Yesterday I had a very, very, very French dinner in Paris. It lasted about 4 hours. Everyone had fun and there was basically absolutely no business conversation involved. Or there was one that I randomly started myself (I couldn’t help it) but everyone switched very fast to other topics.
We talked about the amazing food our host prepared for us (thanks, Sibylle). We talked even more about food as we had one of the editors of a very popular food mag in France attending the dinner. I learned a lot about sea-food, pastries and cheese.
Oh yes — we talked lots about cheese. There was probably a good forty minutes just talking about how amazing all that cheese was, cheese by cheese. Region by region. Supplier by supplier. We also talked about which friends of friends were so instrumental to get us that “tuerie de Saint Nectaire” on our plates.
We had an American guest and joked most Americans do not know how to cut Roquefort cheese. Don’t ever cut for yourself where there is the most “blue”. Cut from the sides that have less blue and get a little of the very blue and a little of the very white so everyone gets some of the best parts. Update: a quick video for you guys.
And then I started thinking about how different life is in Silicon Valley.
Business vs Pleasure
Most dinners in the Valley are business dinners. Sure, there are many dinners with friends with no specific agenda but they generally happen in restaurants.
Very few people cook for each other. If it’s at home it’s often food delivered from a startup like Caviar or for the wealthier hosts a private chef.
I cannot recall any dinner longer than 90 minutes. People like to go fast. There is often an agenda or a business reason to gather. There is a product launch or it is a venture capitalist gathering investors and potential startups. Or it could be a bank offering a wine tasting with a chef who paired the meals. Everyone knows it is customers of that bank mixed with some sales leads.
I go to many dinners like those and enjoy them, do not get me wrong, but they are different.
There are also Jefferson dinners I had never heard about before moving to the U.S. There is one set topic. Everyone talks about it one after each other. Sometimes there is an expert presenting about that topic. I often saw even Powerpoint slides before the dinner starts.
In France if you’re invited to dinner, it will by default be a “seated” dinner. The French would not even understand why we would say “seated” — it’s obvious. We are going to be seated and enjoy everyone’s presence for a long time. There won’t be any other agenda. There won’t be any topic.
In Silicon Valley if the invite does not say “seated dinner” it will be a buffet.
The food will be on the sides and everyone can grab what they want and either network standing up or sit down for short periods then move around the room.
Why? Silicon Valley people get bored easily.
They look around and assess who actually came to the dinner. If they do not see enough friends or if they do not see enough people they can do business with they will leave fast. Dinner invites typically say “from 6pm to 9pm” and that means you can arrive anytime in that time frame and leave anytime. No one will be offended if you do. Everyone knows the “rule” and no-one shows before 6 and rarely stays after 9.
You can stay for 10 minutes and no one will pay attention.
When I arrived in Silicon Valley I did not know that. We sent a few invites and there was a total lost in translation moment as we did not indicate “seated” dinner. The first guests were confused they had to seat for two hours. Some people showed up at dessert time thinking it was a buffet. It was a total disaster!
We stayed until 2:30 am yesterday night in Paris, it was that much fun. We moved only once to move from the main table to the living room after dinner for more drinks.
I am not saying the French do it better than Silicon Valley. I like both.
I am between worlds. I like organizing or participating to “French style” dinners in Silicon Valley — but then you have to say it beforehand, so no one is surprised.
I also love 4 hour dinners where people take the time to cook and know each other. They are also generally more diverse. Silicon Valley tends to be all about tech and efficiency. Sometimes we show up at two or three “dinner parties” in one evening. I love that efficiency.
I love both. And there is room for both.
It’s fun sometimes to pause and notice.
While the two cultures might seem very similar, they are actually very much different.