I spent my first college dorm kegger at WWU standing in a corner watching a gaggle of students talking, laughing and having fun. Too shy to talk unless spoken to, I was petrified. I lived off campus with only a rabbit for company, and was too terrified in those days to even answer the phone without choking.
I was sure that everyone else in the world but me knew how to have a good time at a party, and that I must be certainly too fat, stupid and unattractive to fit in. Alas, I was none of those things. I simply hadn’t learned the skills to work a party. Now, 30 years later, I still have my moments of shyness, but rarely. And most people who know me cannot believe I was ever anything but gregarious.
It didn’t happen overnight, for sure. I suffered through interminable parties and dinners, made myself attend toastmasters clubs, and practiced. Most importantly, I observed what successful people do when they socialize. It’s a skill most of us are not born with, and often our parents are too busy telling us to not bother people.
This last spring, when my husband embarked on a political campaign, we found ourselves at parties, fundraisers and dinners nearly every night. (All that time away from the teenager finally took its toll and we finally withdrew from campaigning). But along the way, I realized that I was no longer dreading social occasions, and actually stopped worrying about myself and began to enjoy talking to people and getting to know them. The key is to remember that everyone is insecure, and that by being genuinely interested in them is the best way to have fun, learn something and make friends along the way.
First thing to do to avoid feeling completely out of place is make sure you wear appropriate clothing to the event. Then you don’t have to spend the whole time worrying about your appearance. Second, make friendly eye contact with the person at hand and make them the center of your conversation — no looking around for a better prospect while talking or listening. Third, invite other people into your conversation — the more the merrier, and introduce people to each other. Then, excuse yourself when it’s time for mingling with others.
Here is how I learned to work the crowd. There are subjects nearly everyone loves to talk about. Unless you’re attending a political fundraiser, stay out of politics. Ditto with religion. Finding yourself on the opposite side of someone’s beliefs is a sure conversation killer. Instead, keep the acronym C.R.O.W.D. in your head and pick a subject everyone will enjoy.
C is for Children and Pets: A sure-fire conversation starter. Everyone has one or the other and loves to talk about them. Do you have kids? How old is your child? What’s their hobby? Where do they go to school? What kind of dog do you have? Does your kitty hunt mice?
R is for Reading and Movies: “You know, I just read the________, and it was so interesting!” That sentence can go lots of directions. Same thing with the last movie you saw. “Did you see the last Harry Potter movie? Do you read the books? What are you reading now? Did you know that _______ just came out with another book?”
O is for Occupation: Yours and theirs. It’s not enough to ask just what they do, but ask about it. Don’t pretend you know what it means. “So what do you do during the day? What kind of education did you have to get to do that? It sounds fascinating. Do you enjoy the work?” Even what seems like the most boring job on the outset can become interesting if you ask the right questions. Try to avoid “How much do you make?” unless they offer. Who knows? You might find a new career.
W is for Weather and Wearables: These are two big ones. Everyone talks about the weather constantly. It’s an easy topic and one experience we all share daily. Take it a step further. Instead of “Wow, it’s hot.” How about, “It was so hot last night I couldn’t sleep. How did you do?” That opens up a whole new direction. Wearables refers to clothing and fashion. You can start simple by admiring someone’s necklace, or telling them that color looks great. (Do not lie. Look for something you genuinely like.) If you have a passion for fashion, look for a well-dressed person and start a conversation.
D is for Dining: “Isn’t the food great?” “Have you ever made one of these?” “This chicken is made of rubber, I swear, all banquet food is the same.” “I see you’re a vegetarian. How long have you not eaten meat?” “I love this wine. We visited the winery last year.” Food provides an endless source of subjects and can carry you through the longest dinner party.
These tips are not offered to suggest that you be anyone but yourself at public gatherings, but that you have something to nudge your conversation along in that awkward moment everyone has when faced with the art of conversation with someone new.