How To Mingle And Talk To People At Parties
There are two broad types of social problems people can have with parties. The first is that a lot of people don't like them that much. They find parties boring, stressful, and draining. They want to know how to avoid them, or minimize the annoyance factor if they have to go to one.
The second issue, which this piece will cover, is when someone wants to go to a party and socialize at it, but they're not sure how to do that. Some problems people run into are:
- Feeling shy and awkward about approaching other guests to start a conversation
- Not knowing what to say when they're chatting to someone - Introducing themselves, as well as the ensuing conversation, can feel stilted and forced
- Not knowing how to break into group conversations - This particularly comes up if it seems like everyone at the party knows everyone else. It can feel hard to intrude on a cluster of friends
- Not knowing how to speak up and stand out once they're in a group conversation - This especially applies if the discussion is loud, energetic, and all over the place
- Not being great at dealing with the rowdy, zany aspect of parties
- Just not knowing what to do with themselves - Is it bad to stand around too much? Are they obligated to make the rounds and try to talk to every last person there?
- Feeling like a party is some big social exam, and that how well they do at mingling is some sort of reflection of their overall value as a person
This article will go into detail about how to handle these situations. The bulk of it is more practical tips, which I'll get to soon. It'll quickly start off with some more general attitudes that can be helpful to have. I'll cover how to generally talk to people, not how to own the party and be the spectacular center of attention. It's also about parties where you don't know many of the attendess that well, if at all. It's not really about a "party" in the sense of seven close friends getting together at one of their places to have some drinks and play cards.
A big factor in how well things will go are the party's characteristics
When you make conversation some of your results will be influenced by your level of social skills. The rest is out of your hands, and determined by outside forces like the mood of whomever you're talking to. Parties are the same. Some factors that will affect your experience at one are:
- What kind of party is it, and is it suited toward your strengths and personality? Some parties are quiet and orderly and everyone breaks into little groups to have stimulating debates about politics and philosophy. Others are loud, crowded, and chaotic and everyone's drinking a ton, clowning around, and getting into wacky antics.
- What type of people are there? Are they the kind you'd naturally get along with? Or are they mostly from a crowd where you wouldn't have much to say to each other, or who wouldn't give someone like you a chance?
- How well do the other guests know each other? If they know each other really well, are they open to talking to strangers? At some parties most of the guests are friends that go way back, and they're mainly there to catch up with each other. They're not consciously trying to be cliquey and exclusive, but their old buddies take up most of their attention, and they can unintentionally brush someone they don't know aside. At other parties there aren't a ton of connections between the attendees, and everyone is friendly and open to meeting new faces. Some parties are big enough, and so few people know each other, that everyone starts to treat the place more like a nightclub, and stick mainly to the friends they came with.
- Do you even want to be at the party, or were you dragged there? This can affect your motivation toward wanting to mingle. If you want to be there you may be excited to meet a bunch of new people, possibly to the point of putting too much pressure on yourself. If you're just along for the ride, like you're keeping your boyfriend company at his stuffy staff party, your attitude may be more, "Okay, what's the bare minimum number of polite small talk I need to make so I don't seem totally unfriendly?" or, "How can I find one interesting person to talk to for most of the night, so I don't have to circulate anymore?"
Basically, if you go to a party and the deck is stacked against you, you can't put too much blame on yourself if the night turns out to be a bust. Some parties will be a good match for you, and you'll do well at them. Some just won't go your way. It's not really your fault, and it's not a matter of, "Well if I had better social skills I could have an amazing time and click with everyone at any type of gathering." Everyone sometimes finds themselves at get togethers that aren't the best fit.
Don't psych yourself out and place too much importance on how well you socialize at parties
Parties are just one way people get together and socialize. For the average person they only come up occasionally. Yeah, there can be a fun and energy that you can only get at them, when you put enough people together who are all in a lively, outgoing mood, but they're not the be-all and end-all of social interaction. Some people place this burden on themselves, and see how well they get along with strangers at parties as the ultimate test of their social worthiness. They think if they can't be the life of the party and get everyone to love them by the end of the night then they're not good enough. Or they feel they have to have a completely zany time, like out of a college movie.
