Work parties, especially around the holidays, can be awesome, or they can be full of awkward, even horrible, interactions. I recently attended a Westword fiesta that had a little bit of both. Mostly, it was great: free food and booze and plenty of chances to rub elbows with some of Denver's more interesting artists, comedians and celeb-types.
But there was one conversation that stuck out in my mind, an interaction so heinous I wanted to tell Twitter about it in great detail and out the offenders -- but I didn't.
Instead, I let the terrible social interaction sink in and inspire me to think about how we are supposed to navigate conversations with strangers when things go so wrong you want to run and hide in the coat check.
I've compiled a list of ways to be nice to strangers in public without making a scene, when life requires you to be a grown-up at a holiday party.
5. Have a cocktail-hour buddy Flying solo to a holiday party is the worst because you look like a real loser. But it also means you've got to try to find someone who you already have a good rapport with to bring to be your savior. Think of it as a conversational wingman. A holiday party partner not only keeps you from looking lonely and bored, they also save you from conversation traps and give you an excuse to leave when the ugly lights come on and everyone else is still standing around talking to strangers about stories they heard on NPR.
My boyfriend is the king of networking. He is a master of sweet talk, small talk and any other kind of mundane conversation with a stranger. But he was unavailable last week, so my best pal, 10 Things to do for $10's Robin Edwards, and I decided to brave the party together. A close friend is always the best stand in for a date, but if you can't call on someone you know well, a hired hand can be just as effective. And if they are hot, even better. Hotness will negate any lack of interpersonal connection, because who better to show up at a party with than a total babe that no one knows? I mean, hello, it worked for Richard Gere's strangely appealing john character in Pretty Woman.
4. Know when to exit a conversation Speaking of johns, when I was cornered recently by the world's worst party-goers, I'm pretty sure that one of the guys I was talking to was an escort. His john -- or, in this case, "jane" -- didn't join our conversation until fifteen minutes in, and I couldn't tell if she was pissed that her date was talking to me, or if they were trying to convince me to have a threesome. Either way, it was one of the more awkward and awful conversations I've ever had -- so bad I wanted to yell "POPCORN!" just to remove myself from it.
But since you can't have a "safe word" with strangers, you have to use your best judgement. Unfortunately for me I'm pretty naive, and didn't pick up on the notion that this couple from hell was fucking with me by asking me all sorts of weird personal questions, but the rule generally is, if you're uncomfortable, leave. Just walk away -- the bathroom is always a good excuse or if you're really creative, fake a phone call. Most people's phones are on silent these days, so dipping out to take an "important call" from your pocket is totally acceptable. Also, if a conversation with a stranger lasts more than ten minutes and you hate them by that time, just get the fuck out of there.
3. Create a cue with your party partner This is why knowing your holiday party date well is key -- if you can't read each other's subtle physical and verbal hints, you can't save each other. Robin and I failed to create a social cue before stepping into our party last week, so she was unaware that I was trapped in a hell hole. We could have solved this by simply making up a phrase to interject when we think our date is stuck -- something like "they just brought out another cheese plate!" or "I think your boss is looking for you" or "hey, we need to go take hilarious fake mustache pictures in the photo booth before it shuts down for the night."
2. Keep it moving Holiday parties are usually packed with coworkers you spend the majority of your time with anyway, but remember, they brought dates too. As much as conversations can go bad at these things where everyone is drunk and eating too much, they can also be a great place to meet someone cool. Don't stick to one familiar group -- make the most of this party! You never know who could be lurking in cluster of people. Maybe your potential new tennis partner, weed dealer, boyfriend or fellow Breaking Bad enthusiast is standing in the circle next to you. You'll never know unless you break the ice.
1. Be kind to strangers and those less extroverted I'm an extrovert, which means I can have a twenty-minute conversation with a cupcake if needed. But some people aren't so socially gifted (and annoying,) and they need you to approach them. While you're getting to know circles of loud-talking strangers, make sure to include the one guy standing in the corner alone in a too-tight sweater vest. Maybe you always see him when you're waiting for the office printer and never say hi -- well, now's the time. He might actually be the coolest person at this party in a sweater vest.
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