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What Do People Actually Do At Parties?

This is one of those articles about a supposedly "super-basic topic that everybody already knows about". The fact is some people don't know "obvious" things, and if you're one of them you may feel embarrassed about admitting it and asking for help. Luckily, you can always turn to the internet. The fact that this article exists shows you're not the only one with this particular question.

So you're in your high school or early college years. You've never been to a party before, but would like to go to one. The problem is you're not quite sure what happens at them or what to expect. You've seen parties in movies or TV shows, but you don't know how much reflects real life and what's an exaggeration. I'll quickly cover what happens at parties, to take some of the mystery away. I'll focus on casual, social house parties, and not more formal events like stuffy dinner parties, though there's overlap.

The core features of a party

There's a blurry line between a proper party, and just a bunch of friends getting together on a weekend night. This isn't an airtight definition, but I think the central features of a party are roughly:

Things that happen at almost every party

Talking

It can feel like there should be some more exciting, glamorous answer, but parties mainly consist of people mingling and having conversations. They may be doing other things at the same time, but it all hangs off people getting together to talk. Like with anywhere else, the flavor of the conversations can vary depending on who you speak to and what kind of mood they're in. You may chat to one person and do some routine getting-to-know-you small talk. One group conversation may be crude and hectic. Another may be philosophical and intellectual.

Here's a longer example of how it may play out at one party where you know most of the guests:

At a party where you barely know anyone the process is much the same, except you'd be starting and joining more conversations with people you haven't met yet, rather than catching up with long-time friends.

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Various entertaining distractions

Some parties are nothing but conversation, but usually there will be other things to keep people entertained. If the party is small enough all the guests might join in. At bigger parties one group may take part, while everyone else does something else. Here are some common ones:

I won't do a whole list again, but you could imagine some of the these being woven into the example night from above. Like in between conversations you could have stopped to watch a group playing a video game, or headed to the basement where a movie was on, or gone to the backyard where a few people were trying to get a bonfire going.

At least some drinking

Not every party has alcohol, but it does appear at the majority of them. That's not to say they're all degenerate boozefests. Even at a more toned-down or sophisticated gathering many of the guests will have a drink or two as they talk.

Some people like drinking for its own sake, and parties are one of the main places where they can do it. For some that means sipping a couple of cocktails over the night. For others it means getting as wasted as possible. Many people also find alcohol puts them in a more outgoing, relaxed, uninhibited frame of mind, so it helps those main party goals of socializing and blowing off steam.

Some types of party entertainment are based on drinking. There are drinking games like Kings, Beer Pong, and Flip Cup. People may also try to get drunk in goofy ways, like by drinking from a funnel, doing a keg stand, or making weird shots.

Of course, none of that means you have to drink much or at all if you don't want to. Just because something is common doesn't mean you have to take part. Lots of people go to parties and either stay sober, or only catch a mild buzz. You can still have fun and enjoy parties for plenty of reasons other than getting loaded.

Things that happen at some parties

Depending on the source, you can get the impression the following things happen at most parties, but they actually don't. It takes a certain mix of people and conditions for them pop up.

Zany stunts

This is the kind of stuff you'll see in movies, where scenes will show a character jumping off a roof into a pool, or sliding down the stairs on a fast food tray into a pile of beer cans. Dumb stunts happen if enough guests are in a drunken, rowdy mood and some of them are the type to do idiotic stuff to try to crack each other up. Some of the things in the section above, like drinking from a funnel, get into wacky stunt territory.

Drugs

Most parties involve alcohol. Whether other drugs show up depends on the crowd and what they're into. By far the most common one you'll see is weed. Its appeal cuts across different demographics, and its effects are mild as far as drugs go. Like with booze, you don't have to do anything you don't want to.

Hooking up

Young guys tend to want to know about this. They've learned from movies and TV shows that at parties couples go upstairs to fool around. Once more, it depends. At some parties everyone knows each other, most of the guests are partnered up, and even if two people wanted to sneak away to make out, they have nowhere to go. Other parties have lots of guests, many of whom are single and strangers to each other, and there are spots to get some privacy. After high school if two people hit it off, what's more likely is they'll exchange contact info and get together later, or go back to one of their places, not skulk off to someone's bedroom.

Worst-case scenarios

If you ask certain people what happens at parties they may tell you things like, "At every party I've ever been to a fight has broken out" or "Bill threw a party last semester and his place got totally trashed." Sometimes things go wrong at parties, but don't let that scare you off. Most of the time everything turns out fine, especially if your friends are peaceful, responsible people. If someone tells you fights always happen at parties, that means fights happen at the kinds of parties they've been to, not all parties period. There are also precautions you can take to make sure something doesn't happen to you, like not drinking more than you can handle, having your friends watch out for each other, steering clear of anyone who seems sketchy, or not throwing a party at your place if you're worried about your stuff.

A few party variables

I'm mainly bringing these up to do even more contrasting of how parties are often portrayed in the movies and on TV vs how they can be in real life.

Number of guests

Media depictions lean toward showing bigger parties with dozens or hundreds of guests. Those can happen, but it's just as likely that a party will be attended by 10-20 people. That may not sound like much, but it's usually enough to keep you busy all night.

Location

Movies and TV shows like to set parties in suburban homes with big backyards, sprawling frat houses, Hollywood Hills mansions, and upscale New York City condos. Some parties do take place in bigger, swankier spots, but just as many are held in ho-hum one or two-bedroom apartments, where everyone's jammed into the living room and kitchen. Most people don't live in fancy places, especially when they're in their twenties. Having to hold the party in a small apartment also keeps the guest count from climbing too high.

Some other common-enough party locations: An apartment building or bar's private party room; a cottage; a field or the woods. Regardless of where they're held, the dynamics of parties more or less stay the same.

Mix of friends and strangers

When some people think of parties their minds focus on the 'meeting strangers' aspect of them. You'll certainly go to plenty of parties where you don't know a lot of the guests. However, you'll also go to a bunch where you're mostly having fun with your long-time friends, and the sometimes-uncomfortable 'having to make conversation with new people' factor isn't there at all.