If it's important to you to be able to mingle at parties then definitely work on it. At the same time, remmeber there's more to life, and plenty of people have great social lives even if parties aren't their strong point. Being good at mingling and standing out in big groups isn't the only way to be socially successful. Other people realize this too, and if they see someone looking a little shy or hesitant at a party, they're a hundred times more likely to conclude, "Ah, I guess parties aren't their thing. They aren't for a lot of people" than to think, "Wow, what a sad, pathetic failure."
Regarding feeling you have to have a cah-razzzzy time, lots of people are content to go to a party, mostly hang out with the friends they came with in a low key way, have a few drinks, and maybe talk with a guest or two they don't know. That's all they need to do to consider it a good night. They don't feel they've failed if they haven't done four keg stands, jumped off a roof into a pool, and gained twenty new social media contacts.
How to approach people and start conversations at parties
There are two parts to this. The first is getting over any nerves or hesitation you have about talking to people. The second is knowing what to say to get the conversation rolling.
Getting past your nerves about chatting to people
There isn't any guaranteed magic way to make your nerves disappear. There will always be those moments where you feel just anxious about talking to someone, and you just have to push past it and go for it. Fortunately, there are lots of strategies that can take the edge off your inhibitions:
- If possible, do things earlier in the day to socially "warm up". Hang out with your friends. Chat to cashiers or store clerks. Call a family member and catch up with them. When you're at the party you can continue to warm up by being social with the people you came with.
- At the party start by approaching the people or groups you're least intimidated by, and then work your way up to the ones that make you more anxious. A fairly well-known strategy is to find someone who seems even more uncomfortable and out of place than they are, and talk to them and try to put them at ease. The idea is that once you've had that first easier conversation the ball starts rolling, and things get easier from there.
- Here are two opposing suggestions that can each work in their own way: Some people find it helps to dive right in and start socializing before they have time to think too much and talk themselves out of it. Others find it's better to give themselves time to acclimatize to their surroundings, and calm down and collect themselves.
- Some people ease themselves into socializing by giving themselves a party role which requires them to be speak to the other guests. Like they may take it upon themselves to introduce people to each other, make fancy drinks for everyone, greet new arrivals at the door, or be the unofficial DJ.
- Of course, some people drink to lower their inhibitions. It's okay if you're not into it, but it's obviously an option. I think within reason this is pretty harmless, standard behavior. In general, a mild buzz is all you need to feel a little braver. If getting drunk is your thing that's fine, but as you drink more your judgement starts to suffer and it hurts you socially as much as it helps.
These articles go into more detail about handling social fears:
The question of when to arrive
When they show up to a party can play a role in how comfortable people feel speaking with the other guests. Some find it's good to arrive early (not overly early, since that can inconvenience the host). There are fewer guests at that point, and they can talk to everyone under more laid back circumstances and in smaller, more manageable groups. As the other attendees trickle in, they can chat to and get to know each new group as it arrives. This doesn't work for everyone though, and some people feel more awkward, exposed, and on the spot if they're at a party early with hardly anyone else. It's also less of an option if you don't know the people who are throwing it that well.
Another choice is to go later on. That way there will be lots of existing groups to join when you get there. Some people also appreciate that they can disappear into the crowd and not feel like they stand out. They may like that if they find it awkward to talk to one person, they can quickly escape to someone else, rather than, say, being stuck having to make conversation with just the host and his two good friends for twenty minutes. There are downsides to this approach as well. Some people find a room full of guests who are already all talking to each other intimidating. Everyone may already be into their conversations, and the groups can feel more closed-ff and hard to break into.
