(Doctor’s Note: On occasion, I’ll have an idea for an excellent topic that I am completely unsuited to write about. Fortunately for me, I have some excellent friends who are. This week, we have a guest post from Beth Campbell – event planner, professional social butterfly and secret introvert – to talk about the skill of navigating social events as an introvert without losing your mind.
Beth, the stage is yours.)
Most of my friends probably don’t realize this, but I’m an introvert. I look for excuses not to leave the house, even to go to the grocery store or post office. (And when I do have to go out, I try to go to all the places I need to in one trip, so I don’t need to leave the house multiple times. What? It’s efficient!) Once, when I was working from home, I didn’t leave my apartment for twelve days. My neighbor said she was starting to worry, but she could hear me moving around in there, so she at least knew I hadn’t slipped on the stairs and broken my neck or something.
So, how is it then, that my friends might not realize that I’m introverted? Because I’m really good at negotiating social gatherings. Just because you’re an introvert doesn’t mean that you’re not sociable or good at socializing. And just because you’re an extrovert doesn’t mean that you automatically are.
NB: In order to use these navigation techniques, you do need to have some good-to-advanced social skills and a strong sense of social calibration. This isn’t a beginner’s guide. You need to feel comfortable and at ease talking to strangers, know how to make conversation or small talk, and how to read social cues as to when it’s appropriate to enter or leave a conversation. You will need to be able to think on your feet. If this isn’t you, then please feel free to read on, but know that you’ve got to develop those foundational skills before you will be able to use these techniques.
Social events tend to break down along an x/y axis of sorts: large/small, and knowing everyone/knowing no-one. (Note: I’m not discussing professional gatherings in this article, just social gatherings. How to negotiate a professional gathering is dependent upon the type of profession you are in.) Let’s look at four types of gatherings, starting with the one that seems the most intimidating to navigate:
The Huge Gathering Where You Know Almost Nobody
This is a type of gathering that can be intimidating not only for introverts, but for extroverts as well. It includes things like weddings, birthday parties, and 4th of July barbecues. You might know a handful of people aside from the host/hostess, or you might only know the person who invited you.
How to Navigate This Party:
If it’s an informal social gathering, like a birthday party or barbecue, the first thing you will want to do when you arrive is find the person who invited you and make contact. You might want to ask if there’s anything you can do to help out. That might give them a reason to introduce you to someone else. For example, “Why don’t you help Bob here set out some more chips? Bob, this is Alice. Can you show her where the chips are?” Then, when you’re doing the helpful task, you can chat with that new person you just met. This is a good tactic on two levels: one, it accomplishes one of your main goals at this party, which is to meet the other guests, and two, it allows you to do something helpful (or at least make the offer to) for the person who invited you.
If the host is already talking to someone else, go up and stand to the side until you see a good opening in the conversation to say, “Hi, how are you? Thanks for inviting me!” Chances are, at that point, they’ll introduce you to the other person they’ve been talking to. Boom, you’ve accomplished that goal. (And you can still ask if there’s anything you can do to help out. Never underestimate the power of helping out, or even just making the offer.)
Once you’ve introduced yourself (or have been introduced) to a couple of people, start a conversation with them. (This is where the social skills come in; I’m not going to give you topics of conversation, you need to judge the individual situation and make the appropriate conversation. It might be small talk, it might get slightly more in-depth. It depends on how well you’re hitting it off with the people you’ve just met.) If the conversation seems to fade out, then just excuse yourself and head over to the food table, or another group of people to introduce yourself and start another conversation.
You don’t need to talk to every single person at the gathering. But you do need to make an effort to talk to as many people as possible. If you’re walking through the party, and you hear people having a conversation that piques your interest, and you would like to participate in, then find a good opening and join in. Sometimes, you’ll get into a groove, and it will go on for a while. But you don’t necessarily want to talk to the same two or three people all afternoon or evening. When you feel like you’ve been with them for a while, excuse yourself from the conversation and move on to another person or group. You can always come back around later.
If you see someone all by themselves, that’s another great opportunity to go up and introduce yourself. They might not know anyone there, either. If they don’t, then you can chat with them for a bit, and then take them over and introduce them to others at the party, even if those others are people that you yourself have only just met.
At a formal event, like a wedding, you are relieved of the obligation to immediately talk to anyone. You may simply take your seat for the ceremony. The invitation may have included a guest for you to bring, in which case you at least have that person. But if it was a solo invitation, then you may not know anyone else there.
During the reception, use the above tips for mingling during cocktail hour. During dinner, it may be open seating at the tables, or there may be assigned seating. If seating has been assigned, then please know that the bride and groom probably spent weeks tearing their hair out trying to figure out who to put together at each table. Their goal is to seat people together who will get along really well. I’ve actually had a great time in these situations. If it’s open seating, then you’re going to have to roll the dice.
