How To Work A Room In Social Settings

By Matt Lindner
Chicago Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Not everyone can, nor necessarily wants to, be the star of the show. With that in mind, experts say there are plenty of ways to go about working a room.

Chicago Tribune

As surely as winter brings with it falling temperatures and shorter days, so too does it bring myriad work and family social engagements.

From the company party to the holiday-themed bar crawl to that get-together at your second cousin twice removed in-law’s place, more often than not, you’ll find yourself making small talk with those who aren’t necessarily your nearest and dearest at some point over the next month or so.

“So many people don’t like small talk,” says Bela Gandhi, founder of date coaching firm Smart Dating Academy. “All friends were once strangers. Small talk is what leads to big talk.”

So, how can you own a room and leave a memorable mark on everyone in attendance in a social setting?

Peter Diamond, a Chicago-based executive coach and author, says it’s important to be true to yourself.

“People can spot someone who is a fake or who is trying too hard,” he says. “If you’re a great storyteller or you tell great jokes, those are the people where it’s easy for them to become the hit of the party. People easily gravitate toward them.

That’s a small group of people that can really do that well. If you’re not really good at doing that, it’s probably not the time to try and showcase those skills.”

Not everyone can, nor necessarily wants to, be the star of the show. With that in mind, experts say there are plenty of ways to go about working a room.

Josh Udashkin, founder and CEO of luggage manufacturer Raden, says reading a person’s body language is key.

“If someone looks like they want someone to talk to, don’t be shy,” he says. Conversely, if they look like you’re boring them to death, move on.”

There’s also the idea of, well, having a reason to interact with a complete stranger or casual acquaintance to begin with.

“I always find something in common with a person and go from there,” adds Kimberly Eberl, founder and CEO of Chicago-based public relations firm Motion PR. “Appearance does matter too. Dressing smart makes you approachable and can inspire people to circle around you.”

Diamond says he was recently at a party where a woman did just that.

“A woman wore a really interesting shrug,” he says. “It just wrapped around her shoulder, and it was made of this faux fur, but it really stood out in the sea of other items that people were wearing. Wearing a piece of clothing or some jewelry that’s a conversation starter (could be helpful).”

But being the proverbial belle of the ball at a holiday party isn’t always about making yourself the center of attention.

“Everybody’s favorite subject is themselves,” Gandhi says. “The best way to become a great conversationalist is to become a great listener. People that don’t feel listened to, they’re not going to want to talk to you anymore.”

Since the host of a party tends to be the one thing everyone has in common, regardless of whether it’s a family or an office shindig, Diamond recommends publicly calling attention to the host if you’re unsure of what else to do.

“Give a toast to the host, especially if it’s a smaller party and you can get people together,” he says. “That’s a great way of acknowledging the host, saying something charming and eloquent, and people will remember that. It doesn’t have to be really long.”

Regardless of who you’re out with, it’s generally a good idea, especially given the volatility of recent current events, to keep things light.

“A lot of principles about dating also apply to networking,” Eberl says. “For example, you wouldn’t talk about politics or religion on a first date, and you shouldn’t when you’re working a room. Keep it light and upbeat. We all have bad days, but don’t bring negativity into the room.”

But what if you’re naturally an introvert who tends to loathe social settings?

Northwestern University psychology professor Bill Revelle says that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“Some feel a need to talk to everyone at the party,” he says. “Others are quite happy just talking to two or three people at the party. If they have the opportunity to choose, they’ll probably be talking to one or two people, and talk a lot.”

But being someone who doesn’t necessarily thrive in social settings with strangers doesn’t necessarily mean you’re limited to picking out one or two people at a party and hoping they like you.

“Chances are a lot of the people at that party don’t know many people or are interested in meeting someone new,” Udashkin says. “They wouldn’t be there otherwise.”

“Don’t give yourself the excuse that I’m shy,” Gandhi says. “This is just another muscle, another skill that you can develop. If you are introverted, do more active listening. It becomes so much easier to make active conversation.”

“Starting is the hardest part in almost anything in life, and I think that rings true when an introvert is tasked to network,” Eberl adds. “After meeting the first couple of people, hopefully the confidence will be built, and it’ll become easier to share and talk.”

If you are flying solo and want to make a point of meeting as many people as you can, Gandhi recommends setting a goal for yourself, and having a short, personal story top of mind.

“If I want to be the hit, I can’t stand in the corner hoping that five to 10 people are going to talk to me,” she says. “Since the beginning of time, people have loved being regaled with a good story. Just make sure your story is not 20 minutes long, where people are like, ‘Oh my God, get to your point.'”

Of course, certain holiday gatherings lend themselves to awkward situations, particularly when family is involved.

For instance, if you’re single and Uncle Fred wants to know if you’ve met someone, or if you’re part of a married couple and Aunt Edna wants to know when the two of you are going to start a family, you could find yourself feeling a bit uncomfortable.

Experts say the best way to alleviate these situations is to simply deflect the question.

“Talk about all the great things you’re doing,” Diamond says. “Just say, ‘Hey look, I had a great year this year, I took some trips.’ … Just talk about the fact that you have a full, exciting, engaging life. Make that the conversation and not feel that you have to respond to their question.”

“Bounce the ball right back at them,” Gandhi adds. “Then it’s not awkward. Then you don’t have to answer the question, but you also don’t have to say Uncle Fred, that’s really rude, because he doesn’t mean to be rude. It’s just the story that we’re telling ourselves. Most likely, they’re just trying to make conversation.”

Drunken uncles and co-workers aren’t the only ones who will put their foot in their mouth this time of year.

Even the most experienced of social climbers has been in a situation where they’ve said something that may have sounded great in their head but comes out sounding cringe-worthy.

“If you do create a faux pas, you just let it go, and move on because if you try and recover, it goes nowhere fast,” Diamond says. “It’s awkward for about 30 seconds, and either the conversation will move on or that person will walk away, and more than likely, it’s no harm, no foul.”

Others disagree, however.

“I always call a spade a spade,” Eberl says. “Humans make mistake; humans forgive. Apologize, state the obvious and move on.”
“Get another drink, and don’t dwell on it,” Udashkin adds.

And if you feel you can’t recover from a social faux pas or you’d just rather be home than out, well, there’s always art in a graceful exit.

“When your energy begins to wane, call it a night,” Diamond says.

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