Moving to a Party's Rhythms

Benedict Carey is a Times staff writer.

Anyone who understands the fundamental obligation of the party invitee--bring a world of good cheer and nothing less--also knows the sudden chill of being marooned in a sea of strangers, stranded between conversations, with a boatload of joviality and no place to dock it.

Loneliness is a crowded room, sometimes. Almost any big party has a few stray souls communing with their cell phones to kill time; one or two others feigning absorbed interest in some glass bowl or wooden trinket; and a desperate type staring out the window as if longing to leap through and race to freedom. They're stuck, as immobile, as conspicuously alone, and often as cold and clammy as any ice sculpture.

Ah, those chilly cherubs and angels. If only they could talk about the social behavior they observe. They might explain that, unconsciously, and to varying degrees, most of us do sense the currents, tidal pools and prevailing windbags in any large party. Our brains map out potential hazards and attractions the instant we enter. We quickly size up the character and content of the social cliques around us. And we all come equipped with a social radar sensitive enough to pick up meaningful (and sometimes sensual) nonverbal signals. Humans are wired to work a room, whether they know it or not.

"You can even hear the rhythm of a party, if you listen for it," says Calvin Morrill, a UC Irvine sociologist and co-editor of a book titled "Together Alone," a compendium of new research on how people behave in public settings, including bars and parties, that's due out next year. "It's like a wave breaking on the beach: The noise comes to a crescendo, then quiets, as if everyone is collectively catching their breath."

In the decades since the passing of sociologist Erving Goffman, who founded the study of self-presentation, a handful of researchers have made a career of observing how people behave in social gatherings. At the most basic level, they've found that it takes as little as one-hundredth of a second for the brain to notice friendly and unfriendly faces in a crowd. This snapshot is crucial to social function. In one experiment, psychologists showed that people with severe social anxiety tended to focus on the cold expressions, at the expense of the warm ones, heightening their anxiety. Most others tend to flag the attractive, friendly faces and instantly plot some advance, usually indirect, says Teresa Rose, a Kansas City psychologist who studies group behavior. "This is all happening before conscious awareness," she says, "so you're moving before you really know where you're going."

Admittedly, the direction you go is partly a function of conscious goals. Those who've come to the party to find a partner or a date will "map" the place differently than those who've come in search of good conversation or a business connection; each person's social agenda can override subconscious signaling, social psychologists say. Still, the same principles of attraction, rejection and social navigation apply. Flirtation timing and context are crucial, whether you're romancing an attractive stranger or a potential client.

Either way, a common first destination is the host or hostess, of course; but a bartender, a child, even a pregnant woman may be the first stop. These are what Goffman called "open persons," because at a party they're considered approachable without introduction, making them typically the center of a fluid cluster of people, some of whom will strike up a conversation independently. At a large gathering of mostly strangers, informal groups tend to form around particularly charismatic individuals, too, or around a shared identity--banker types here, bike-messenger demographic over there. These groups are more stable than the scrum around open persons and tend to include no more than five to seven people, Morrill says. "More than that and it turns into a performer and an audience, and people suddenly become self-conscious," he says.

As the party catches its breath, these groups tend to subtract and add members--and the attentive solo sailor can find a berth.

That is, if the group allows access. In a recent observational study, to be published in Morrill's collection, researchers at the University of Arizona compared the permeability of cliques in six popular straight bars to those in six well-known gay bars. Compared to gays, heterosexual men were significantly less likely to welcome an outsider into an informal three- to five-person group. Sociologists say that when friends arrive together at a party as a tight group, the boundaries are tighter still: The clique may form an exclusive party within the party, closed even to affable types who make a tactful approach.