Starting conversations at parties
When it comes to approaching strangers, people can tend to want a set of openers that will work on everyone they talk to. It doesn't work like that. As I said, sometimes you'll try to talk to a person or group and it just won't pan out for reasons that have nothing to do with you (e.g., someone just had an argument with their ex, and isn't in the mood to meet anyone). On the flip side, if a conversation is slanted to go in your favor, it doesn't really matter how you start it. It's more about how the discussion goes after the opening line.
So keeping in mind that any of these can work equally as well, some ways you could start a conversation are:
- Ask the host to introduce you to everyone.
- Just go up to someone and introduce yourself, "Hey, what's up? My name's _____."
- Ask people how they know everyone else there.
- If one comes readily to mind, make some sort of situational comment, like say something about the type of beer someone is drinking, or the T-shirt they're wearing, or the video everyone's gathered around someone's phone to watch. Don't feel you have to come up with a situational comment to start a conversation though, because it seems more natural and nonchalant. If you don't think of one, it's totally fine to just introduce yourself more directly.
- At many parties people are doing much more than just standing around and gabbing. Little groups may have broken off to do all kinds of activities, and you can start a conversation that way. Like if some people are watching TV, or playing video games, or beer pong, or cards, you can join them and then get to talking with everyone as you take part.
- You can also initiate some sort of activity to get people talking, like starting a game of cards, or suggesting a board game if it's that type of get together.
- Rather than roaming around, a somewhat more passive tactic is to park yourself by a higher-traffic spot, like the kitchen or snack table, and try to chat to whomever crosses your path.
See the article How To Start Conversations for more information.
Starting conversations with groups
The same general principle applies to approaching groups, that your opening line shouldn't make or break you, and that the trickiest part is often just feeling brave enough to initiate the conversation in the first place. Also, realize that at a party it is totally acceptable, even expected, to try to talk to a group that is already discussing something. Sure, some groups are more closed than others, but there's nothing inherently wrong with trying to squeeze yourself into an ongoing conversation.
- If the group looks pretty friendly and open, you can just go up to them and introduce yourself, "Hey, I'm Steve. How do you guys know each other?" or, "Hi, I'm Janet. I'm Fatima's friend. What were you guys talking about a second ago?"
- You could jump right into a particular topic, if you've gotten the sense the group would be up for talking about it: "So what did you guys think the game last night?", "Have you all seen (some movie that just came out)?", "So what does everyone here think of (recent news story)?"
- If you've overheard the group talking about something you're interested in, you can maneuver closer to them, listen for a bit, then chime in with your opinion during an appropriate pause.
- It's okay to join a group and just hang back and follow the conversation for a while. You're not socially bombing if you're not talking every second. Being a listener is socializing too. When there's a point where you can contribute, speak up and say something. In the meantime you can appear engaged and in the mix, and set the stage for your future contribution by looking interested, and adding little throwaway statements like "Ha ha, yeah totally" or "Oh, that happened to my friend too, anyway, you were saying?..." You could also ask the odd question to the speakers. These small lines don't mean a ton, but they can make you seem a lot less on the sidelines.
- Don't be afraid to try to talk to a group that seems like they all know each other really well. If you're interesting company and you contribute to the discussion they'll often by happy to talk to you. However, if they are being more closed-off and exclusive, maybe because they're filling each other in on some life development of a mutual friend of theirs, don't take it personally and move on. Maybe try again later.
- Like the sub-section above mentioned, you can often slide into group conversations by way of an activity.
Also see: How To Join A Conversation
What to say to people once you've started talking to them
Many of the conversations we have with people we don't know happen in a casual, low-pressure setting. For example, you're asked to show a new co-worker around, and get to know them bit by bit as you give them a little tour. When you approach a stranger at a party things are much more on the spot; You've started talking to this person, now you're expected to keep the interaction going.
