How does a party work?

Like many here on the Straight Dope, I am a socially maladjusted misfit. I’m 51, and have gained the maturity to acknowledge this. And because I have been like this since I was a child, I never learned how to deal with many social situations, and parties in particular.

This is not to say that I don’t have friends. Small groups of people I already know, no problem at all. I can talk to friends and acquaintances, make jokes and be generally amusing and reasonably charming.

But I have no idea how to deal with a party. I’m always deeply uncomfortable, and I have no clue about how one walks up to a stranger and starts a conversation.

A friend died ten years ago. He was a very popular guy, and every year since he died, his friends have thrown a big party celebrating his life - hundreds of people. I had avoided going to any of these parties because I feared the discomfort of a party situation. Finally, a decade after he died, a mutual friend insisted that I go.

It was as bad as I feared. This group probably contained the greatest number of people I could know. Out of a several hundred people at the party, I’m sure I had met at least a hundred, and been in the homes of at half that number.

Some people have the knack of interposing themselves into a group, a conversation, or just starting up a conversation with random people.I don’t. I wound up sitting by myself into the friend wanted to leave.

So, what is the trick to these things? How do you start conversations? What didn’t I learn?

All parties are different.

You might be better suited for a smaller, quieter, more impromptu affair. Personally, I would prefer this over a ginormous thing where people are making speeches and offering up toasts every five minutes.

Or maybe parties just aren’t your thing. There’s nothing wrong with not liking a certain type of social interaction.

I have dealt with this problem myself, a lot, and it took me a long time to become comfortable in a party situation where most of the attendees are strangers. I’m still not genuinely completely comfortable with it. The worst possible situation is to be in a party situation where everyone else knows each other, and you are the stranger.

Here’s the trick, and it’s so obvious I can’t believe it took me so long to figure it out, and it’s just three simple words: “How ya doin’?”

That’s it. It’s really that simple. Ignore your nerves, ignore the awkwardness of it, just walk up to someone, anyone, and say the words. Follow that up with your name and a hand. Ask them who else they know at the party. Ask about the weather. Ask what they’re drinking. Ask about anything, it doesn’t matter. Tell them a joke, tell them about the traffic today, tell them about anything. Make something up if you have to. Just talk. It’s called “small talk” for a reason.

First of all, misfits rule. :cool:

The best thing to remember: people love to talk about themselves. Assume you have a similarity already, as that is what brought you to that setting. Just ask and you will find it goes from there.

If it’s a big thing, “So what are you doing here?” (Alternatively: “How did you know…?” if it’s a situation as described above.)

If it’s a smaller event, or someone you know, “Seems like it’s been forever since I saw you last. How’s life going?”

Other options:
“Wow, this punch is great/pretty good/terrible. What do you think’s in it?”
“I don’t think I’ve heard this song before. Do you know who it’s by?”
“I saw your shoes/dress/tie pin/suit/etc. as I was walking by and just had to tell you how great it/they look. Where did you get it/them?”

Or, and probably the hardest (but most truthful) of all:
“I really hate gatherings like this. I’m never sure who to talk to/what to say.”
Turns out most people feel this way, and you’ll make a couple instant friends.

Good luck!

I would be careful speaking negatively about food…I once said “those meatballs look disgusting” to the person who replied, “well they tasted fine this morning when I made them!” (insert dying PacMan noise here)

As an introvert, I can say that alcohol helps. Your social inhibitions will be at all-time highs in an unfamiliar environment surrounded by dozens of unfamiliar people, so knock them down with a couple beers or rum&cokes. I usually started the night at college parties quietly, just talking to the people I came with, but by the end of the night I could talk to anybody about anything and dance with strangers. Booze in moderation is a great social lubricant (but you don’t want to turn into The Drunk Guy/Girl**™, so don’t overdo it).

If you don’t ever drink, you can safely disregard this advice.

It’s supposed to be fun. So if you don’t have fun at them, there isn’t really a point in going. Except that going to a party shows the inviter that you like them enough to at least pop by.

How a party “works” is a different matter. I’m pretty social, so I’ve been going to all sorts of parties since I was in jr high. Regardless of what type, a party is not one homogenous sea of people. Although it may appear to be. It can really be broken down into smaller and smaller groups of people and activities.

For the party you describe, if you already know 50 people there, it should be relatively easy. You basically just float around and when you see someone you know, you’re like “hey [you] how have you been?!” [small talk small talk] “It was great seeing you!”

Best thing to do is show up dressed like Jar-Jar Binks and shout things like “MEESA WANNA PARTY!” and “MEESA WANNA GET LAID!”

Costume party, wedding reception, wake—doesn’t matter.

But in all those situations smile when you say it, otherwise it will look like you are going to start an ill-tempered rant. People go to parties to have a good time, and will avoid you like the plague if you give off bad vibes. Don’t comment on the food you dislike, but do compliment the food you like. If the conversation is going south, remember that a party is a busy place and you can always smile and say “You have a point there-sorry, but I think I see someone I have to get in touch with-thank you!”

If you are invited to a party you obviously know someone. Hang with them and meet others through them. No need to walk up to random strangers. Unless she is hot.

When it comes to large gatherings, I’m a wallflower/ready-to-leave-after-twenty minutes guy myself. I’m just not a schmoozer. I think it bothers other people more than it does me.

Parties are for people who want to be with other people.
Maybe to catch up with old friends to see what they are doing, maybe to meet new people to broaden your horizons (or get laid), or maybe just to hang out with just one or two close friends and eat and drink for free and make snide comments about the others.

