Why To Avoid Hosting Meetups In Restaurants

Effective social norms: don’t eat out

March 2015

Many communities have their own peculiar social norms. Effective altruism is too young to have them yet–which means we can still spend time optimizing them before they ossify. Here’s an example: I think that for EA events we should strongly prefer not to go out for food or drinks.

Going out to eat is expensive–it adds up incredibly quickly. Even though I rarely do it unless I’d be excluded from a social group otherwise, it’s usually my biggest expense after rent and transit, costing thousands of dollars a year.1 Plus, restaurants are often too loud for good conversation; the food can be unhealthy; they subsidize factory farming (even if you eat vegetarian);2 and they makes things difficult for parents–not to mention people with dietary restrictions or eating disorders.

I wouldn’t mind the cost as much if I were spending my entire salary on myself; I like restaurant food a lot better than what I make for myself, so it’s a reasonably good hedonic investment. But given that I’m trying to save most of my income to give away, it’s annoying to be essentially forced to spend a lot of it or miss out on socialization. This is even more of a problem for people whose low spending isn’t self-imposed, like students or those with low-paying jobs or high debt.

To install an alternate tradition, we’d need to replicate most or all of the upsides of eating out. Even though eating out costs a lot of money, it’s still a very strong tradition, which suggests that it has a lot of upsides to replace. And I think this is true:

\ It comes with access to neutral, centrally-located space

\ It gives you something distracting to do if you don’t like conversation

\ It evenly distributes the costs of arranging for food and space

\ It provides a natural schedule and defined ending-point for the event

\ It incentivizes people to come

I haven’t come up with anything that perfectly replicates those advantages without the cost. (Especially in colder climates where you can’t go outdoors, it’s particularly hard to get neutral, central space without paying anything.) But here are some partial solutions:

\ Have your event outdoors. If it’s too cold for that and you have a local college EA group, they may be able to provide space at the college.

\ Make the event a potluck but make it clear that people don’t have to bring anything. As long as one person (hopefully not the host, to spread out the burden) commits to making a main dish, you’ll probably have enough food.

\ Hold the event outside of standard meal times, and have one person (again, preferably not the host) bring snack food to fulfill the distraction function.

\ Find a recipe that scales well and have everyone help prepare it.

\ Instead of having food, take a walk or a short hike.

\ If none of the above works, a cafe will at least cost less than a restaurant.

Hopefully these are enough to get your EA event most of the benefits of eating out, without incurring its worst downsides. But if anyone else has suggestions or alternatives, I’d love to hear them!

\ I know some people feel that the time cost of preparing their own food is larger than the dollar cost of eating out. I’m fine with that, of course; but eating out as a group forces everyone to make that trade, including folks who can prepare food quickly enough that it’s not worth it for them. ↩

\ Vegetarian meals subsidize meat because they’re sold at a higher margin than meat meals at restaurants that serve both (anecdotal evidence; can’t find a citation either way). ↩

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