As much as it seems like it would be helpful, it's impossible to map out an entire conversation with someone ahead of time. The path a discussion can take is way too unpredictable to do that, and even if it were possible, it would be too hard to recall everything in the moment. In general here's how party conversations usually play out:
- Some conversations start off with an introduction and an opening line. After that you'll often spend a few minutes on standard getting-to-know-you questions like, "How do you know the person throwing the party?", "What do you study?" or, "Where do you work?" Yep, these questions can be uninspired, but they get things started by helping you fish around for a more mutually interesting topic you can discuss (See: Some Thoughts On The Point Of Small Talk).
- Other conversations will start with you talking about an interesting topic right away, and skipping the introductions for the time being. That may be because your opening line lead right into the subject, or you jumped into a conversation that was already covering it. You'll hopefully have a good discussion. After, you'll naturally get around to, "So my name's ____ by the way. How do you know everyone here?" Feeling you have to exchange introductory resume info with someone right off the bat can sometimes get in the way.
- I'm tempted to write something like, "This is a party, so keep your tone and topics light and fun." That wouldn't be accurate. What's appropriate to talk about really depends on the guests and the type of the party. Sometimes the atmosphere is obviously more cerebral and it's fine to talk about politics or international development. Also, even at more wild parties there will can situations where, say, three avid readers find a spot off to the side and have an in-depth discussion about literature.
- If you're trying to chat to someone and the conversation is feeling really forced and uncreative, no matter how much you try to keep things moving in a fun direction, it may be a sign you just weren't meant to talk to that particular person. You might not have much in common, or they're not in a friendly mood, and so on. At a party with a lot of guests you can't be expected to hit it off with all of them. Just politely move on.
Here are a few more articles on keeping conversations going:
Some Popular Overall Approaches For Making Conversation
How To Think Of Things To Say When Making Conversation
Ways To Deal With Awkward Silences In Conversations
How To Be Less Quiet And Contribute to Group Conversations
Ending a conversation
At parties everyone naturally drifts around and chats to a number of people. And as I keep mentioning, you're not going to connect perfectly with all of them. Don't worry too much about getting out of a conversation when it isn't going anywhere, or you want to see who else is around. There are lots of easy ways to do it, and people generally don't get offended if you move on. You can say something straightforward like, "It was good meeting you. I've got to catch up with some other people, but I'll talk to you later hopefully." Or you can use one of several reasonable excuses like:
- "I have to go see what my friend is up to."
- "I'm gonna go grab another drink."
- "I just got here, I'm gonna look around a bit more"
- "I'm going to get something to eat."
- "Excuse me, I'm to going to go find the bathroom."
- (If you smoke) "I'm going outside to have a cigarette."
- "I was talking to some people in the other room. I gotta get back them."
Dealing with conversations in big, rowdy groups
This article goes into a lot more detail about it, but overall a lot of people say they're okay having polite one-on-one conversations, but they're not as good in loud, hectic, dog-eat-dog group discussions. Those often occur at parties, especially when there's drinking involved. The piece I just linked to goes into depth, but in general:
- Realize you need to be more forward and assertive about speaking up and claiming your time to talk. It's expected and okay. Everyone's excited to talk and wants to say something, so if you politely wait your turn you'll get overlooked. When it is your turn to speak, you'll also get quickly talked over if you're too soft-spoken and meek, or you take too long to get your point out.
- Just accept what these conversations are and what they aren't. They're not going to be civilized or go too in-depth about any particular subject. They're fun and jokey and the topic will jump all over the place.
- If the group is really big, try to split off a sub-conversation.
Getting into a partying frame of mind
This point doesn't apply so much to more refined, orderly parties. To appreciate more rowdy ones you need to be in a certain mindset, and this doesn't come naturally to everyone. I talk about it more in this article: Regular Logical Mode Vs. Light Fun Mode In Social Interactions. Essentially, some people are fine when social interactions are more structured, subdued, and focused on politely discussing a particular topic. They don't really know what to do with themselves with things get more raucous and goofy, and people seem more interested in making loud jokes and performing wacky stunts than sitting around and talking about environmentalism. They may even look down on anyone who's in a fun, partying mentality, and see them as annoying and immature. They can have a better time when they learn to switch gears and socialize in a way where they try to have some nice mindless fun for its own sake.
