Carolyn McCandlish is no stranger to surprises. As the Director of Experience Design at Surprise Industries, she plans surprises for other people regularly. But it was Carolyn who was surprised to receive an out-of-the-blue invitation inviting her to host a dinner party for a group of strangers. No one at the party would know anyone else. Sounds kind of scary, right? Carolyn was up to the task. Read our interview with Carolyn to find out how she pulled it off and whether she’d do it again.

Everybody’s Invited!: What intrigued you about the idea of hosting a party where nobody knew each other?

Carolyn McCandlish: I love the idea of meeting new people and pushing myself into uncomfortable situations. I can be pretty shy with new people, but at the same time, I love people, so I like to put myself in those kinds of situations.

EI!: How do the logistics work? How do you build the guest list?

CM: Each person who has attended one in the past gets to recommend fun people to attend in the future. A friend of mine had participated in an earlier dinner for strangers, and she passed my name along. No friends of the same person are ever invited to the same party, in case they know each other. So if you do know someone, it’s a complete coincidence. The email I received included an ask for someone to volunteer to host. Nobody volunteered so I stepped up to the plate at the last minute. I was a bit nervous, but I figured everyone had been vouched for in some way. In my case it ended up being a pretty diverse group of smart, creative people. 

EI!: Were people uncomfortable at all? Did you do anything to help guide the conversation or put people at ease?

CM: It was definitely a bit uncomfortable at first as people started getting to know one another. Wine helped. But we were also instructed to make something together at some point in the night, so we had something to discuss and ideas to bounce around when there were lulls in the conversation. People were also told to bring something savory if they were born between January and June, and something sweet or a drink if they were born between July and December.

EI!: What surprised you most about hosting a dinner party for strangers?

CM: I guess it surprised me most to see the way things started to mesh, and the way people dove right into bonding. You aren’t allowed to bring a plus one so nobody can hide behind a familiar relationship as a crutch, as often happens at parties.

EI!: What do you think people got out of the experience?

CM: I think people got a lot out of the rich discussions we had. We talked a lot about art because people were approaching it from different perspectives—singing, rapping, acting, and more. It was cool to hear everyone’s ideas. A lot of people were pretty new to New York, too, so I think it was nice to have a little community that was brand new for everyone.

EI!: Were any ongoing relationships formed during the party?

CM: We talked about getting together in the future, but I don’t think anyone has. I haven’t seen anyone since. But I know my friend’s friend set her up on a date with someone at her stranger dinner.

EI!: Nice. What advice would you give to someone who was organizing their own dinner party for strangers?

CM: Hmm…have some sort of activity to collaborate on. Some culminating product of the evening. Or some kind of goal. That was helpful because it shaped the trajectory of the night a bit.

The strangers were tasked with creating something together, so they created a series of old-timey family photos. This is one of them.

The strangers were tasked with creating something together, so they created a series of old-timey family photos. This is one of them.