It’s 7:30 on a cool summer evening. You’re standing in front of a townhouse in downtown Manhattan, feeling nervous. You knock on the door and are greeted by someone you’ve never met. She hands you a glass of wine and invites you in; there are a few other people already there, all new faces. The host continues to answer the door until there are ten people ready to sit down around a table. You introduce yourselves to each other over a few icebreakers; maybe the host asks everyone to share the last thing they really enjoyed doing. Maybe you chop up some vegetables or help the host serve dinner. The food and the communal dinner style puts you somewhat at ease — the vibe feels familiar.
Then, the host introduces the night’s theme, Grit. She explains what it means to her. You already know it, because you’ve been asked to prepare a true personal story related to that theme that you will share tonight. You have one, but its really personal, and you have a lighthearted alternative in case you want to back out. You’re thinking you might.
Your host sets the tone by going over three important principles for the evening: it’s unplugged — no phones — everything’s anonymous, and this is a safe space.
The host is first: She speaks for six minutes about a time where she embodied grit. The story is deeply intimate, and you can’t believe someone you barely know is sharing it with you.
Five or six stories later, and it feels natural. Everyone is present. Everyone is vulnerable.
You decide to share your more personal story.
This is Bring Your Own Story — there are dinner parties like this organized every other Friday in trained hosts’ homes in cities around the world. The ambiance has been carefully cultivated. “It’s all about transforming the space through the structure of the night, the principles, the act of sharing food, looking into people’s eyes and physically being present with each other. This is how we help our hosts set the vibe,” says Graham Garvie, a co-founder of Bring Your Own Story.
Garvie met his co-founder, Christina Herbach, when the two were in Business School at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. The original goal was to spark authentic friendships at a time when adulthood translated to constantly moving around. “[Most people] move a number of times in our twenties,” Garvie says. “We have to find our tribe when we land, but most of the time, we only just briefly look up from our phones to talk about the weather.” He noticed a gap in our culture’s conversational norms — a reliance on small talk that ultimately hindered the formation of strong friendships. “What we lose when we fall into that gap is the meaningful conversations that we need to make connections in adulthood,” Garvie says.
So the first BYOS dinner started as an attempt to fix that: with a ban on small talk and a request that guests bring an authentic story taken from their lives using a guiding theme. Immediately, they were met with huge demand. “It evolved organically,” Herbach says.
Two years later, BYOS is now based in three cities — New York, San Francisco, and London. “By creating a community that isn’t bound by one geography, this allows you to continue to find your tribe, to find similar minded people as you move around,” Herbach says. Garvie adds, “The need to tell stories, the need to be seen, the need to be more authentic — it’s not just an American thing, not just a British thing — it’s a human thing.”
The storytelling element of the dinners is what makes the BYOS project so unique. “You’re sharing a true personal experience, something that happened to you that shifted the way you see the world,” Herbach says. “You can’t debate story. It’s very difficult to be judgmental of it.” The practice of listening to people talk without judgment about deeply universal, human themes automatically helps people connect. “The idea is that it’s a storytelling dinner, but its really a listening dinner,” Herbach points out.
The need to practice better listening comes out of the growing role that technology plays in our daily lives. A world governed by constant connection through social media is one that devalues empathy and listening. “It’s very hard to harness the power of technology and use it for good. Politics has become noisier, the media landscape has become noisier,” Garvie says. “There’s a constant pressure to compete, to speak up, and get my point across — none of that nudges us in the empathetic direction of listening.”
That’s why unplugging is an essential component of the BYOS experience. Garvie and Herbach revealed that the guests who come to the dinners are often most excited about this rare opportunity to disconnect from their phones: “It’s a thrill for them,” Garvie says. “People are looking for permission to unplug,” Herbach adds. “At the dinners, by turning off your phone, you’re not turning off your connection to the world. You’re actually turning the volume up.”
When I asked Herbach how she thinks attending the BYOS dinner parties has affected her in the long term, she said her experience has changed her in an infinite number of ways. “I’m less quick to assume, a lot less fearful, and more willing to embrace the unknown,” she says. “You hear these stories of hardship, all of these people having gone through these scary things, and their faces are full of light and excitement. It makes me feel empowered take risks.”
At its core, BYOS is about connection. “When we skip the small talk and share what’s personal, we realize that is what is actually most universal,” Garvie says, adding that he loves hearing about the relationships that come out of the dinners. “The act of sharing and listening to stories builds a lot of trust and creates relationships that last.”