This article may also help you get into a more fun frame of mind:
How much to move around and mingle with different people
People sometimes think of mingling like it's a mechanical process. I know some advice on it can unintentionally give the impression that you need to approach it that way. In practice it's not really a matter of, "I will spend the party making the rounds and speaking to people. I must talk to 75% of the people there. I will make each interaction six minutes long. I will acquire the following information from each person..."
In my experience, at parties it's best to go with the flow, talk to the people who look interesting to you, and see where the night takes you. If you want to try, go for it, but don't feel you have to talk to every last guest. There's no party rule that says if you're a bad person for not doing that. A lot of people don't. You've got to make decisions, and often you'll decide you'll have a better time if you keep chatting to the hilarious friends you met in the kitchen, as opposed to breaking away to introduce yourself to that new insular looking couple that just showed up.
For whatever reason, two metaphors come to mind when I think about mingling at parties. The first is to see a party like a fairground. At any party there are all these sub groups, conversations, and activities going on. One group is talking in the back yard, another is on the front porch, some people are playing video games downstairs, four buddies are playing flip cup in the garage, some friends are telling travel stories in the living room, some roommates are talking in the kitchen, three people are doing shots in there as well, and so on. Everyone is moving around throughout the evening and visiting the various "fairground booths". There's no expectation to go to all of them. Some people will stick to one for a long time. Others will check out a bunch quickly, then go back and forth between two of them. As the night goes on new things to check out will pop up. There's no right way to see the attractions, you just have to wonder around and head toward whatever looks fun.
The second metaphor, which gets at the same idea, is that I picture people at a party as a bunch of ping pong balls floating in a tub of water, and drifting around on the surface. For a time a few balls may cluster together, but then they'll break up and maybe temporarily group with a few others (I have no idea if this is actually how a bunch of ping pong balls would behave in water, but let's go with it). Basically, the movement of people from group to group is spontaneous and chaotic. Someone may to be talking to one group, then see their friend doing something fun and leave to watch what they're doing. Then they need to use the bathroom and run into someone else on their way back, and end up going outside with them. Again, go to a party intending to just drift along like this, don't feel you must start at the front door and systematically work your way around the room or anything.
When you get drained at parties
Some people get drained easily while socializing, and if there's one situation that's going to do it, it's going to be a party, especially if it wasn't totally their choice to attend. Once more, see the linked article for more thoughts, but some things you can try are:
- Have a pre-set excuse for needing to leave early, like that you have to work the next day, or you have to visit your aunt, or you've got to meet someone else later and can only drop by for a bit.
- Join an activity that will give you an excuse to be more low key and take a break, like plopping down on a couch to watch a bit of a movie, or playing cards. Maybe there's a smaller, more intimate conversation on the back deck that's more your speed.
- Find reasons to get away for a bit. Volunteer to run down the corner store on your own to buy more snacks or drink mix. Step aside and pretend to have a text conversation on your phone.
- Regular tiredness and feeling socially drained often blur together. Doing things to fight normal fatigue can also socially reinvigorate you. You can have a bit of caffeine, or if you get sleepy, just wait twenty minutes or so to catch a second wind.
Leaving the party
Some people find this really awkward and don't like having all the focus on them while they announce to everyone that they're leaving, or when they have to find a bunch of friends and say their goodbyes. I don't think there's one right way to make an exit, and you don't necessarily have to track down every last person you know to tell them you're taking off. In terms of things feeling awkward, that's just something you can get used to if you do it enough. In general, it is polite to let at least your good friends know you're leaving. Just say you're heading out, and don't feel you have to have a five-minute going away conversation with each of them. If you're taking off early, don't make it seem like a big deal. Every party has some guests who have to head out before the others.