How to Circulate at Holiday Parties

Dear Helena,
Last year I went to a friend's annual holiday party and spent the evening standing in the corner of the kitchen, chatting and joking with the two people I knew there. The next day, the host called me, ostensibly to have a party postmortem, but then it turned out he wanted to know why I had been "sulking" in the kitchen. Does a guest have some sort of obligation to mingle?
—Secretly Shy

Dear Secretly Shy,
When hosting a party, part of the fun is introducing separate friend groups to each other and watching new connections form. So although your primary job as a guest is to have a good time, yes, you do also have to mingle. It's true that all the people in the host's other friend groups may be boring, self-absorbed, or just not simpatico, but what's the worst-case scenario? You return to your clique or to your significant other with some amusing tidbits to report. If I hadn't bothered to mingle at a party recently, I would never have met the woman who told me her 18-month-old is not potty trained, but does not wear diapers and still sleeps in the family bed.

Fortunately, mixing at a party is easy. Remember that SAT trick "Scan, select, discard, move on"? The strategy for mingling is rather similar.

1. Scan
Survey your options. Some people are more receptive to conversational overtures than others. It can be very hard to break into a conversation where all the participants know each other already. Look for situations where people are briefly separated from their friends, such as when they are standing in the bathroom line or getting themselves a drink.

2. Select
Don't lurk, or you will look creepy. There's no need to hang about trying to come up with a clever opener—you're not at a bar trying to pick this person up. But don't begin the obvious way, by introducing yourself. This automatically commits you to at least a few minutes of chitchat, and you can't immediately sidle off if the person turns out to be a dud. Instead, just make a casual remark about the situation at hand, such as: "This champagne punch is pretty potent. What do you think is in it?" If you're stuck for a follow-up, know that most people will be alarmed if you start with a probing inquiry such as "What do you do for a living?," or, as scary hippies like to ask, "What are you passionate about?" Instead, just ask the other person how he or she knows the host. This is a hackneyed question, but asking hackneyed questions is an accepted social ritual. From there, you can transition to a more interesting topic. "You met at banjo camp? Are you in a band too?"

3. Reselect
Most people tend to ignore guests who are hanging around on the edge of a conversation, but this is unkind. A really good guest creates a microparty within the party by welcoming strays into his or her immediate circle. So draw them in with a simple remark like: "Hey, just to fill you in, we're talking about whether gravity boots are due for a comeback." If one person in your group is in the middle of an epic anecdote, it's OK to say: "Sorry, let me interrupt you for a minute," and then tell the stray, "Quick backstory: Marcia here is telling us about the time she accidentally picked up a prostitute."

4. Move On
It can be especially hard to escape from a conversation if the other person is the type of bore who never stops talking. An unceasing monologue can inflict a kind of paralyzing drowsiness that makes you unable to come up with a getaway line. But you don't need to. Simply say, "Well, I'm going to get another drink." This is the universally understood code for, "I've enjoyed talking to you, but now I'm going to circulate."

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