That's one reason why, at a large house party, the kitchen can be such an inviting escape. No one needs a reason to step into the kitchen; it's an "open space." More importantly, the social demands of the kitchen klatch tend to be low: Many are there helping with the food or drink, dipping in and out of conversation. Indeed, many are helping out precisely to avoid the stronger social currents in the main room, psychologists say. "People who are socially anxious congregate in the kitchen because it is full of props; it gives them something to do," says Emanuel Maidenberg, a psychologist at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute who specializes in treating social anxiety. In the end that's what makes the kitchen feel more like a trap, or a crutch--no one's going anywhere.

And the skilled, unattached partygoer is instinctively mobile. For one thing, the act of meandering across a room or courtyard can function as a sexual display, in the obvious ways: the man swaying his shoulders, walking tall; the woman swinging her hips, puffing out her chest. "It's what I call parading; it's a very common flirting behavior for women," says Monica Moore, a researcher at Webster University in St. Louis who has cataloged dozens of women's social gestures.

Movement serves another function as well. At a large party, or any gathering where most people are strangers, social norms demand that people camouflage their intentions, sociologists have found. The rogue who strides up to an attractive stranger and says, "I want you," or "Dance with me," almost always gets the death-ray stare; women are especially protective, because the stakes in the mating game are so high for them. In one of her studies, tracking 200 women in bars, Moore documented more than a dozen female rejection signals, including crossing the arms, gazing upward, and (a dead giveaway) picking their teeth. Women deployed these gestures and expressions not only to put off men, Moore found, but also to slow down those suitors who were coming on too strong, too directly.

Given those responses, the best approach may be bumping into an attractive stranger on the way to the bar, the buffet, anywhere, as if the conversation were secondary. In one recent experiment, sociologists tracked the social scene at a university recreation center. Those students or staff who struck up flirtatious conversations while working out on equipment, stretching, or passing through the exercise room were far more successful than those who came to the gym explicitly to socialize. The women developed a vocabulary for the latter, mostly men, calling them "lurkers," or "stalkers," Morrill says. And the same could be said of any movie industry wannabe real-estate salesperson who networks too eagerly and aggressively: They noticeably defy the spirit of the occasion. "The important thing seems to be that you show you can move through the party or the public scene without friction or hassle," he says. "If you stand on a balcony and watch a good party from above, you'll see there's constant motility. It starts to look like a busy sidewalk."

Lonely in a crowded room? Go on a walkabout.

If scientists have it right, a walking tour can be an exercise in reading, as well as sending, nonverbal signals. Most primates, including humans, have a cluster of neurons in their brains that appear to be involved in mirroring the actions of others, particularly body language, biologists have found. Karl Grammer, director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute of Urban Ethology in Vienna, has argued that this part of the brain is involved in a kind of mind-reading. By mimicking the stance or gestures of a conversation partner, people join in "feeling" what the other is thinking. Grammer has shown that when a conversation between two people begins to hum--especially between potential mates--the pair's body language starts to show distinct patterns. For example: He leans in closely, she touches her face; he touches her shoulder, she laughs; and then a few minutes later, the pattern repeats.

This nonverbal waltz is sometimes called synchronicity, and many people are sublimely attuned to it. Anthropologist David Givens, founder of the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane, Wash., has observed how women in particular will conduct a topographical survey of a party's body language. "Women have had this figured out for a long time," he said. "They go on a walkabout, passing close to people of interest, and watch the body language, whether the person leans toward them, say, or opens their posture. It's like a test. They're taking a reading on the interest level on the way to the women's room."

The reason a party's rhythms and ripples are lost on so many guests is simple: distraction. They're drinking too much, they're preoccupied with work, they're busy being jealous or dyspeptic or shy. It's no excuse. The obligation is to bring good cheer, regardless of circumstances, mood, or the fate of the Chicago Cubs. Fake it, if need be. Says Bonnie Jacobson, a New York therapist who ministers to the shy and socially anxious: "Lean toward people when you talk, laugh for the sake of laughing, respond and know that in large groups there are going to be at least 10 people who would give anything for you to come over and say hello." At the very least, stroll over to the ice sculpture, and see what happens on the way.

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