Initiating party games is a delicate business. “I hate it when hosts say, ‘We’re going to play games now!’ ” the comedian Amy Sedaris said. “It takes you out of the circulation of the party. And most of the people know all the tricks to the games, so I’ll feel like a loser.”
Ms. Sedaris makes an exception for get-togethers with children or the elderly, and for one-on-one situations. She likes to play Beauty Parlor, a game whose rules she described in her book on entertaining, “I Like You,” as simply, “Do each other’s makeup and hair and talk about your problems.” On your arrival at Ms. Sedaris’s New York City apartment, she has you write down answers to a few personal questions on an index card. Then, as she starts doing your hair and nails, she’ll refer to the cards: “Like I’ll say, ‘Now about these sores you’re referring to …’ ”
When it comes to injecting get-togethers with group activities — be they games or assigned conversations — people fall into three camps. On either end of the continuum are small groups: those who do not enjoy any group activities whatsoever and those who like them all. But the great majority of us sit smack in the middle: we like certain games and certain suggested topics in certain situations. Generally, we like to be told beforehand if group activities are to be a feature of an evening. And we most enjoy those games and assigned conversations in which, from round to round, our contributions are volunteered rather than solicited. Last, we do not want to be asked to explain in detail the Electoral College.
The breaking point for most people is humiliation, particularly when it reveals ignorance about a matter they hold dear. Tim Gunn of “Project Runway” said that when he worked at Parsons the New School for Design from 1982 to 2007, he would often have dinner at the house of Parsons’s president. During the meal, the president would single out each guest by asking a searing, usually topical, question related to the guest’s field. The tension was palpable. “One time as I was leaving, I told our host, ‘If you would just tell us the questions in advance, we could do some research.’ He said, ‘That’s why it’s so fun — no one studies beforehand.’ I said: ‘The only person it’s fun for is you. You just like to torment people.’ ”
Feelings of inferiority are not solely the domain of bruised intelligence. In her book “The Party,” the journalist and hostess Sally Quinn recounted how, at a party given by Ron Silver, the actor, in Washington in the mid-1990s, he noted that a number of guests had made great contributions to their country.
He then went around the table, asking each of the assembled what his greatest sacrifice had been. “It was remarkably moving and emotional,” Ms. Quinn wrote. “Among the guests were Gen. Colin Powell and Senator Bob Kerrey, both Vietnam veterans. Later, however, one of the male guests who had to leave early and miss the experience commented to me about Kerrey: ‘I’m glad I wasn’t there. I don’t want to have to talk about my sacrifices when I’m sitting across the table from a war hero who’s had his leg shot off and been awarded the Medal of Honor.’ ”
Where should hosts draw the line? It’s the rare individual who goes to a party hoping to find his underpants bunched around his ankles. By the same token, you have to peel a banana before you can eat it. As Elsa Maxwell, the gossip columnist and professional hostess, wrote in her 1954 autobiography, “R.S.V.P.,” the “best games are those in which failure is comical rather than embarrassing.”
CREDITED WITH INTRODUCING scavenger and treasure hunts to the modern party, Ms. Maxwell liked to blindfold guests and ask them to identify objects like bananas or parsley, purely by smell. In one game, each guest held a string attached to a different cork placed in the middle of the dinner table; the guests tried to pull their corks onto their laps before another guest wielding a saucepan could trap the cork.
But games needn’t require saucepans in order to break the ice or get an evening on its feet. One kind that can work, even when it hasn’t been announced beforehand, is conversation-based. Nora Ephron sometimes asked guests to describe their childhood homes — a prompt that by being both personal and open-ended causes bonhomie’s ignition without being squirm-inducing. You can find similar questions in books like “The Little Book of Big Questions” (“How do you explain the color red to a blind person?”) or in store-bought conversation aids like the Chat Pack cards (“If you could create the ultimate vacation resort, what would it be like?”).
Another kind of game that can work well with guests who have not shown up specifically to play games is a knowledge-based one in which each player keeps his own score. For a game I call This or That?, I like to assemble lists of words or names or phrases that can fit into either of two categories. I’ll hand each player a list that reads, say, “Vanilla Ice/Ice-T/Suga Free/Flava Flav/Cee Lo/Fabolous/Spoonie Gee/Eazy E/Skinnyman/Bizzy Bone/So Delicious/Pineapple Pear Frosty,” then ask you to mark down which are rappers and which are delicious low-calorie iced desserts. (All but the last two are rappers.)
Henry Alford is a contributing writer to Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of “Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That? A Modern Guide to Manners.” Circa Now appears monthly.