Making Your Exit
Let’s start with the wedding: Be sure to greet the bride and groom and tell them “congratulations” and “best wishes.” They may make the rounds at some point, or you may need to take an opportune moment. Weddings are busy affairs where the bride and groom are simultaneously the center of attention, and completely unavailable for extended conversation. You are not expected to converse with them at length. In fact, it’s best not to. They will be trying to have a moment with as many people as possible, and they need to keep moving. If you don’t plan on staying until they close the place down, you can make your exit any time after dinner is served, but I recommend sticking around for the cake cutting. It’s the last of the ceremonial parts of the celebration, and after that it’s dancing and free-form socializing. If you’re not up for that, or you’ve got a long drive home, or whatever, then it’s perfectly acceptable to leave after the cake. Be sure to say “goodbye” to any new friends you’ve made that day who are in your immediate vicinity, and if you can manage it, a quick “goodbye” to the bride and groom.
At any other large party, when it’s time for you to go, be sure you make your farewells to your host/hostess, at the very least. It can take forever to say “goodbye” to individual people, especially if you need to break into a conversation they’re having in order to do it. If there’s anyone you’ve met with whom you particularly connected that evening, and you want to keep in touch with them, be sure to get their contact info (Facebook, Twitter, whatever) before you go. It’s a good idea to say “goodbye” to these people individually, if you want to form a friendship with them.
The Small Gathering Where You Know Almost Nobody
This is a situation you might find yourself in if you’ve recently moved to a new place, started a new job, or made some inroads into a new social circle. It could be a dinner or cocktail party at someone’s house, a boardgame night, or a meet-up at a bar or restaurant, where there could be 6-12 people or so. Chances are you know only the person who invited you, or maybe one or two more people.
How to Navigate This Party
The rules for navigating this party are similar to the ones for the larger party, but on a much smaller scale. This can actually be a more challenging social situation to read and respond to than a large gathering; in a larger party, you have the opportunity to blend into the crowd when you need a break. In a smaller gathering, you will want to converse with everyone, if at all possible. You might not be able to have the same length of conversation with everyone, but because of the small nature of the gathering, it’s expected that everyone will interact with everyone else at some point.
In this scenario, believe it or not, you might actually spend a bit less time making conversation. I know what you’re thinking: “But there aren’t as many people. Shouldn’t I be talking more, in order to keep conversation going?” No. In a smaller setting, if you are a talkative person (like I tend to be; yes, even introverts can be talkative, especially when they feel more comfortable) you risk monopolizing conversation if you don’t keep yourself in check. Be sure that you pay attention to what people are actually saying, rather than thinking about your next response. Participating in conversation doesn’t only mean speaking; it means being an active listener. If you listen and absorb, then you’ll know when to respond, and how.
Follow the flow of conversation, and let it guide you in your next steps. I know that sounds really vague, but that’s one of the reasons that, in my opinion, the smaller gathering presents the highest level of difficulty to navigate well. You must rely on your instinctive social calibration. You can’t simply excuse yourself and move to another group or area of the party if things start to get weird or tense. In the small gathering where you know no one, there’s more pressure on you to put your best face forward.
Making Your Exit
The flow of this party will tell you when it is time to leave. If you have to be up early the next morning, then wait until things are winding down, and take your first available opportunity. This is one of those situations were advanced social calibration is your friend; you can tell when the gathering has reached a point where everyone’s energy is lower than it was a few minutes ago. There may be a lull in conversation, the host/hostess may start clearing a few dishes away, or you might notice others starting to get ready to leave. If the party has reached the point where everyone is leaving, do not linger. Follow their lead, and make your exit. This is one time when following the crowd is exactly what you want to do.
In this situation, you should say your farewells to everyone at the party, and absolutely must say “good night” and “thank you” to your host and/or hostess. It may be as simple as addressing everyone while sitting in the livingroom, or at the dinner table, giving you a chance to say “goodbye” to everyone all at once. You might need to catch people individually, or in pairs.
The Huge Gathering Where You Know Everyone
This is the type of gathering that actually got me thinking about this topic in the first place. Last summer, I was at a big family gathering, and lamenting the fact that even with all the time I’d had there, I still hadn’t had a chance to get to speak to everyone I’d wanted to, and not nearly for long enough. That’s the problem with large family gatherings (well, when you like your family, anyway!).
On the upside, if you’re not too keen on some people in your family, that situation which I find problematic can work to your advantage.
This type of large gathering can be anything from the aforementioned family reunion or holiday gathering, to a large birthday or housewarming party hosted by someone in your extended social circle. The defining characteristic is that it’s large (20 people or more) and you know everyone (or pretty much everyone) there.
How to Navigate This Party
Assuming that you like everyone there, your challenge at this gathering will be to talk to as many people as possible, having a good quality conversation, while not getting so caught up in any one conversation that you miss out on talking to everyone else. This will not always be possible. Sometimes, you just end up in that conversation. Sometimes, you have to tear yourself away from a conversation you’re enjoying, with people you like, because you want to have other conversations with people you also like.
Depending on the number of people you’re having the conversation with, you might end up just excusing yourself from the group (say, if it’s three or more people) and moving on to a conversation with someone else. If it’s just you and one other person, you can bring another friend into the conversation quite easily, or lead the first person into a conversation with another group, merging two smaller conversations into one larger one.
