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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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: