How to talk to people at office parties

Take your party season from tense to terrific with 12 easy tips for sparkling conversation

Holiday parties can be like fruitcake – sure, it seems like a good idea to mix fruit and nuts together with some booze, but the results can be less than tasty. Why? Blame it on conversation. Surveys have shown that the biggest fear for a lot of people is speaking in public, and small groups can be just as intimidating as big ones. While some people are Renoirs, masters at the finer details of social grace, most of us emulate Jackson Pollock, flicking paint at the canvas and praying it sells. Here’s how to breeze through tough party situations and still make a good impression:

I once accepted an invitation to a holiday office party and proceeded to daydream about free shiraz and spinach dip. I had a rude awakening, though, when I arrived and realized I didn’t know anyone. Walking up to a group was way too intimidating, so I stuffed my mouth with brie instead.

Belly up to the buffet “The refreshment table is your friend,” says Alison Bruce, Chatelaine’s Ask an expert etiquette expert, who points out you’re likely to meet fellow lost souls there. “Yak about the traffic on the way over or the season’s trendiest cocktail.”

Soon, the woman who invited me swooped in and brought me over to other folks, using introductions such as, “This is Jennine. She’s from Winnipeg and is used to plugging in her car in the winter.” Not only did I get into a conversational circle, but we had a topic to start chatting about.

At parties, names are flung around like mashed potatoes at the kids’ table. It can be hard to keep track of your own, let alone dozens of others.

Speak up If you can’t remember a name, feel free to consult the host or a friend. And if there’s no one to resort to, ask. Use a joke such as, “Sorry, I’m having a brain cramp.”

If your conversation partner can’t remember you, offer information on where you might have met – business conference, family reunion, Chippendales show. If nothing clicks, drop the subject. Or if she’s being a jerk and refusing to admit she knows you, move on. Says Bruce: “You don’t owe them anything. A cheery ‘There’s Uncle Sid over by the shrimp dip, excuse me’ is enough.”

Comedienne Jessica Holmes has had to shake more strangers’ hands than a politician, especially now that she’s a regular on CBC’s Royal Canadian Air Farce. Rather than discuss the weather ad nauseam, she’s developed tricks for getting conversations going.

Share your secrets “I share quirky details about myself such as, ‘My grandmother just started her acting career at 74’ or ‘My fish had babies.'” Jessica says there’s less pressure when you keep conversations personal, especially at business functions.

Tell a funny tale Jessica also relates funny stories she’s heard or read about and recorded in a journal (for more tricks, see Five conversation starters). “Sharing fun anecdotes relaxes people and has an amazing way of developing your own social confidence.”

Chat about the obvious “Party conversation should be like a tennis game,” says Bruce. “I’ll lob a couple of soft ones at someone – How do you know the host? Those shoes are fantastic, where are they from? – and see if the ball comes back over the net. But if my partner keeps answering in monosyllables, I don’t hesitate to excuse myself to the bathroom.”

You say the wrong thing

Yvonne once flew from Vancouver to attend her company’s holiday schmooze-a-rama in Edmonton. When her boss asked if she wanted to meet the local team, Yvonne could not help noticing the woman next to him dressed in a loud silver ensemble. “I said, ‘Sure, especially the Jiffy Pop lady.’ That’s when he replied: ‘If you’re talking about the woman in silver, that’s my wife.'”

Poke fun at yourself During the awkward silence that followed, Yvonne struggled to recover from her gaffe. In hindsight, she says, she should have made a joke about her own attire. “Yvonne had the right impulse,” says Bruce. “Having pulled dopey moves like this myself, I always say something such as, ‘Oops, why don’t I see if I can fit my other foot in my mouth.’ Then I offer an apology and move on.”

All the schmoozing in the world won’t guarantee you a good time at a not-so-good party. Here’s what to do when you’d rather be at home with a bowl of popcorn and a Law & Order rerun:

Come prepared “I have a 45-minute rule for events…every situation deserves that much time,” says Bruce. “If you’re dubious on arrival, you can perform a pre-emptive strike by saying to the host: ‘I have to be somewhere in an hour, but I wanted to say hi and have a drink.'” Then you can make like Santa and disappear up the chimney.

Websites such as or offer info on a variety of subjects, from the stock market to late-breaking news. Or ask your kids what’s hip (hint: 50 Cent is a rapper, not the price of coffee).

Gossip is a crowd-pleaser, especially when it’s about those richer and more famous. Trawl for tidbits at entertainment websites such as or

A joke can be a fun way to endear yourself, as long as you know your audience. Get material from joke books or check out, which rates content from squeaky clean to racy.

Experiences with children, pets or klutzy neighbours can provide you with interesting anecdotes to share over eggnog. Just don’t divulge any details you wouldn’t want revealed about yourself.

Introduction service

Most parties also require physical contact, whether it’s shaking hands or, if you’re a football player, patting your colleague on the rear. Here’s how to greet someone without worrying about harassment charges:

· The handshake is probably the safest form of introductory contact (unless your hands are covered in butter tart residue). But when you’re seeing someone you’ve already formed a bond with – a peer, business contact, your parole officer – a handshake can feel so…unfriendly. If you feel the need to make an extra physical connection, lightly touch the person’s arm or shoulder with your opposite hand as you shake.
· The hug has become as popular as the Swiffer and just as difficult to navigate. I’m a chronic hugger, but lately I’ve seen fear in some people’s eyes as I come lumbering toward them with arms outstretched. “Pick up your cues from the other person,” says Bruce. “Not everyone is comfortable with physical contact.” When you’re not sure, let the other person make a move first before you get wrapped up in an awkward situation.
· The air kiss is a tough manoeuvre unless you’re a jet-setter. Do you put hands on shoulders or shake a paw at the same time? How many smooches are appropriate? Again, since this one can depend on culture or how many drinks a person’s had, watch for her signals and follow suit. And don’t feel as if you have to lead the way – sometimes it’s better to let your body go limp and see what happens.