M ost of us know that knotted-up feeling--we’ve been invited to a party and we likely know exactly one person: the host. Everybody else is a complete and (according to our jangled sense of anticipation) potentially hostile stranger. We know how important first impressions are, and we want to make a good one. But the part of our brain that normally controls conversational wit has suddenly turned to Malt-O-Meal. What are we going to fall back on?
HE: I try-- try, mind you--to remember that nobody in the room gives a particular damn about me in the first place. They’re too busy trying to look good themselves. So unless I come in dressed in a wet suit, nobody’s going to care how I look. And unless I punch out the hostess or something, nobody’s going to remark on my behavior. So I have the option to be anonymous, and that can be comforting.
But that’s also no fun. I like to yak it up. So I play the Name Game. I get a drink and ask the first person I meet how they happen to know the host. That’s usually a good springboard.
SHE: First, what not to talk about: politics, religion and ultra-personal matters. Everyone knows that.
But at a party about 10 years ago, I also learned not to bring up my occupation. Actually, I was covering the party for a newspaper. I was alone, and a man sidled up to me and engaged me in small talk. After a few minutes, he asked what my profession was. “I’m a journalist,” I told him. He recoiled, spat in my face and proceeded to say “you people ruined my father’s life!” Talk about a party-pooper.
HE: You met that guy, too, huh? I get around scenes like that by telling people I’m a terrorist. Gets a much warmer reaction.
Actually, the time-honored trick--and you know this better than anybody--is to get other people at the party to talk to you about themselves. Sometimes this involves a bit of ego suppression.
For instance, let’s say you’ve just found out your conversational partner is a shoelace manufacturer, and he’s dying to tell you the history of his business, beginning with the early Pleistocene period. As riveting as you think this is, you still think he might be interested in hearing about your interview the day before with the Sports Illustrated swimsuit models.
But you remember the great conversational secret: HE ISN’T. So you smile. You nod. You even ask questions. And when you can’t take it a second longer, you let it slip that you’re a journalist and he’ll leave you.
SHE: Bet you haven’t heard about party mail. I hadn’t either until a few weeks ago when a prominent mover on the local society scene received a note from a fellow party-goer.
The woman couldn’t imagine why someone would give her a note during a party. But she soon found out. It read: “You need a face lift.”
Seems the sender was doing some marketing for the surgeon who did her. “I thought it was funny,” said the woman who received the note. Imagine!
HE: Golly, what a delightful new social trend. Maybe you could get some mileage out of a return note that read, “I’m doing some marketing for the Gotti family. Why don’t you go out and start your car?”
That’s the kind of thing that keeps truly interesting, intelligent, charming people away from parties. The entire purpose of a party, I believe, is to get a bunch of people in the same room who might like each other if they knew each other better. You don’t do that by shilling for your plastic surgeon. You do it by being genuinely inquisitive and by being a good listener. Old principles, but always sure-fire.
SHE: I divide party gabbers into four types:
* First, the Gala Blowhard: “I’ve been honored at this event four times!” he (or she) says. “I know everybody in the room. Everybody here is my best friend. What’s your name?”
* The Elegant Conversationalist: “How do you do; it’s so nice to meet you. I am happy to be here--such a lovely gathering.”
* The Doesn’t-Have-A-Clue: “Hello, I’m Ann Conway,” I say. “Uh . . why are we here?”
* Mr. Business: “Hi. Call me Guy. Here’s my card--take two!”
HE: My personal argument for the perpetuation of capital punishment: the bonehead who prattles on about nothing while searching frantically over your shoulder for someone more important to talk to. And when you manage to sneak in a sentence or two, he absently grunts, over and over, “Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh . . . " Still searching over your shoulder, hearing nothing.
SHE: When I’ve just met someone at a party, I frequently look them over for their significant detail. Chances are, he’s wearing a ring that would tell you something about the school he attended. She might be wearing an heirloom pin, or a bracelet purchased during an exotic trip. I ask them about these things and--boom!--we have a conversation going.
Hey Pat . . . tell me about that belt buckle with “Notre Dame sucks” on it . . .