Have you ever attended a dinner where no one knew each other? I had a similar experience recently when I went to an informal dinner with prospective applicants to a graduate program. There were 8 prospective students in attendance and 3 current students acting as university ambassadors. We ended up going to a cozy pub in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood called the Bebop which served large-portioned American fare. The place was only half full, however, it was quite loud with a string band (guitar, violin, cello, and base) with amplifiers. We were seated in the back of the restaurant in a square booth, where three sides of the table were enclosed. This meant that if someone at the back of the table wanted to get up to use the restroom then 4-5 people would have to slide over and stand up with that person.
It can be hard to get a lively conversation going with a group of strangers, especially in the tight quarters of our 3-walled booth. As the last person to come to the table, I was seated in a corner between two current students. In my spot I felt isolated from some of the more interesting conversations that were happening between the prospective students on the other side. I politely asked the current students questions, but all I really wanted to do was conspire with prospectives to find out what other schools they applied to and whether they had already received any admission decisions.
I tried to start a conversation with the two women seated in the opposite corner of me, but this proved to be a bit of a challenge. I leaned over my neighbor to yell out questions across the table. The woman that I was speaking with uttered her words softly and had a Korean accent which made some words difficult to understand. The loud Irish music muffled our voices and forced us to yell “what?” and “could you repeat that?” too frequently for comfort.
At the dinner, we talked about our research interests and the school, all the while ignoring the elephant in the room—who will be the lucky ones to get an acceptance to the school. The prospective students clearly wanted to size up the competition. We wanted to know to where we applied, whether we got any admission decisions, and whether we were going to receive an acceptance or a rejection from this particular school. When a current student asked us to how many schools we applied to, the table became silent. Another current student offered that he had applied to seven and one prospective woman chirped in that she had applied to twelve, then, silence. It was as if we were all on-guard and suspicious that leaking information about our applications would threaten our chances in some way. While conversation picked up again and we were able to bond over some unrelated topics, the question had inadvertently reminded us that we were competitors above all else.
In my opinion, space to move around is key to facilitate conversation for groups of strangers. At the pub, we felt locked into our seats and committed to our neighbors as conversation partners. At the next evenings dinner, there were several round tables, an open bar, and enough space to glide between people and in and out of conversation. When there is freedom to move from one person to the next, we no longer feel like a group of competitors trying to outdo each other. Instead, the pressure drops, we are able to get to know each other more naturally, and the elephant in the room is less apparent. We’re all people and we all want to make the best of our experiences; it’s good to find spaces that make us feel free and comfortable rather than confined.
My visit to the school went well. Please cross your fingers for me, Dear Reader, and I will wish you the very best in all your endeavors!