The joy of schmoozing: How to avoid social pitfalls
5 rules of mingling and other tips for surviving — and enjoying — the holiday social scene.
Jeanne Martinet's idea of heaven is what many people consider holiday hell: parties, lots of them, filled with strangers.
"When I enter a party where I don't know anybody, it feels like I'm at a banquet and I can't wait to dive in," said Martinet, author of "The Art of Mingling" (St. Martin's Griffin, $9.95).
Martinet, a natural social butterfly, said she was "born without mingle-phobia," but guesses some 90 percent of us aren't so lucky. For the schmooze-averse majority, holiday party season presents a minefield of potentially awkward encounters. But parties needn't be a chore to suffer through — and when they feel like a chore, people are missing the point.
"It's really about interacting with people, and I think that keeps us happy and alive," Martinet said.
Diana Boxer, a linguistics professor at the University of Florida, said people have lost the joy in schmoozing, a term that has earned a bum rap as a synonym for glad-handing, networking and impressing superiors. The original meaning of the Yiddish word was to pass the time chatting, with no purpose other than the pleasure of conversation, said Boxer, author of "The Lost Art of the Good Schmooze" (Praeger, $44.95, due in February).
"Too many people now go to these holiday parties and think they've got to make small talk to show themselves as a worthy colleague, professional, whatever, and that's not what schmoozing is," Boxer said.
Boxer said people schmooze best when they're honest and genuine. But it helps to have a few tricks up your sleeve when you're hovering solo or locked in painful conversations, said Leil Lowndes, author of "How to Instantly Connect With Anyone" (McGraw-Hill, $16.95).
To help you flex your social muscles, these schmooze advocates offer advice for navigating party land mines: Lowndes, who remembers being so shy growing up that she would cling to the wall at parties and wish she were invisible; Martinet, the born mingler; and Boxer, who makes research-based observations of how people communicate.
You arrive at the party and recognize no one.
Lowndes: While the instinct is to arrive late, that's a bad idea because by then everyone is already mingling. Instead, arrive early and make friends with the few early birds before the masses arrive.
Martinet: Survey the room, and look for someone easy to approach. Ideally, you want to find another partygoer who is alone or a loose group of people, whose eyes also are darting around the room. You don't want to start out with the power group or any tightknit cluster, and you don't want to interrupt anyone having an intense conversation, so avoid people whose eyes are glued to each other.
You're petrified at the thought of approaching a group of strangers.
Martinet: There are many ways to approach, but the best is with honesty: "Hi, my name is (blank), and I don't know a single soul at this party." Because it's sincere, people respond well.
Another effective approach is to find someone wearing something eye-catching and compliment them, as flattery rarely fails. The most popular approach, though it requires some finesse, is to edge up to a group and listen to their conversation, and wait for an opportunity to ask a question or make a comment about what they're saying.
Lowndes: To bolster your confidence, imagine you're approaching an old friend, creating a subliminal vibe of familiarity.
If you know the hosts, ask them to introduce you to someone you think looks interesting.
Boxer: You can always open a conversation with a small, innocuous gripe, such as how difficult it was to find parking. Commiserating sets a good basis for commonality, especially among women, though be careful not to gripe excessively or you'll be known as a chronic complainer.
Complimenting someone can be effective, but can appear obsequious if you overdo it. Men should be careful about complimenting women on appearance.
You introduce yourself — and are ignored.
Martinet: Make an observation: Doesn't the hostess look great? Isn't the food fantastic? Have two lines ready in case you're met with a cold stare.
Ask questions: How do you know the host? How did you get here?
Don't ask what they do for a living for the first few minutes. It's sort of like asking how much money they make, and could be awkward if they're out of work. You might prefer to ask, "What field are you in?"
Boxer: Get people to talk about what they're interested in, and try to find something you have in common. Schmoozing is about drawing people out to talk about themselves. Body language can help: Smile and make eye contact, with your head and feet facing your interlocutor, arms uncrossed, to seem most accessible.
Everyone's talking about a big news event you know nothing about.
Martinet: Plead guilty, but make clear you've been on a temporary news blackout because of work or travel obligations, and not because you just don't pay attention to current events.
Lowndes: You should have prepared for this, and then some. More than just being aware of current events, you should have an opinion about them for a more fruitful conversation.
The conversation has turned to politics and things are getting testy.
Martinet: Defuse mounting tensions with a bit of humor. Say something like, "Well, we're not going to solve the world's problems in a day. Should we get a drink?" Or joke, "I guess we'd better talk about something else or step outside."
You cannot tolerate talking to this person anymore.
Martinet: If there's a natural lull in the conversation, make an honest escape: "Well, I guess we're supposed to mingle at this thing; it was so nice talking to you." But if the person won't shut up, you may have to resort to the "human sacrifice": Grab a friend who is walking by and introduce him or her to your chatty companion, and then (cruelly) excuse yourself to use the restroom.
You can always excuse yourself to go to the bar, buffet line or restroom, anyway, but then you risk the person following you. One alternative is to say you have to make a phone call, but you may have to continue your charade by pretending to make a call.
Lowndes: Wave over the person's shoulder to an imaginary friend and mouth, "OK, I'll be right there." Do it again, then excuse yourself for having to attend to your needy friend.
You run into an ex you haven't seen since your explosive breakup.
Martinet: Cliches are your best friends in awkward moments because they're part of the collective subconscious, so they ease anxiety and help you bond. Invoke some Humphrey Bogart: "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, you had to walk into mine."
Your co-workers are getting bombed, and the martinis sure go down smoothly.
Lowndes: A work holiday party is still work, so don't have more than one drink if there are people present whom you respect. Also, don't talk too much to other drunk people because they can misinterpret or misremember things you say.
Boxer: A danger of getting even a little tipsy is that booze loosens your tongue and you might reveal too much. People who divulge too much personal information turn people off.
You can't remember the name of someone you've met 10 times before.
Martinet: Act as happy as you can to see the person, and say something vague like, "It's great to see you!" It's best to listen for a name during an introduction to someone else, but if that doesn't happen, apologize profusely and ask him or her to remind you of the name. "Remind me" sounds better than saying that you "forgot."
As a general rule, any time you commit a faux pas, you should confess, dwell on it and overapologize.
5 RULES OF MINGLING
• Don't gossip about anyone or talk negatively about work, as you don't know who's listening or whom it might get back to.
• Don't make assumptions about people's relationships to one another. It's a recipe for a faux pas.
• Be respectful of people's business cards. The card is representative of who a person is, so hold it in your hand for a while, look at it and put it in your wallet or card case rather than just throwing it in your bag without a glance.
• Don't stay glued to the side of your spouse, date or best friend, as it could prevent you from mingling with other people.
• Thank the host or hostess before you leave, and compliment the party. Also, say goodbye to people with whom you particularly enjoyed schmoozing.
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.