”
It was in those early stages of experimentation that Marquez and Ottenstein realized the event absolutely needed to become something larger, that women around the world were very much in search of a space that would allow them to be vulnerable and to express their innermost feelings.
“There’s this strong cultural message that we have to be pretty and nice and OK,” said Ottenstein, “and that vulnerability or experiencing a negative or painful emotion is not something that we’re allowed to talk about. It’s something we’ve been made to feel shameful about, when, in reality, we’re all experiencing grief and anger and sadness and that whole spectrum.”
For Marquez, simply knowing that she’s not alone in her story offers her a greater sense of peace, a feeling that she hopes other dinner guests are able to take away from their own experiences at Dinner Confidential. “I can accept myself with all my weakness, with all my challenges, with all my wounds, because I am not alone in this,” she said.
Prior to attending the trust-themed dinner, I received a welcome email from Ottenstein, explaining the logistics and outlining what was required of each guest to prep for the evening. I had chosen this particular dinner based on my own history with trust, and the prep questions provided me with the opportunity to further consider my relationship with the topic prior to the event and to add a degree of focus to the stories that I was already planning to tell.
On the date of the event, my parents were in town and drove me to Ottenstein’s apartment, as I struggled to explain to them that I was heading to have a meal with a bunch of strangers and to share my deepest emotions with said strangers. “Are you going to some sort of circle for witches?” they asked, not quite understanding exactly what was in store for me that night. To be perfectly honest, as I knocked on the door with a bottle of wine in hand, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect either.
The founders of Dinner Confidential understand that women are coming to these events with varying levels of comfort and prior experience with women's gatherings, which is partly why the events are held around the dinner table. “Whether you come from extreme wealth or total poverty, black, white, gay, straight, whatever culture you’re from, the idea of sharing a meal together is a universal experience,” said Ottenstein.
Once all of the attendees had arrived at Ottenstein’s apartment, we took our seats around her dinner table and offered brief introductions to the rest of the group, including how we found out about the dinner and what our intentions were for attending. Food was served almost immediately, allowing our minds to focus solely on the task at hand, rather than wondering when we would be fed. Right away, I discovered that Ottenstein had not only a talent for bringing women together and leading difficult discussions but also for cooking a feast of healthy, delicious food that inspired a certain level of comfort.
After we dug into the meal, Ottenstein reminded us of the previously emailed questions, and we took a few moments to jot down notes on the paper tablecloth, which did feel more evocative of writing in a journal than of doodling on the table with crayons as a child at a casual chain restaurant. There was a weird desire to use my forearm to shield my notes from the people next to me, even though I was about to share that exact information with the entire group.
The rules of the shares were simple. Everything was, of course, to remain confidential and within the walls of the apartment. The other key values included vulnerability, honesty, kindness, respect, and inclusivity. Abiding by those guidelines, we’d each have eight minutes of uninterrupted time to share our thoughts.
“Choosing to time women's shares is something that we started experimenting with about six months or so ago,” said Ottenstein.
“It seems to be this really profound tool in creating a strong sense of balance and ownership amongst everyone at the table. It offers you the permission to fill that space however you want, yet it remains a considerate environment for everyone else involved so that we can be sure that everyone gets a chance to contribute,” she said.
After each woman’s share, there was a brief pause of acknowledgment before the next voice joined in; we were also asked to refrain from offering any unsolicited advice following the story or at any other point during the evening.
“That is one thing that we feel really strongly about. There’s something magical about simply being seen and having people pay attention. I think it’s so rare to really listen to someone, to really be present for someone, and for that to happen, we have to hold back our advice,” Marquez said of her reasoning behind that rule.
At the dinner that I attended, the conversation certainly reached painful, heavy places. There were tears, and there were hugs. While all of the guests stayed on topic, the tales of trust were inevitably tied to a great deal of other emotions, from anger to sadness to love and beyond.
You might assume, then, that each of us walked away from that dinner carrying a dark cloud of gloom overhead, but, although I cannot speak for the other guests, I personally found the opposite to be true. It was with both a full belly and a sense of empowerment that I left Ottenstein’s apartment after the event. In considering what had caused this, I didn’t find an immediately obvious explanation.
When I asked Ottenstein about this, she first took a moment to consider her answer. “When I host, there’s no sort of encouragement to make sure that we end on a positive note. That’s not the way in which I facilitate the dinners; that’s not an aim or intention. Yet it oftentimes is the case,” she finally said.
“So what that says to me is that it’s less a function of how we run the dinners, and it’s more a function of what happens when you bring women together in community,” she continued. “You can bring the most challenging, difficult, painful topics and stories around the table, but there’s this magical thing that happens when women come together. We see each other, we truly listen to each other, and we listen to ourselves, and this resilience just comes out of our pores. We leave feeling strengthened, feeling emboldened, and feeling hopeful.”
Like any good experiment, Dinner Confidential is meticulous in documenting their findings. Once all of the global dinners have occurred, the hosts connect to share insights, identifying the key takeaways from each dinner, which often includes an examination of the cultural differences that may be at play, as well as broader similarities found in experiences across the world. Dinner Confidential then shares an illustrated summary of each topic on Medium for the entire community to read.
“We’re going to actually be putting a lot of these learnings into action and deepening the community involvement. Basically, the brand is going to be shifting in a lot of really exciting ways over the coming months,” said Ottenstein.
But even as the brand evolves, the dinners are expected to remain an integral component, as hosts around the world continue to open their homes to strangers to discuss these once-taboo topics.
“[Dinner Confidential] is the experience of minimizing that feeling that we don’t belong, while really amplifying and cultivating a sense of connection, a sense of belonging, a sense of feeling courageous and loved and loving. We see how this really creates an impact, and we are so happy to be able to provide these spaces,” said Marquez.