The Art of the Schmooze

One of the great things about holiday parties is that you can catch up with old friends yet still meet new people. You never know where a new contact may lead or what fascinating tidbits a drunk colleague might reveal during a pleasant evening of socializing.

But for some people, parties are pure torture. They’d just as soon be drawn and quartered as to make idle chit-chat with people they don’t know.

If that’s you, fear not. All it takes is a little preparation to turn a room full of strangers into a Rolodexâ„¢ full of contacts. Here are some simple tips from Dr. Lillian Glass, author of “Say It Right: How to Talk in Any Social or Business Situation” (Perigee Books, 1991) that you can use to break the ice and draw people in:

1. Ask Questions

Most people love to talk about themselves. All you have to do is ask. But don’t go for the same-old: “What do you do?”, “Where do you work?”, “How many kids do you have?” routine. Instead, try an off-beat, open-ended question. Start with a statement followed by a question, like:

    “That’s a lovely necklace! Is it an heirloom?”

    “You’re an accountant? I hate numbers! What drew you to that line of work?”

    “I met Joan (the hostess) when I rear-ended her in the parking lot. Where do you know her from?”

…or something similar. Easy topics to quickly engage strangers include current events, offers of assistance (“May I refill your drink?”), or pleas for help (“What is that lady’s name again? It just went right out of my head!”).

Humor breaks the ice nicely, but don’t push it if it doesn’t come easily to you. If the person you’re trying to engage isn’t friendly or acts like you’re intruding on her conversation, move on. There are plenty of other people longing for someone to talk to.

2. Introduce Others With a Flourish

Ever been introduced to someone with a “Sue, this is Leslie, Leslie, this is Sue” approach? Probably. All you can do is say “hello” and nod or shake hands. But if you introduce others and offer a little background information, you give people a place to start talking. It’s a great way to break the ice.

For example:

“Sue, this is Leslie Smith. She’s one of the best patent attorneys in town and a home room mom for her son’s fourth grade class. Leslie, this is Sue Finkelstein. Sue has her own PR firm, and one of the accounts they handle is your favorite shoe store, Sloan’s.”

With just a few more words of introduction, you’ve given these two people a lot to talk about. Not only have you made it easy for them to converse, you come across as a great conversationalist.

3. Get In and Out

If you have several commitments on the same night or are faced with an invitation that would be politically unwise to ignore, opt for the “drive by” or “putting in an appearance” approach. The goal is to get in, get out, and get on with the evening.

Here’s how:

Arrive when the party’s already in full swing, about 30 minutes late. You don’t want to be the first ones there. Bring a hostess gift, if appropriate. Greet the host and take whatever drink he’s offering-even if you don’t want to drink it. Walk around for at least 30 minutes and speak to at least five or six people. Be a part of the party while you’re there.

When you’re ready to go, make a point of saying goodbye to the host, and offer a vague excuse that’s as close to the truth as you can get without hurting the host’s feelings, like “The sitter can only stay until 9”, or “We have tickets”, or “We have company coming” or something like that. Don’t go into elaborate detail, particularly if it’s a fib. It will come back to haunt you and cause ill feelings.

Once the goodbyes are said, don’t linger. Leave without a scene.

4. Ditch Annoying People

So what if your conversational skills engage someone who’s annoying, rude, or too clingy to let you go? You can make a graceful exit several ways, including:

    Look over his/her shoulder and saying, “Oh, there’s so-and-so. I need to ask her something before I forget. Please excuse me.”

    “I need to powder my nose.”

    “How I do run on! Please, don’t let me keep you from the other people you came here to see.”

Then cut and run.

5. Drink Responsibly

This should go without saying, but during the holidays, rules tend to get lax. If you’re the designated driver, don’t drink. If you’re not, try to limit your alcohol consumption to one drink every two hours, particularly if you’re around colleagues. “Loose lips sink ships” and can undermine your career if you’re not careful.

6. Be The Life Of The Party-Within Reason

There are some people who love to be the center of attention and view the office party or family gathering is a welcomed stage.

Some folks are natural performers and do quite well in these venues, garnering themselves scads of invitations as a result. In her book “Personality Plus,” author Florence Littauer tells how she and her brother, both extroverts, kept their weekends booked during high school by being entertaining guests. They would read the newspaper the morning of a party, and spend the rest of the day making up and rehearsing funny conversations about what they’d read. Come party time, their banter back and forth, which appeared completely impromptu to the other guests, would put people in stitches and become the hit of the party. If you’d like to be a welcomed and frequent guest, experiment with this technique.

On the other end of the spectrum, of course, is the uncomfortable “scene”. The obnoxious drunk. The belligerent husband. The emotionally-charged mother-in-law. How, exactly do you handle THOSE situations?

If you’re the host, you need to discharge the situation as quickly as possible or it can ruin the whole event. As uncomfortable as it is, tell the person flat out that his or her behavior is unacceptable. Pull him aside and tell him that he’s had too much to drink, that she’s too upset to think clearly, or whatever the situation, and ask them to leave. If they’re drunk, call a cab for them.

If the obnoxious person has a reputation for this kind of behavior, don’t invite him. Or, put him on notice before the party: “If you cause another scene, Dad, it will be the last time you’re invited.” Then, stick with the threat.

7. Talk, Don’t Eat

One of the hardest things to do gracefully at a party is to hold a drink, a plate full of food, and a conversation at the same time. It’s easy to make a mess of all of them. To keep problems to a minimum, don’t go hungry to a cocktail party. Eat before you go.

That’s right. Eat ahead of time. It worked for Scarlett O’Hara, and it will work for you. With a full stomach, you’ll be less likely to drop food on your clothes, get smashed on half a glass of champagne, or thicken your waistline by grazing on hors d’oeuvres.

Other tips:

    1. Carry a clutch and hold it all night. With your purse in one hand a drink in the other, there’s no hand left over for eating.

    2. Order a Virgin Mary as your cocktail of choice. You won’t get drunk, and the tomato juice will act as an appetite suppressant.

    3. Keep sugar-free mints handy. They give you something to chew on without having to eat.

 
Whatever you do this holiday season, remember that parties are for having fun and meeting new people, so enjoy yourself. If you go with an eye toward entertainment, you’re sure to have a good time.

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