From the moment guests walk into Bollywood, a restaurant in midtown Manhattan, they know something is different. Two dark-suited hosts push their forefingers to their lips, commanding silence. Couples scribble furiously on notecards instead of sampling from the menu. The oft-inaudible sounds of a Saturday night - ice cubes clinking, throats clearing, chairs scraping as people sit and stand - become almost intrusive in a room as hushed as a monastery.
"Have you been to a 'quiet party' before?" whispers one of the dark suits, helping the inexperienced to tables where paper and pen have replaced linen and silverware. Before long, the seats are full and the pens are flying as partygoers use the written word - and a little body language - to communicate with tablemates.
In an age of mosh pits and the incessant ring of cellphones, the quiet party has risen as a welcome, if offbeat, choice for those seeking a more subdued night on the town. In recent months, the idea of a discussion by mime in a restaurant, bar, or cafe has found followings from New York to Berlin to Beijing, and more are in the works in cities large and small.
Yet many are participating in the phenomenon for reasons beyond escaping noise pollution. Some enjoy the emphasis on content over small talk; others find they are less shy when armed with writerly devices; and still more are drawn to the sheer quirkiness of it all.
"New York City is noisy: garbage trucks, construction, bus brakes squealing," Tony Noe, a lifelong New Yorker, says when explaining why he and fellow artist Paul Rebhan organized the first party in Manhattan in late 2002. "There are people who show up just because it's a place to go without being bombarded by loud music and talking."
But he also sees people being drawn to events like this because much of today's communication, even in this MTV age, is written - albeit not in the form of discursive letters of decades past. "This is an e-mail generation, and a lot of people communicate by typing," he says. "That has something to do with its appeal. It's almost like e-mailing someone sitting right in front of you and seeing their reaction."
Alex Halavais, a professor of communication at the University at Buffalo in New York, couldn't agree more. "People are more comfortable with writing," he says. "Plus, there's something that is aesthetically pleasing or even sensual about writing on paper with pen. It's certainly an escape of the speed of things."
People worry, he adds, that instant messaging and e-mailing will eliminate students' abilities to write - or that they ultimately will create a barrier in communication. "But we're seeing the opposite," he says. "People are experimenting with ways to express themselves through text. I don't see quiet parties as a huge movement, but I do see them as symptomatic of this kind of experimentation."
Several guests at Bollywood even sketch out instant-messaging "emoticons" - the code of punctuation marks that reflects facial expressions. Mr. Rebhan and Mr. Noe, who sell quiet-party kits to aspiring hosts worldwide, were cleaning up paper after one of their parties when they retrieved a piece that read, "Talking is so early '90s."
But, while some people may be more comfortable with writing, doing so by hand is largely considered a primitive thing of the past, harking back to the giggling, note-passing days of junior high. One of Rebhan and Noe's favorite stray cards reads: "Best time I've had since passing notes in school." In fact, some guests don't write at all, communicating instead through sketches. At one party, an artist brought his own watercolors.
The scene can seem so bizarre to the uninitiated that guests often break the silence with gasps and giggles. One woman, perched near the entrance to Bollywood, receives a lot of attention for the belly-dancer coins that jingle around her waist as she walks from one end to the other delivering her notes. A dancer in New York, she admits to finding the crowd a bit geeky and the concept a little odd, but nevertheless writes in large, swirly letters to as many guests as she can.
Rebhan notes a visual awareness among quiet partiers, including close attention to body language - something people don't necessarily rely on as heavily when words fill the air. "We threw a quiet party in London, in conjunction with a TV show there, and we were on satellite from New York," he says. "A relationship expert was pointing out that the people who did well were still using body language - a raised eyebrow, eye movement, facial expressions."
But what exactly does "doing well" entail? Evan, an economics teacher from New Rochelle, N.Y., is a veteran quiet partier. The gathering at Bollywood is his fifth such occasion, and he has watched the phenomenon morph into a dating scene. Sitting in his own corner of the restaurant, juggling notes with at least five guests at any one time, he scribbles out his own interpretation of the phenomenon in neat, black ink, throwing glances at the women who walk by to drop off prose.
"By the end of the night, people just start throwing business cards at each other," writes Evan, who didn't want his last name used. He admits to having done the same - he has a stash of cards at his disposal tonight - but hopes its new nickname, "silent dating," doesn't stick.
Davinder Saroya, for one, doubts it will. Wiping down the counter as the evening comes to a close, the bartender at Bollywood has nothing but compliments for Noe and Rebhan, as well as for the company the event draws. "I love it," he whispers enthusiastically, gesturing to the tables. "It's a very nice break from all the noise, and the people are so polite."