Reflecting on “Generous Authority” (Priya Parker) in Hospitality & Teaching & My Wedding!

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes, 16 seconds

The notion of Intentionally Equitable Hospitality is one that looks at teaching and other “gatherings” as ones where someone is host, and that person needs to acknowledge the power and responsibility they have as hosts to make the space equitable and welcoming to others. I so often use the metaphor of the table to show how so many attempts at inclusions can fail. Right now, I’m reading Priya Parker’s book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters (recommended to me by my good friend Mia Zamora (as we work on extending the notion of Intentionally Equitable Hospitality) – for a sneak peek into what it’s about, there is also a podcast episode On Being with Priya).

The book is really great because it makes you question so many of the traditional things we do as we organize and host gatherings, and it also made me reflect on some of the things I’ve done in the past, and the ways in which other people can interfere to make you fall back on things you don’t agree with… about actual parties I host, about workshops and events and online events I organize and attend.

Today, I want to reflect on the notion of “Generous Authority” because I think it’s something we do and have done in Virtually Connecting as an act of Intentionally Equitable Hospitality. Parker writes about how, leaving the guests to do whatever does not mean there is no power in the room: other guests will step in to force their own agendas; I’ve always thought it was important to question what it means when teachers “give up their authority” in the classroom – because it just means that we leave the power dynamics among students there, with no teacher to balance those out. Of course I want to give students more ownership and agency for their learning and to step back myself, but I recognize this is not a simple thing and that power dynamics are complex. Just because the host/teacher exercises less power, does not mean the space automatically becomes equitable. In Virtually Connecting sessions, sometimes we interrupt or limit the space for a powerful person to make sure a less powerful person gets to express themselves, for example… in Liberating Structures gatherings, most activities are timed in such a way to make sure each person gets to speak and no one hogs the conversation. These things matter. I know, for sure, when I give workshops to faculty locally, there are sometimes people in the room with more power because they are in an admin position, or they are older, or just, you know, males being males :)) and if I’m facilitating very loosely and letting whoever say whatever whenever for however long, then these people *will* dominate, and that is not generous to other people in the room. So Priya Parker’s notion of “generous authority” is authority that is exercised “selflessly”, not for the benefit of the host, but for the benefit of the guests. Another things she write about is that you can’t just exercise this authority at the beginning of the gathering and in its design, but also throughout the gathering to reinforce it, and to make sure not to let someone “hijack” the gathering for their own agenda and harm others. One part I don’t like about what she says is that she says that hosting is “not democratic”. I always talk about Intentionally Equitable Hospitality as involving the host recognizing their authority/power in designing a space, and then deciding whom to include in the design of the space and how much room to give participants to co-design the space. I guess this is a kind of using authority to democratize or something?

In any case, for teaching, I am wondering if there are certain things I am doing wrong that go against “generous authority”. For example, I don’t generally make a big deal of students coming late to class, because I personally don’t mind too much and I assume there is usually a good reason like traffic, parking, etc. But this semester I started realizing that some students were consistently coming on time (and I always start on time for those who come on time) and some consistently coming late (more than usual since I’ve started teaching) – and I realized their coming late was an interruption and was not fair to the others. We had a conversation about what’s making them late and came up with solutions (e.g. places to park that are less crowded, setting alarms differently, etc.). But next semester I think I’ll have that discussion earlier in the semester, especially as it is an 8:30am class and my beginning activities are the key “community-building” warm-ups. I used to think it was OK if late students missed these, but I now feel like it messes with the class dynamic a bit.

One of the other things Priya Parker talks about in her book is the importance of whom we invite, both the number of people and the combinations of people, and how exclusion can be essential and helpful to the purpose of a gathering. I think I’ve almost always wanted to “not say no” to anyone who wanted to be in something I’m doing, but sometimes it’s important. For example, this semester, we had a “Faculty Wellness Wednesdays” and we intentionally made the invitation just to faculty, not students or staff, so that faculty could feel comfortable speaking about certain things they would not say in front of students. A small group of my colleagues at work and I sometimes meet for breakfast just outside campus. There are just 5 of us, and even though each of us is close to other people, if we invited one or two additional people because it was one of our birthdays, it would mess with the dynamic. It would be a different type of gathering.

Anyway, one of the other things in the book that struck me is that she talks about Nora Abousteit as an expert host. And this person is someone I know vaguely… she graduated from AUC a year or so before me, and I think she said the graduation speech? I think she is also a trustee of AUC now… and interestingly, Priya Parker talks about how Nora organized her wedding… which reminded me of my wedding!! Also reminded me of my prom!

But first, my wedding. I did many things in my wedding that I think of now as “generous authority”. When we think about what a wedding is, who it is for, what its purpose is, I think a lot of times we think about what the bride (rarely the groom) wants and enjoys, and she does everything however she likes and others get to experience that. For some reason, that was not how I thought of my wedding. I love weddings, generally. I love dancing and music and people. But I also had lots of things I did not like about Egyptian weddings, and I felt like weddings should also be a place for people to meet new people (groom and bride’s families and friends intermingling), when the way we usually organized them did not support this (groom’s people on one side, bride’s people on another side). And so much else! So here are some of the things I did differently, both to make the wedding reflect my own values, and to make it (hopefully) better for my guests.

