Let’s talk about the Silent Dinner Party

Silent Dinner Party

Shhh! Sydney Fringe Festival is holding a Silent Dinner Party as its keynote closing event on September 26th at Marrickville Town Hall, (heads-up, bookings close Monday September 21st). Oliver Heath speaks to Honi Ryan to find out what they’re all about:

Hi Honi, is it odd that I’m interviewing you about a project that focuses on silence? are we ruining the silence?
Nah, the silence is there for us to talk about, it acknowledges words as important by getting rid of them for a minute so that we can reflect on them. Words, that is. So lets talk about the silence…

I recently had the misfortune of sitting next to a guy at dinner who gave me a two-hour lecture on enlightenment, intuition, and why the Jews are our oppressors. He was quite handsome. If he didn’t speak it would have been a much more pleasant experience. Do we all suck so bad we should just shuttup?
We all suck at something, we just need the right environment to express it in. The silence at dinner is weird enough for most of us to dredge up something new about ourselves, and how we relate to others.

I can imagine being at one of your dinner parties making eye contact with a beautiful woman and when it’s done we finally speak. She’d say “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” I’d look deep into her eyes and say “yes” and she’d say “Thank God there weren’t any Muslims here, that would’ve been awkward.” Do you get people not realising how different their world views are and then having a shock when its over? Or conversely, have you had any romances/friendships start?
Certainly many people have a shock hearing someone’s voice for the first time after sharing an intimate and boding experience without words. We form fast judgements based on speech, and when expectations are not met it can be disorienting — but this can also allow you to reassess your own associations and find things in people that you would have dismissed if you categorise them through your normal set of filters. It makes you look harder at the person, not through them.

People quickly form close connections at a Silent Dinner, it’s like the mutual decision not to talk is unifying, playful, and leads to new experiences. So deep connections are possible – one man was moved to a proposal of marriage, and many lasting friendships have been formed. We had a blind date once there, I don’t know if they’re still together or not.

Maybe it’s luck, who you sit next to… I mean sure, world views are a little hard to express in two hours of wordless gesturing, but you can reach the essence of a person in an instant if you open yourself to it, and see beyond the constructed views that segregate us.

It only just occurred to me that this could lead to people being even more superficial than when they speak. What are your thoughts on this, does it encourage shallowness?
It does keep the content of the communication less complex, as you struggle to even do the normal pleasantries, but in that process you are communicating in a different way, and allowing yourself to think through your body, and not just your mind or mouth.

Do you start focusing on body language? Has it affected the way you experience people in your day to day?
Yes, it’s very much about finding different ways of communicating, with the body, or with thought. If you don’t understand someone, but consider what this person might be saying, normally you can guess quite well. And as I get more practised at it, and certainly it has helped me to communicate with people whose language I don’t speak, which has opened up things that would otherwise have been closed off or prematurely stunted.


What would I do if there was a fly in my soup? Or if I want someone to pass the vino? What if I needed to apologise for spilling my wine, warn someone else about a fly in their soup or tell someone to stop groping me?
Oh just use your imagination, that kind of table communication is the easy part. Unless you’re enjoying being groped, then it may be hard to ask them to stop.

What’s the most surprising feedback you’ve had from a guest?
The most shocking was in Beirut when a woman stood up and screamed passionately across the table ‘We are not silent humans, anymore’. This was in a place where silence carried the weight of an oppressed silenced people, where as in other places it is a relief from the noise and buzz. The responses to the experience change dramatically according to the culture it’s in, so I am always surprised, and humbled by what it has meant to many different people, and how it has provoked them to reflect on their everyday use of language.

There seems to be a few dominate food trends at the moment: the plated food deconstructed food smears, vegan, and the bar food heart attack stuff. (or pre-chewed, uncooked or deep fried). Is there a food philosophy to go with the silence?
I cook vegetarian, with a preference for vegan recipes. I cook local food with local people, and learn about the cuisine of the place I am in. I serve three courses, as the structure helps people move through the foreignness of the experience. I try and start the meal with something raw.

What excites you about most about this project?
The way it encourages intercultural connections, and can act as a exercise in peace mediation. People truly drop their reflex prejudices at a Silent Dinner, and the more rehearsal we have of that in the world the better!

54 NanTong friends in silence

How many have you done, in how many countries? Are there big cultural differences in how people react from different countries?
The current stats are about 38 dinners in 16 cities across 11 countries. There is one coming up in Barcelona after the Sydney Fringe Festival next week, and the project has invitations to come to art spaces in Ethopia, Taiwan and Columbia in the near future, and so it continues on.

The culture defines the project, gives it meaning. I start from the same point in every country, and I let the specifics of that place define how it goes from there. In this way we can highlight cultural differences, while acknowledging a base humanity that is the same world over.

Have you done silent dinner parties where people don’t speak the same language?
Yes, many! That is actually where the project comes from… not speaking the mother tongue of the country I was living in, and wanting everyone to be at the same level of communication. I have since had many people comment on how, regardless of their ability to communicate through language barriers, nothing quite levels the playing field like the shared, consensual silence.

Has anyone totally wigged out? I was thinking anger, but them I remembered that people sometimes weep in yoga classes.
Yes, there have been tears, and laughter, screaming fits, dancing acts, people doing limbo and conga lines… a rotary stage set up for one man mimes and silent bands emerging from the table. We’ve had nudity and passion, and as for anger, sure that has emerged too. My approach is that if art can provide a place for these kinds of things to be expressed without fear and danger (from the danger of being shot, to the fear of social ineptness) then great, whatever emerges from the experience is worth it.

Adelaide Australia_Honi-Ryan

How about infectious laughter ruining everything? Do you shhhh the laughers?
The laughter takes off, that’s for sure, and that’s the one constant world over. I have seen people on the floor convulsing in fits of noiseless laughter. I don’t police the event at all, I create a space for willing participants to come to, and play with as they see fit. Anything goes really, the guidelines are there as a suggestions. People manage it themselves, and each group creates its own environment. If someone in a group is talking most of the time the others around them will hush them, if they want to. It is a wonderful exercise in group dynamics.

The last one was on a pay-as-you-feel basis. Has this always been the case? How well does it work?
At first they were free (for years) and then I asked a nominal fee once it became too costly to keep doing. Now, whenever I can I have a ‘pay-as-you-feel’ system, where people pledge a donation in advance (with a suggested bracket so that it is feasible) and I make my budget from that. I believe in the Pay as You Feel system, I have seen it work exceptionally well with long term viability in Berlin. I think we are at a stage where people appreciate being asked, not told, and give more when they are offered the option to choose. For me it has worked both ways, but I try to keep the events accessible, and overall when it’s pay as you feel, people have given more money than if I was to put a ticket price on it.

How can people go to a silent dinner? Do you ever do them by request for groups?
Normally they are hosted through a cultural institution or festival, but I can hold one by request for groups or parties, or if an enthusiastic host emerges I’m happy to mount one with them.

Really it’s just my favourite thing to do, so the more the better I say!

So come! Next week at Sydney Fringe Festival. Book here before it closes on Monday:

Or in November in Barcelona, check out Barcelona Goethe Institute exhibition Utopian Tomorrow.
Or contact me through the blog and lets do one together! www.silentdinnerparty.com

oliver heath


Interview by Oliver Heath.