August 6, 2013

How to Host a 21st Century Salon.

It’s probably not a surprise, but I really like to write.

Sharing ideas, exchanging information-those are just a few things I hope to accomplish in my writing.

While I enjoy reading comments and dialoguing online, I am going to be blunt: it’s not the same as actually conversing with someone in real life.

For one thing, tone can be a tricky think to gauge online. Sometimes, I honestly don’t know if people are being serious or sarcastic. Plus, there is something wonderful about actually having a conversation with someone face-to-face. Even if it happens to be a conversation where the other person and I may not see eye-to-eye on all things, there is usually something to be gained by the exchange and a certain measure of civility that, sadly, isn’t always present on the world wide web.

Many younger people may be surprised to learn that before the rise of the internet, there were groups of people who met regularly to specifically discuss a variety of issues ranging from art to politics to current events. The places were these events were held were called salons. Salons originally started in 16th century Europe and were popular well into the early 20th century. The writer Gertrude Stein’s Paris salon was legendary and its attendees included Picasso, Hemingway, James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald to name a few.

Nowadays, when most people hear the word “salons” they tend to think of the places were one goes to get their hair and nails done, but classical salons are making a bit of a comeback. While many are citing the hipsters and their love of nostalgia for bringing back this trend, I tend think that perhaps another reason they are making a comeback is because of the reasons I cited especially the face-to-face contact and sort of dialogue that can only come with physically interacting with another person.

In any case, creating a salon can be a lot of fun and a great way not only to meet other people, but to learn more about a variety of topics.

The best thing is you don’t have to be an ultra-intellectual, rich, or even have an actual room called a salon to host one of these events.

If you wish, you can even call it something else besides a salon and/or think of these as a cocktail or dinner party with a purpose.  What’s more, there are no rules. You can be as formal or informal as you want, and keep it as small or as large as you wish. The choice is totally yours to decide.

However, here are a few tips and things to keep in mind to make your salon a success.

1. When it comes to topics, more is more.

What separates a salon from a cocktail party or dinner party is that usually there are specific topics that are discussed. However, not everyone has to talk about the same topic.

One good tip is for attendees to break up into smaller groups and discuss different topics. For instance, people who are keen about movies can form one group, while those interested in politics form another, and those who wish to talk about popular culture form yet another group  People are free to move from group to group and discuss topics given to them by the host or salon leader. (A good way to get topics is to ask attendees to submit ones when they RSVP.)

Make it clear to the participants that they don’t have to stick to either the group or a topic. A conversation about a movie may very well lead to a discussion of politics and vice versa. Don’t be afraid if people go off-topic.

Instead, let the conversations flow organically.

2. Invite people from a wide range of backgrounds.

When it comes to hosting a successful salon-and by successful, I mean one with a lot of interesting and varied people better—it’s good to invite a wide range of people. One of the best way to find people is through an existing group such as photography group, book club meet up, etc. (Thanks to the internet, it is easier than ever to find these groups.) Don’t just stick to your usual social groups either.

For example, if you are a photographer and one of the topics you want to discuss is a particular photo or photographer, then just don’t invite other photographers or people you know with a keen interest in photography. Inviting someone who is a writer, scientist, etc. and who knows little or nothing about photography may give an interesting point of view that others haven’t considered.

Make it clear that the people don’t have to be experts or know a lot about a topic to participate. In fact, it can be quite an education to be part of a group discussion you know little or nothing about. (Also make it known that questions are not only acceptable but encouraged.)

3. Go easy on the alcohol or forgo it altogether.

For some people, alcohol allows them to unwind and relax. For others, alcohol makes them act stupid and say things that they won’t usually say when sober. This is especially true when discussing hot button topics like politics. Given that the goal of a salon is to discuss ideas and topics, my advice is to go easy on the alcohol if you decide to serve it at all. It may be better simply to forgo it all together especially if there are going to be a lot of present that you don’t know or don’t know well.

Some people don’t like to drink and/or don’t prefer to be at events where alcohol is served.

4. Ask for feedback.

Your first salon will probably be a learning experience. Take the opportunity to see what works and does not. Simply observing and taking mental notes is a good idea as well as asking people to jot down some thoughts in a notebook by the door or in a kitchen before they leave. If your first salon doesn’t go quite as you envisioned, then don’t despair. Perhaps there needs to be more structure, perhaps less.

In closing, hosting a 21st century salon is a fun way to get to know more about a variety of people and topics.

Unlike many blasts from the past, this is one trend that, hopefully, will stick around. While the internet has been revolutionary when it comes to helping people connect and exchange ideas, there is still a need for these modern day salons. Perhaps by doing so, we will regain the lost art of conversation and civility that often seems sadly lacking today.

Perhaps we can take the time to think about certain things before immediately turning to Google to “get the facts”.

In any case, it cannot hurt to try: you have nothing to lose and a lot of potential knowledge and fun to gain.


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Ed: Bryonie Wise

 Photo: via Pinterest

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