Parties can be fantastic places to expand your social circle and even meet some amazing women. Parties can also feel like a special circle of Hell if you’re at all shy, socially anxious or intimidated by crowds.
Those fears of “I don’t know anybody”, “I’m afraid of groups”, “I don’t know what to say”… they’re understandable anxieties but you can learn to overcome them. Whether you’re going to a friend’s holiday party, a wedding reception, an informal get-together, a con dance party or even an event at a bar, this is your guide to navigating parties and crowds like an expert.
Treat Parties Like Exercise: Warm Up Beforehand
One of the first things – especially if you’re a little on the shy side – is to get yourself into a more social mindset either before hitting any parties or soon after you get there. If you’re introverted or spend a fair amount of time working on your own, trying to shift from “normal” into “party mode” is like trying to go straight from first to fifth gear; there’s going to be a lot of squealing and shuddering and coming to a sudden screeching halt as everyone tries to piece together what the hell just happened.
Instead of trying to leap straight in and mix and mingle with all and sundry, spend a little time making the transition from your solitary self to your social self. Think of it like exercise; if you leap straight into lifting weights without any warm-up, you’re going to pull something. If you go to the party without being in a social mindset, you’re going to strain your… social self, I guess? I dunno, it’s a metaphor, freaking work with me here.
So much like with exercise, you want to get your social skills loosened up. So, the first step is simply to perform the motions at an easier level. With exercise, you’d work with light weights or do some easy jogging. With parties and social functions, you’re going to limber up your mouth and brain. One of the best ways to do this is pre-game the party (literally and metaphorically) with friends; get together for dinner or drinks and just relax and enjoy the conversation before heading over.
But let’s say circumstances mean that you’re not able to meet up with folks beforehand? Then ease yourself at the party by starting with the familiar faces. Greeting the people you know – even if you only know them casually – can be easier on the nerves and more relaxing than trying to start a conversation with someone (or several someones) completely new. And if you don’t know many people at the party? Get there early and see if you can help out; not only does this mean that you’ll be interacting with people with a purpose – getting to know them – but you’ll be establishing yourself and feeling less out of place. Get to the party and you only know the host? Start by talking with the host and asking them to introduce you around. If you have one or two friends, ask if they can serve as a pivot and let them bring you into the conversation and stepping out when you’re established. Having someone ease that initial hump can make meeting new people considerably less stressful and intimidating. Plus, at most parties, you’re within your social circle; the fact that you’re a friend-of-a-friend gives you immediate social proof with most of the other guests and helps establish you as someone worth getting to know.
What if you’re going to be on your own at the party? What if you’re at a convention and you don’t know anyone? Simple:
Manage Group Body Language
One of the scariest parts of parties is often trying to enter a pre-existing conversation, especially if you don’t know people in the group. More often than not, however, it’s much easier to join in than you’d think. You just have to know how to work a group.
To start with, you want to emphasize that you’re part of “the tribe”, as it were. We like people who are like us. Humans tend to be tribal and divide the world into “like us” and “not like us”, where people who are “not like us” tend to be seen with suspicion. After all, people who aren’t like us may well be emotional freeloaders, trying to suck up the energy of the group for their own use. In practical terms: a guy rolling into a group in order to dominate the conversation or to try to make it all about him is going to suck the energy out of the group.
But if you can demonstrate that you’re similar to them, then you’re more likely to find a warm welcome, even from people who don’t know you. And how can you do this?
To start with: match their energy and body language. Someone who comes in at a radically different level of energy – high and peppy where everybody else is placid or morose and low-energy when everyone else is happy and excited – is going to seem severely incongruent with the group. This tends to be big sign that you’re “not one of them” and people are more likely to view you with suspicion.
Similarly, matching the group’s general body language is a way of encouraging people to like you. We instinctively mirror the body language of the people we like; it’s another way of emphasizing similarities and encouraging people to see you as “like them”. A group, on the whole, tends to have similar body language; mirroring it is a way of signaling in-group membership.
This, incidentally, includes matching their head-levels. One of the biggest mistakes I see people make when approaching groups is that they don’t match head height. Yes this is weird but stick with me for a second. Imagine that you and your friends are sitting together and talking and somebody comes up to talk to you and just… looms over you. This is incredibly awkward and creates an uncomfortable dynamic; the body language isn’t one of being part of the same tribe, it’s one of somebody trying to dominate the group. Similarly, if one person is sitting and everyone else is standing, it feels like that one person isn’t actually part of the group; it seems as though he’s demanding that others cater to him. If you’re interested in joining in a conversation with a group, make sure that you match them; find a seat as quickly as possible or stand to join the conversation.
