My favorite New Yorker cartoon shows a worried, middle-aged man about to walk into a cocktail party. The thought bubble above his head reads, ‘Yikes! Grown-ups!’
I loathe cocktail parties — and any other gathering that requires dealing with crowds of strangers from a standing position. Nonetheless, these sorts of ‘mingle fests’ are a fact of professional life.
If hosted by your employer, showing up is tacitly understood to be mandatory. (Company holiday party, anyone?) Even if your paycheck has nothing to do with the event, you can often stand to benefit professionally by going: Future clients, referrals, job offers and board invitations can all stem from what’s known as ‘working the crowd.’
So, drop your expectation that these events should be enjoyable for you. Now, substitute the realization that they can be good for
I’m a long way from being at ease in a ballroom full of standing ‘suits.’ However, I have found ways to walk up to strangers, talk about something other than the weather and, just generally, ‘make it through the night.’
Here’s how I manage:
1. Do reconnaissance.
Understand what the group hosting the event is about — and what sorts of people have been invited.
Is the ‘do’ being put on by a biotech think tank? Then expect to see entrepreneurs, VCs and academics. By the ‘Bloomberg for President’ Committee? Then Republicans are apt to be in short supply.
2. Come armed.
Get up to speed on current events generally –- and specifically, with respect to topics that matter to the host and invited group of guests.
Walking into a crowd of Bostonians? Then you need to know that the Red Sox are a baseball team. Of techies? Bone up on late-breaking news in the Google v. Apple ‘arms race.’ Of partners from Manhattan’s largest law firm? Then have passing knowledge of the big deals they’ve handled and of rival firms that have just imploded.
3. Mood alter.
You’ll need to bring your best mindset into this crowd.
Anyone who’s reached adulthood without doing time in jail or an institution has found ways to break out of bad moods. For some people, it’s meditation. For others, aerobic exercise.
For me, it’s a top decibel sing-along to throbbing, take-no-prisoners-you-can’t-walk-all-over-me, Queen of Soul music. Five minutes of this and I think I ‘rule’ the room.
Whatever swings your mood to the positive, do it beforehand.
4. Get Your Bearings.
If a table with name tags or a list of attendees is located outside the door, look to see who’s signed up. Can you spot the name of someone who knows someone you also know? Or who works in your same industry? This helps anchor the notion that ‘your people’ are milling around in that crowd of strangers.
Now, walk to the party’s entrance, pause and look around. (Think “Yikes! Grown-ups!,” if you must….) What groups have formed? Which ones seem loosely configured, offering a physical opening to others? Is anyone standing all alone? Where’s the bar? (This last question you may have already thought of….)
5. Open your mouth. Form words.
It’s show time. Head toward that stranger standing alone. After shaking hands and trading names, ask him a question about himself (a/k/a ‘His Favorite Subject’).
If you’ve both just heard the same speaker or spent the day at the same conference, ask him what he thought about the content. If, instead, the cocktail party is free-standing, ask him how he’s connected to the sponsoring group, or — if that’s self-evident — something about the focus of his work or a recent development in his industry.
Avoid questions that can be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ You want to evoke essay responses. Also, avoid questions about potentially divisive topics (politics, religion, Roberts Court decisions…), unless it’s self-evident the two of you are on the same side of the issue.
Remember: How you listen is more important than what you say. In fact, listening with focus and genuine interest can do most of the conversational work for you. If you’ve heard –- I mean, really heard –- what the other person has just said, it becomes quite easy to follow on with a relevant thought or related question that keeps you moving down the conversational road.
If you don’t see a person standing all alone, then walk up to one of the groups you picked out earlier. Sidle into the physical opening you spotted and simply listen until the conversation has a natural break.
At that point, well-behaved groups will nod your way, introduce themselves and share the gist of what they’ve been talking about. If your group doesn’t do this, take the lead: Briefly introduce yourself, then ask a question about the conversational snippet you just heard.
Avoid walking up to groups where the participants have locked eyes, are standing in a tight configuration and seem engaged in deep and serious conversation.
Instead, go for groups where the physical shape can easily ‘morph,’ as members come and go, and where body language is more fluid (look for hand gestures, head nods, changing facial expressions, that sort of thing…).
6. Rinse and repeat.
Tempting as it is to cling to one person for the rest of the event, the purpose of these things is to meet people (plural).
Set yourself a modest goal for how many others you will interact with before you let yourself go home. Three? Five? (And, no, you can’t count the bartender. Each of these conversations must be ‘superficially meaningful’ in that way unique to cocktail parties.)
To accomplish your goal, you need to know how to break away from a conversation once you’re in it. So, what to do?
After a polite amount of time has passed (only you can judge what that is), tell the other person how much you’ve enjoyed talking with him, make a vague reference to the reason you need to leave, then excuse yourself.
(The reason can range from your need to catch up with someone else before the evening is over to your desire to find the hors d’oeuvres station. Just make certain the person you’re leaving doesn’t catch you out in a blatant lie.)
Lately, I’ve been using the ‘we-both-know-why-we’re-here’ approach when it’s time to move on. By that, I mean I’ll say something like: ‘It’s been enjoyable talking with you, Madeline. I’d love to continue the conversation, but I know we’re both here to network and I don’t want to take us away from that. Please excuse me….’
The other person appreciates the honesty of this, and I don’t have to carry through on some ‘white lie’ I’ve used to justify my exit.
7. Abandon ‘grown-up’ costume for oldest sweatpants. Congratulate self.