If you don’t like being with other people much, there is probably no point in going.

I think it depends on your mood and the kind of party. If it is all people you know, it should be relatively easy to mingle and walk around and compliment people on how they look or share old stories from back in the day or whatever.

If the party is mostly strangers it gets trickier and not a lot of fun for many people.
I have been to lots of parties - intimate affairs, large company parties, weddings, etc.
Now I don’t much like going to them - but every once in awhile, if I am in the mood and there is a good reason to go, I attend and have no problem striking up a conversation. Best way to start talking is to find someone off by themselves and just say hello. Chances are they either don’t know anybody or are just as uncomfortable as you are and it should be easy to make small talk, should you be so inclined.

Best rule of thumb is: If you don’t want to go, don’t go. Nobody wants a stick in the mud at their party, so just stay away. If you do go, you are making a commitment to at least try to be social.

This was a party celebrating the life of a friend. I know a large number of the people there, but most of the people I know were working the party. The friend was an artist, who was also known for his BBQ. So his closest friends were serving BBQ in his honor, and most of them spent the party dishing out ribs, brisket, pulled pork, etc to the rest of the city’s artists. So it was not really easy for me to talk to our mutual friends. It was the rest of the crowd I had a difficult time talking to.

I’m pretty sure if I had attended any of the early parties celebrating our friend, I might have had an easier time of it, but after ten years, I suspect half of the folks were just there for the free BBQ, and had no idea of the reason for the party, so trying to strike up a conversation about him would have proven fruitless. (I suspect this because there was a silent auction going on for some of his work, and not only did the announcer mis-pronounce his name, but the cheers for him were weak and scattered.)

As for being a “stick in the mud”, I’m trying. I’m asking, what’s the secret?

No, I don’t drink, and don’t really wish to start. From external observation, all it seems to do is make people loud and dumb.

This is true. When meeting people I find that “how is your week going?” or “did you do anything exciting this week?” or something like that is often good. If they start talking about a concert or a movie they went to then maybe I could find we have some interests in common. If they start talking about the basketball game last night or what their kids are doing I won’t be as interested but it’s better than awkward silence. And once they start talking, it’s easier to think of follow up questions or your own contributions to keep the conversation going.

And the smallest group possible is a group of one. That person might welcome some conversation. Even if he/she is waiting for a friend to come out of the bathroom, it’s a door into a conversation.

Here’s something that I tried a few times to great success: Make it your goal to say hello to everyone at the party, one person or group at a time. Start at one end of the house and work your way to the other end. I almost guarantee that you won’t get much further than 5 or 6 people. So start with the “cool” end of the house!

Are you interested in other people? Are you curious about the lives of other people? Then ask them about themselves. It works a lot like a message board, except it involves a lot less typing. The idea isn’t to “ask people questions,” but to show interest in other people. If you don’t know much about their interests and experiences, it’s a perfect opportunity to ask follow-up questions. If you do know something about their interests and experiences, you have common ground. If you go into it with the right attitude, it’s kind of a no-lose proposition.

Speaking of getting in the right mindset, if you’re dreading the experience, your body language is going to be unwelcoming. If you go into it with a genuine interest in other people, interacting with other people will be a satisfying experience.

I kind of agree that lots of people like to talk about themselves, I would tweak it a bit to say that people want to feel wanted, important, valuable, liked, and validated.

I read somewhere that it’s tough for lots of people — not just you — to strike up a conversation. Don’t you feel kind of relieved when someone breaks the ice for you? By taking that responsibility off someone else and doing it yourself, you may actually be doing them a favor for which they may be grateful.

Also, start slow. Don’t try to hit every person at a party. Start slow with maybe just a few people. Note that I didn’t say “one,” you don’t want to come across as clingy. I would recommend aiming for the other “wish-I-wasn’t-a-wallflower” types. One of the best openers is “so how do you know the host?” Everything they volunteer can be a conversational stepping-stone to someplace else. Favor open-ended questions over yes-or-no questions, or if you do go with a yes or no question, be interested enough to ask follow-ups.

Lastly, it has to be said: know when to cut bait. The law of averages state that you are going to find some people boring, insufferable, obnoxious or annoying. You can gracefully leave by grabbing a drink, a bite to eat. Or even better yet, ask “Do you know where the restroom is?” and you’re off.

For the record, I’m an introvert whose had similar difficulty as you. Sometimes I’ve done great and other times not so much. The better I do at the things above, the better time I’ve had.

Good luck!

That’s just portion control.

I’m being flip, but it’s the truth.

Asking questions is the right way to go, but just a few. If it doesn’t spark a conversation, then move on to another small group or individual. Plus, you have to actually apear to be interested in the answers.

I’m good at this and I don’t really like most people, but at parties I can drift around and talk for hours to complete strangers about many many things. I never call them out on woo or stupid ideas, and I let them rant about politics or sports teams all they want. Its not a debate, its a party.

Hmm, perhaps go with a friend or friends who can introduce you to people. Ask questions about them, and try to relate their answers with something related to you so you both can converse. If it’s a party party getting good and buzzed always helps. If you’re alone, perhaps just attach yourself to a group and just listen for awhile, and chime in when something interesting comes up. Humor is also good, you don’t need to be interested in or know about anything to make people laugh. That all being said I’m not the best person during parties myself, and prefer smaller get togethers with friends.