So how do you do that?
Treat Groups Like A Single Entity
We tend to psych ourselves out of approaching groups – whether at bars or at parties – because we assume that the difficulties in approaching a stranger scales up with the number of people involved.
This isn’t actually true. One of the more interesting aspects of the human psyche is how quickly we see ourselves as part of a whole, whether it’s our “tribe” (gamers, Star Wars fans, nerds, beer lovers, etc.), a sports team, a discussion group… or a group of people having a conversation. Treating the group as approaching a single person (at first) actually makes it easier to interact with everybody. Just as with approaching one person, you don’t need an “excuse”; you’re just looking to start a conversation. A simple “Hi, my name is…” or “I couldn’t help but overhear that you were talking about…” is all that you need. More often than not, you don’t even need to announce your presence; it’s not unusual for someone to stand in as part of the group while just listening at first. The lower-key the event, the less unusual this is and the more open people are to new people joining in.
Moreover, when you’re at parties (or other social events), mixing, mingling and entering conversations with new people is part of the expected social contract. As long as you don’t roll in trying to take over or be a jerk, most people will will make room and accept you as part of the conversation.
Work The 3:2 Conversation Rule
Another key to successfully joining a group conversation is to follow the 3:2 rule. It’s simple: most group conversations can’t work with more than four people at one time. Once the group grows to five or more members, either someone gets pushed out or the group splits, along a 3:2 ratio – one group of three, one group of two. And since the group tends to push out the intruder – i.e. you – then you want to encourage the split option instead.
This gives you the opportunity to stay in the conversation instead of being squeezed out… as well as a natural-feeling way of getting some conversational one-on-one time with someone you might be interested in.
If there’s a group of three or less and you want to join in on the topic, simply listen for a few minutes to get a grasp of the topic via context and find an opportunity to ask a question. Don’t worry about feeling like you don’t have anything to contribute or that you’re butting in. Part of the social contract of parties is that people may listen in before joining in or going their own way.
If the group is four or more, then you have the opportunity to broach a new (related) side-topic and create a smaller, less-intimidating group. Wait for a natural lull in the conversation, then turn to the person you want to talk to and share a thought with them – you’d always thought X about the topic, didn’t they? – and let the group divide naturally. Instead of trying to force a subject change, focus on their thoughts about the topic. We tend to naturally gravitate towards people who want to hear what we have to think. By giving them the chance to talk, we encourage them to want to continue talking with us. That, in turn gives us openings to subtly change the topic – even just a simple “Hey, that reminds me, have you ever/did you see/did you hear about…”
As intimidating as parties can be, if you want to have fun, then you don’t want to be the guy or girl standing in the corner, pretending to look at their phone. You may be dying inside and wishing that somebody would rescue you from this social hell by striking up a conversation, but that phone is projecting a force-field that’s going to make people’s eyes slide right over you as though you weren’t there. You may as well hold up a giant sign that says “Please Do Not Talk To Me”… and most people will be happy to comply.
If you’re not the approaching kind but you still want to socialize, then you need to make sure that you’re letting people know that you’re open to being approached. Being “busy”, fiddling with your phone or otherwise putting barriers between you and other people means that people will take one look at you and go find someone who looks much friendlier.
To start with, you want open and inviting body language. This means leaving your torso exposed and angled towards others. If you’ve crossed your arms or you’re holding something across your body, you may as well be holding up a shield to push people away. If you’re holding a drink, try to hold it either down by your side, or angled slightly away from you. You also want to make eye-contact with people and – this is important – smile. Meeting someone’s gaze and smiling is a universal approach invitation; someone who’s studiously avoiding meeting people’s gaze, especially if they’re frowning or looking very serious, is someone who’s giving off “piss off already” vibes.
You also want to be somewhere in the general vicinity of other people. If you want to meet or talk to people, then you’ve got to be where the people are. You can’t expect other people to make all the effort; if you’re hidden off in a corner somewhere, you’re not going to meet many folks. Most people aren’t going to go seeking out people without a specific reason. By being where the action is, you’re meeting them half-way.
One of the best places to linger if you want to meet people? Around the drinks. Most people tend to cluster around the food and beverages, giving you many opportunities to talk and easy conversational openings.
Of course, sometimes you’ll have to make the first move yourself. If you’re feeling shy, finding other people in the same boat can take the edge off trying to make introductions. Imagine how relieved you feel when someone comes over to introduce themselves, after all.
Parties can be intimidating if you’re shy or socially anxious. But a little prep and a few simple social tricks are all you need to handle parties like an expert.