Relationship Tips

What It Means To Be a Natural ‘Middler’—AKA the Most Important Role at Group Dinners

Erica Sloan

Getty Images/skynesher
The phrase “center of attention” creates a clear visual for a reason: The center of any space or group of people is, indeed, where our attention naturally gravitates. So, if you wind up in the middle of a dinner table, the way you manage that attention has the power to set the conversational tone for everyone present, making the meal either a fun and engaging success or a cringe-worthy snooze. This "middler" role at dinner was the focus of a recent episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm during which Larry David said it requires acting as the table's point guard—that is, taking charge of passing the conversational ball.

A successful turn at the middler role at dinner is crucially not the same thing as hogging the spotlight. While the latter is equivalent to dominating a conversation (which can translate to being arrogant or even narcissistic), the former is more akin to directing it: Sure, you may find yourself talking more often than not, but ideally in a way that guides the flow of the discussion, instead of excluding other voices. “The whole thing is about being able to naturally bring people together over a shared topic,” says psychologist Thea Gallagher, PsyD.

"[Being a middler] is about being able to naturally bring people together over a shared topic." —psychologist Thea Gallagher, PsyD

But a middler at the dinner table isn’t a presenter at a conference, either. In order to avoid falling into the monologue trap, it’s essential to create space for natural back-and-forth conversation—which, according to Dr. Gallagher, is challenging to do with more than three people at once. “Especially when you’re seated at a table, it’s best to focus on dyads and triads of conversation—aka two and three people—at any given time, and move between those chats,” she says. In other words, a handful of smaller convos in succession is always a better bet than managing one big conversation, if you're aiming to engage everyone.

To that end, the middler role involves both handling some of that natural attention, and also finding, yep, a middle ground between conversational give and take. Because all eyes tend to fall to the center when dinner-table conversation lulls or goes off the rails, a middler may also need to step up and mediate in those scenarios, says etiquette expert Lisa Mirza Grotts.

With that in mind, do you think you have what it takes to tackle the middler role at dinner? Below, learn the key traits of someone who can thrive in this position, no matter the cast of characters that might be present at the table.

5 signs you excel in the middler role at a group dinner:

1. You draw energy from corralling others

If you’re someone who’s actively energized by spending time in a social setting (aka a textbook extrovert), you’re likely to have at least a baseline interest in playing the middler role—which could seem draining or just plain uninteresting to someone who falls more squarely in the introvert camp, says Dr. Gallagher.

The two main caveats here are extroverts who are also shy or socially anxious, both of which are qualities that can coexist in someone who enjoys socializing but may also make that person wary of a center-of-attention role. “People with social anxiety tend to overanalyze, as in ‘Are people liking what I’m saying?’, ‘Is this good enough’, ‘What is everyone thinking of me?’” says Dr. Gallagher. And these types of insecurities can lead to negative projections, too. “They might look out at a group of people at the table and see negative faces, whereas someone without anxiety would see neutral or positive ones. And that tendency can make taking on a middler role simply feel like too much pressure,” she says.

2. You’re okay with short silences

In any free-flowing conversation, there are bound to be some moments of silence that Dr. Gallagher calls "companionable silences," which could either give way to a new topic, or allow a new person to pipe up. If you despise these moments—or tend to internalize the pressure of filling them—you might not gel with a middler role. That’s because a successful middler is able to sit with a bit of silence without attempting to fill up all the extra airspace with their own words. “This kind of over-verbalization may be another signal of social anxiety that could lead a person not to vibe with this middler role,” says Dr. Gallagher.

3. You enjoy asking questions

A good middler can draw people into the conversation by asking them questions and deflecting the attention accordingly, says Grotts. “Maybe you have the chance to chat with a friend whom you never get to see, or maybe you connect with someone new over a commonality,” she says. Either way, you’ll need to have as much interest in hearing what someone else has to say as you do in sharing your own thoughts in order to really thrive as a middler.

4. You can steer the conversational flow toward light and relatable topics

Admittedly, this one will depend, in part, on the crowd at hand; if you know it’s a crew composed of people who really love a deep-dive, then, by all means, a middler can take the discussion to those depths. But in the great majority of cases, good dinner-party conversation is more about banter than big intellectual sermons—and a middler will have no issue placing (and keeping) a conversation in that territory. “Good topics include mutual friends or hobbies, restaurant openings, or the latest on Netflix,” says Grotts. “Anything super-personal, gossip, politics, and religion are best left off the table.”

5. You can segue easily between different conversations

As noted above, it’s tough to talk to more than two other people at once in a conversation that’s engaging for all. So, in order to be an effective middler who draws everyone into the chat, it’s helpful to be able to switch gears, perhaps chatting with a few folks on your right side, and then switching to those across from you or on your left.

“The key is in remaining invested in the conversation you’re having while also being able to notice if a third person might be in an awkward spot or a lull, and you might be able to bring them in,” says Dr. Gallagher. In that way, you’re also transitioning some of your attention elsewhere, whenever it feels right. That, in turn, tends to free up the person or people with whom you’ve been chatting—and who might’ve been looking to wrap up their conversation with you for now, anyway, especially if it’d been chugging along for a while. (Win, win.)

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