• Fri, Feb 11 2011

How To Make Small Talk And Not Be Socially Inept At Parties Where You Know No One

One of our commenters suggested a post on “How to Make Small Talk And Not Be Socially Inept At Parties Where You Know No One.” Hey, commenter Sheena, thanks for letting me steal your idea which I did not ask you permission for. This is a important topic we should broach, despite the fact that we’re all cripplingly socially awkward and no one appreciates our magnificently rectangular heads.

What do you do when you’re at a party and you don’t know anyone? First of all, your behavior is going to have to fall into two types – the behavior you exhibit at parties where you’ll see the people again, and those where you’ll never see them again.

The Kind When Maybe You’ll See These People Again

It’s a work event, or a social circle with people you might interact with again professionally, or you’re just new in town and looking to make friends.

1) Smile. You need to look happy to be there even if you’re terrified. Resist the temptation to just pull out your phone and start clicking on anything. Try to make eye contact with someone else standing by themselves. If they make eye contact, you can walk over and strike up a conversation with them.

2) Compliment everyone on everything. I learned this from my mother who is constantly complimenting tax drivers on their haircuts and waiters on their strength and dexterity. When I was 14 and angry I thought this was ridiculous, then I grew up and realized that my mother is universally beloved because she’s pretty much the nicest person to hang out with, ever. So, compliment them on anything. Do it as soon as you see them, then follow up with a question. Repeat after me, “wow, I love that scarf/hat/necklace of severed heads – it looks so great on you! Where did you find it?” I’d tell you how to compliment someone on their strength and dexterity, but I really think that takes skills.

2) Compare people to someone famous. Men do this to women all the time. You can probably remember the last time someone told you you looked like Audrey Hepburn/Anne Hathaway/whatever celebrity people compare you to – but it’s way less expected coming from a woman. I actually kind of like to twist this around a little and make it someone famous from literature. I’ve used the line “You know, it’s so funny. You look exactly the way I’ve always imagined Jay Gatsby would look. Sorry, that’s so silly!” countless times, and it always goes over really well (50% of the time men reply ”that’s great!” which, well, that’s good, they made it through 7th grade). It has to be a book that people have read, and it has to be a flattering comparison. For me, it helps that it’s always sort of true (because in my head Jay Gatsby is a tallish, blond blur). They’ll often say something like “I really like that book” and then you can talk about it. Unless they don’t read. Then you’re screwed! Just walk away. If that seems too scary, just go the movie start route – though maybe try to switch up with an older, less obvious movie star?

3) Have one hilarious story.  By which I mean a story that reliably gets laughs from other people, not just something that is funny in your esoteric-head universe. It helps if the story doesn’t make you look insane. Or makes you look insane in a fun way. I know this seems sort of overly prepared, but it’s nice when there’s a lull in the conversation with someone totally new to be able to say “Gosh, I know just how you feel, this nutty thing happened to me the other day…” (Iincidentally, I find that trying to sound normal makes me sound as though I’m in a high school drama troupe’s improvisational riff on Mad Men. You?)

4) Integrate yourself into any groups that are dancing. Yes, even if you hate to dance. It’s really easy to move over to the dancing cluster in the party, exclaim “God, I’m so glad someone is dancing here!” and then shift awkwardly back and forth without ever moving your feet. They’ll think you’re one of them. Eventually they’ll stop dancing and you can discuss the party dynamics comfortably with whoever you were foot shifting next to.

5) Say nice things about any mutual acquaintances. If you know anyone who someone else knows, mention something positive about that person. “They did a great job on such and such project” or ”they have a terrific sense of humor” or “they’ve really tackled their leprosy problem” etc. I think often people feel like we can bond by complaining about other people. This doesn’t really work, because, if you look back on it, when people immediately start complaining about someone else, you mostly think the person doing the complaining is someone who would complain about you. Saying nice things about people who are out of earshot makes you seem like someone who likes people. Don’t force yourself to compliment your worst enemy, but if you’ve got something nice to say, lead with that.

The Kind Where You Will Never See These People Again

Oh, God, you’re so lucky. This is the free-est you will ever get to be around people. You owe it to yourself to break out some weird personality tics. What’s more, you owe it to those assembled so you can forever live on in their minds as a legend. Here are some ways to break the ice.

1) I’m not saying I do this at every party, but there’s a little game you can play called “can you deduce I’m in the witness protection program?” You star by cornering someone, making normal small talk “Hey, how’re you? This is a nice party, huh? How do you know the host?” And then when he’s talking about what part of town he’d like to live in or something dumb like that stare at him solemnly and say “have you ever heard of this group called… The Mafia?” When he replies (he’ll say “yes”) say “that’s a nice part of town. I’d like to live there, too.” Later you’re going to want to drop a lot of hints about how you can never return to San Francisco. If at any point the person you’re talking to seriously inquires about your status in the witness protection program you get five million invisible gold bullion and a high five from God. And then you have to stare into their eyes and say, “I’ll wait for you. I hope you know it. I’ll be at the harbor at midnight.” And then just run. Who am I kidding? I play this game at literally every party, especially with people I know well.

2) A variation on “can you deduce I’m in the witness protection program?” is “can you deduce I once killed a man/am a famous madam/am a cannibal.” Cannibal is fun, though, frankly, you’ll usually be mistaken for a Tom Haris fan.

3) This is a time when you can ask people the questions you really want to know the answers to. Like, does anyone wear underwear under tights? Or, everyone picks their nose sometimes, right? How often? How often do you do it? It’s like noses were just made for picking!

4) Just slam other people withyour interests. Start the conversation with the whole “polite compliment” thing and then be like, “you know what I like to think about? Fatal Familial Insomnia. Let’s talk about that. I will begin.” Then begin. You’d be suprised at the number of people that don’t run away (fair warning: you risk actually making friends if your weird interests align).

5) Halfway through the party – when you have been in plain view of everyone for the duration of the evening – drop your bag to the floor and scream “I’VE JUST BEEN MUGGED.” See how people respond. Write down their reactions and send them to me, I’m legitimately curious about this. I bet some people will try to help you identify the “mugger!” Compliment them on that!

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  • Ben Schwartz

    Fatal Familial Insomnia is one of my top three favorite prion diseases.

  • MelbaToast

    There are people who don’t wear underwear under their tights? Eww.

  • AppleJuice

    I don’t wear underwear under my tights. They’re tights (pantyhose); the underwear is built in.

  • Pandagurl

    Is it only me or is it more likely to make friends when you always go with variant 2, even though the party’s full of people you’ll maybe see again? it sounds more fun, that’s for sure.

  • D

    i’m going to use section II, suggestion 4 A LOT.

  • HB

    Tried that (Sect. I, option 2, the second) once at a cocktail party for my dad’s geezer friends. Apparently “Gandalf the Retired” isn’t funny to people who have not had 3 glasses of sauvignon blanc.

  • colette

    One time I convinced this guy at a party that I was his own long lost sister; I’d overheard him telling some guys that his dad had been “such a badass” and slept with pracically every girl in his hometown before totally bailing and moving out of state. It was too easy.

  • ellie

    I DEFINITELY wear underwear under tights. Tights are a comparatively loose weave! ew to not doing it!

  • ivy

    I wear underwear under tights. :-)

  • HB

    I have seen it six times…. now…