Possible Trip Hazard: That person you don’t get along with.
As much as we all love our families and our social circles, often there is one person (or a couple of people) within the larger group that we just don’t click with, or with whom we’ve had personal clashes. There is a good chance that one of these people might be at the gathering along with everyone else.
Depending on your relationship with that person, and the level of antagonism between you, you have two options: the first option is to avoid them completely. The second option is to be polite, but not engage them in actual conversation. This is where your advanced social calibration comes into play. Only you can make the call as to whether you avoid or be polite.
In a large enough gathering, it can actually be quite easy to avoid the person, but you should not be obvious about your avoidance of them; this runs the risk of making other people at the party uncomfortable, and you do not want to have that effect. If you are having a conversation with a few people, and the person you are hoping to avoid joins the conversation, do not leave immediately. This will cause awkwardness and tension, and you risk looking like you’re being petty or snobbish. Continue in the conversation for a few minutes, and at an opportune time, excuse yourself and move to a new conversation. After all, you want to speak with as many people as you can at this party, and this is a good excuse to start a new conversation with someone you truly want to talk to.
If you end up in close proximity to the person, but not in actual conversation, you have the option to quietly go about your business in the opposite direction (avoidance without calling attention to it) or to engage that person in polite small talk. Say you end up at the food table at the same time; you could say something like, “That [food item] that So-and-So brought is really good, you should try some.” If they respond, chances are it will be polite, something like, “Oh, yeah, I tried it, it was nice.” And then you can both be on your way. If the other person doesn’t respond, then you’ve done your part to not make things weird and awkward, and you can rest secure in that knowledge.
Making Your Exit
This is one of those times when you could spend just as much time saying “goodbye” to everyone at the party, as you did actively socializing while you were there. At my family gatherings, I need to start making my goodbyes about an hour or so before I actually want to leave. This gives me a chance to connect with everyone there, to hug them goodbye, and still leave (reasonably) on time. Chances are I won’t see some of these people again for close to a year, and I want to be sure that I say “goodbye” to each and every one of them. If this is your situation as well, then plan accordingly!
If you’re at a large party where you will likely see everyone else in a shorter amount of time, or if you see them all (or almost all of them) on a regular basis, then it’s perfectly acceptable to make your farewells to a select few (and the host/hostess – always say “thank you” and “goodbye” to the host/hostess!) and be on your way. While making your exit, it’s fine to say, “And tell everyone else I said ‘bye!’” and then Batman out of there. As noted above, if you try to say “goodbye” to everyone individually, it could literally take hours.
The Small Gathering Where You Know Everyone
This one should be the easiest of all the parties to navigate. It could be a game night at a friend’s house, a holiday cocktail or dinner party, an impromptu gathering of friends at the local watering hole. You know everyone there, and this should be a relaxed atmosphere. This small gathering could include around 6-12 people.
How to Navigate This Party
This is when you get to simply be yourself and hang out with your friends. You’ll likely have ample time to talk to everyone, not have to worry about That Person You Don’t Get Along With (because if everyone knows that you don’t get along with them, chances are they won’t invite both of you to the same small gathering, for fear of creating awkwardness and weirdness), and you won’t have to be as “on” as you do in the other party situations.
If you’ve been invited to a friend’s house, it’s always a good idea to bring a gift or contribution to the party; a bottle of wine, some nice craft beer, or a dessert to share. Even if they haven’t asked you to bring anything, the thought is always appreciated.
Making Your Exit
It’s a small gathering, and you know everyone, so make your “goodbyes” individually, or directly to the group (as in the smaller gathering we discussed earlier). Be sure, once again, to thank your host/hostess, and say your farewells to them directly.
And Now You Can Relax…
Navigating a social gathering with ease is actually not as effortless as it seems. It involves regularly checking in with yourself and with your surroundings. When I’m making the rounds at a party, I’m constantly “on,” – assessing the energy level of the room and of other individual guests, and adjusting my responses accordingly. I’m always taking note of the smaller groups around the room, who is moving from one group to another, who has isolated themselves in a corner or next to the food table, who seems at ease, and who looks uncomfortable. This is why introverts find parties so exhausting: we are expending energy every minute of the time we are there. It doesn’t mean that we don’t enjoy social gatherings, it just means that we’re going to need a little alone time before or after to help balance it out!
Being an introvert doesn’t mean that you can’t have as much fun at a large gathering as you do at a small gathering. It just means that you have to adjust the way you approach each situation, taking into account how many people are there and the level at which you need to connect with them. Don’t feel like you have to interact with every single person at a large gathering, or that every interaction has to be a deep, meaningful conversation. It is perfectly fine to expend different amounts of energy, depending on the gathering that you are attending and the individual person you’re engaging with.
Above all, remember that everyone is there to have a good time, including you! Approach each gathering, whether small or large, whether you know everyone there or only a handful of people, with this in mind. When you go to a party intending to have a good time, chances are you will!