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The Social Significance of a Shared Meal

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“The sun looks down on nothing half so good as

a household laughing together over a meal.”

~C. S. Lewis, “Membership,” 1949

It’s one of life’s curiosities: Taking in food is, everywhere, a common communal activity. For families and friends, eating together is a social event. For creatures with a need to belong, group meals provide the pleasures of both food and friendship.

 

Eating eases meeting. When people share an eating pleasure, such as tasting chocolates, they find food more flavorful. When families sit down for a shared dinner, they eat not only healthier but happier—their lives pausing for connection. And when workers come together for a meal, team-building friendships grow. Such is my experience, as when my psychology text publishing team gathers over a meal (shown here from our recent book-planning meeting in New York City).

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Yale psychologist Irving Janis and his colleagues observed long ago that persuasive messages associated with good feelings—such as experienced while eating snacks—are more convincing. Fund solicitors and salespeople understand that when they treat us to a meal, good feelings often generalize to the host. The bonding power of a shared meal is especially great, report Kaitlin Woolley and Ayelet Fishbach, when people—whether friends or strangers—eat from shared bowls. After eating chips and salsa from shared rather than separate bowls, people in their experiments became more cooperative in negotiating wages.

Their findings remind me of the convivial spirit I experienced when treated to group dinners with my Chinese hosts on visits to Beijing and Shanghai—with each of us sampling from shared dishes placed around a center-table Lazy Susan (or as the Chinese would say, in translation, a “dinner-table turntable”).

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      Free image from Pixaby.

Those of us who are North Americans have our own family-style-dinner counterparts —shared fondue pots, tapas dinners, and communal hors d'oeuvres. As Woolley and Fishbach conclude, shared plates → shared minds. Such is the social power of shared meals.

 

Food matters. Perhaps the rapport-building power of breaking bread together can nudge us to prioritize time for sharing more family meals, for offering hospitality to our friends and colleagues, and for welcoming new acquaintances.

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)

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About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).