First of all, I remember asking some of my close friends to help out with an important welcoming role: they helped with seating (and the seating was such that young people from my side and my husband’s side would sit in the same area to increase chances of meeting each other – though I did not have the guts to seat strangers on the same table – that would have been too much here). I also am REALLY not a fan of the bride throwing her bouquet and single girls scrambling to catch it (ew) – so I put individually wrapped flowers at the door, and had some of my close friends make sure every woman (married or not) who walked in got one on her way in. Btw, I had no bridesmaids. Egyptian bridesmaids don’t have a “function” other than to dress the same or similarly and participate in the “zaffa” (see later), but as you get older, it becomes complicated and I never liked the idea of “dressing people” all the same color or look – it doesn’t seem like something my friends would enjoy?

Second, many couples here at the time used to put like an “autograph” book at the entrance, or something like a large photo of the bride and groom with space around it for people to sign it. Instead of doing that, we put photos of ourselves in our engagement and “katb ketab” party (this is like the church part of the wedding, takes places at a mosque usually, and we did it 3 months earlier, though you could do it the same day) taken with our friends and family. This meant that people could sign next to their own photo – it made it I think more fun and more about “all of us” rather than just my husband and me – our friends could search for their own photos, and look at the other photos and it would not just be a routine act of signing, you know?

Third, Egyptian wedding ceremonies have a “zaffa”, a really noisy part with music, similar to “walking down the isle” in Western weddings, but it is much longer and very noisy, and has a part where the bride’s father (or father figure) hands her over to the groom, often involves some stairs, and lots of walking, like all along the wedding venue OUTSIDE the place where the guests were sitting… so guests would have to get up and walk behind the bride and groom until they came back into the room/ballroom. Now, most Egyptian weddings, when the bride and groom arrive to the ballroom, they don’t enter. They wait outside while everyone else goes inside, then they make a grand entrance. But I wanted my grandmothers, both elderly and unable to “walk outside” with everyone in the zaffa, to be part of the “zaffa” anyway, so when we arrived at the ballroom, we brough the zaffa inside with us and finished it inside the ceremony.

Fourth, most Egyptian weddings at the time had lots of dancing and loud music. I was always annoyed by how loud the music was, even though I actually loved dancing. But I knew older people did not enjoy this loud noise, and it was really difficult to talk. Also, by the time I got married at around age 26, I had decided I would not include this kind of loud dancing in my wedding for religious reasons. I’d seen some couples do this, but their weddings were boooooring and the DJs often defied them and played dance music and then conflict ensued because guests started dancing and the couple did not want that. So I did something different. We had a couple of slow dances and invited married couples to join for those. I was OK with that. And then my husband and I walked from table to table to say hello to everyone. And invite people to say or do something with the mic while we walked. Now, usually, in Egypt, the bride and groom sit on something like a “throne” and the guests come and say hi. But I was like, I will walk around and say hello to everyone, take photos, stay longer where I want to, etc., and also I told my friends and my husband’s friends ahead of time that we’d pass around with the mic in case they wanted to say something. Some friends spoke, some sang, my mom’s friends invited my husband and I to sing and it was fun and funny. The only thing where I went wrong with this is that I didn’t realize how shy my husband’s “doctor” friends would be and my husband’s more “traditional” family would be… so it was mostly my friends, and friends of my husband’s who knew me well, who participated. The main thing is, the music was calming, and people who were not with us in each moment were able to talk, and there was still something going on all the time if people wanted to watch. So many people thanked me for the not-loud music and that they were able to socialize.

Fifth, Egyptian weddings are notoriously not-on-time. Actually, nothing in Egypt is ever “on time”, but weddings are the worst. No matter what you do, it’s not gonna be on time. But we did a few things differently here, too. First of all, I invited my close friends and cousins (and I have lots of sets of very close friends) to come spend the day with me as I got ready for the wedding (the wedding started maybe at 8pm or something, I had friends and cousins with me from noon). That guaranteed that a good number of people were there on time by default. Sometimes weddings started late because “so many guests had not arrived”. I also know people get hungry at weddings, so I made sure there were light snacks (mostly nuts) on the tables from the moment guests arrived. More about food next…

Last thing I’ll talk about is food. I had noticed that, for some reason, when you had smoked salmon in the buffet of the wedding, it was demolished really early and people who get up later miss it altogether. So I just did something different. I had a “seated appetizer” of smoked salmon for guests to get their portion at their seat, followed by the buffet where people get up and mingle (I like the buffet mingling part of weddings, so I kept that). Also, for our own dinner, people usually have the bride and groom sit alone and eat and others watch them… and I was like, why would I do that? We had a bigger table with my parents, my husband’s mom and his sister with us. And then I always worried about food waste at weddings, and I had a couple of my friends who worked a lot with NGOs take the leftover food that was safe to give away, and they donated it on our behalf.

I’m going to stop now – because I’m realizing this is a procrastination post (reading a book that isn’t urgent, writing a reflection that is neither urgent nor THAT relevant, instead of grading!)

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