1. First things first: Remember that most people you’re about to meet are just as uncomfortable as you are.
Tons of people self-identify as shy — in fact, the numbers of shy people have grown in the past 20 years (58% in 2007, up from 40% in 1995). “According to the shyness research, most of us feel uncomfortable walking into a room where we don’t know many people,” Susan RoAne, keynote speaker and author of How to Work a Room: The Ultimate Guide to Making Lasting Connections—In Person and Online (William Morrow, 2013), told BuzzFeed Life.
Bottom line: You’re definitely not the only one dreading this cocktail party, and that should hopefully help take the edge off. And with that in mind…
2. Shift your attitude before you walk into the room to focus on others and not on yourself.
“A lot of the time we go into a social situation thinking, How can I make myself more comfortable?” RoAne says. “Your attitude shift should be, What can I do to make other people comfortable around me?” See that first tip again for a reminder about why this attitude adjustment matters. Bonus points: “The person you’re talking to will become more comfortable,” RoAne says, “which makes you more comfortable!”
People make snap judgments about whether or not you’re a “trustworthy” person after only 34 milliseconds of looking at your face, according to research from Princeton University. And further research found that your facial expressions can influence those judgments.
Simply put: “People judge smiling faces as trustworthy, and angry-looking faces as untrustworthy,” Peter Mende-Siedlecki, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in the psychology department at NYU, told BuzzFeed Life. Mende-Siedlecki is also one of the co-creators of a TED lesson called “Should You Trust Your First Impression?”
4. Before you go somewhere new, know what you’re getting yourself into.
Before you go do something where you know you’ll meet new people — whether that’s a job interview or your partner’s office holiday party — do your research. “Figure out who’s going to be there, what the theme of the event will be,” RoAne said. “That helps you customize your approach, dress for the occasion, and prepare for potential conversation starters.”
Mende-Siedlecki agrees: “It’s a matter of knowing the context that you’re walking into, and knowing the norms for the environment.” Mental preparation can put you on the right wavelength before you even walk in the door — and will minimize how much spur-of-the-moment thinking you have to do. And dressing as formally or informally as other people are will make you feel more comfortable and less self-conscious. This allows you to focus more on the conversations you’re having, rather than wonder if people are judging you for wearing a T-shirt to a formal event.
5. Prepare a seven- to nine-second introduction about yourself.
“This is NOT the 15- to 30-second networking thing,” RoAne says. Rather, it’s a warm introduction, followed by one or two statements about yourself. The idea is to give the other person something that they can comment on to get the conversation going. RoAne suggests explaining your relationship to the host, and making an observation that the other person can ask questions about or add their own observations to.
For instance, something I could have said at my brother’s recent graduation: “Hi, it’s so nice to meet you! I’m Carolyn, Jimmy’s sister. I’m from New York, and it’s been great to explore Chicago this weekend.”
6. Find a more interesting way to talk about what you do.
The standard go-to when meeting people is to introduce yourself by saying your name and your job. The problem with that is unless you do something utterly fascinating, it’s not going to drive conversation forward. You need to give the person you’re talking to more to work with.
RoAne suggests that instead of stating your job title and company, give a more general and even mysterious statement about what you do — like by stating the benefit of your job. “When you give them the benefit of what you do, you give them the opportunity to ask questions,” she says. For example: If you’re a realtor you can say you help put a roof over peoples’ heads. If you’re a textbook salesperson you can say you give kids the tools they need to learn.
And if this sounds too cheesy or embarrassing, you can always stick with your job title and company as long as you add an extra line in there describing some unusual element of your day-to-day. For example: “I’m a health editor at BuzzFeed, and I spend as much time talking to doctors as I do hunting for the perfect GIF.”
7. Learn these four little magic words: “And how about you?”
So you’ve just explained the benefit of your job, and that elicited some good chit-chat for a minute or so. Instead of turning to the person and saying, “And what do you do?” RoAne suggests leaving it a lot more open-ended. “The four magic words are: And how about you? That invites them to tell you about themselves, and to go in the direction they’re most excited to go in,” she says.
The beauty of this language is that it helps you avoid potential awkwardness — like if you’re talking to someone who’s unemployed, or who hates their job but would love to talk about their hobbies, or who works in an unpaid capacity as a stay-at-home-parent or caregiver. Asking them to talk about themselves is much kinder than pigeonholing them into a conversation about how they currently make money (or don’t).
8. Wear something that makes you feel awesome — it’ll make you more approachable.
“Wear clothes that make you feel good, because you’ll have more confidence,” RoAne says. Along those lines, comfort is key! “If I’m wearing shoes that hurt my feet, I’ll be wincing — that’s unapproachable.”
9. Give compliments that encourage conversation.
Don’t just tell someone you love her shoes. Instead, say that you love them, they’re fantastic, and you’ve been looking for a pair just like them — where’d she get them? “When you’re making an observation, accompany your observation with a question or a statement that invites them to give you a bit more,” RoAne says.
10. Read more. Read everything!
“In order to be a good conversationalist, you have to be well-read,” RoAne says. And that doesn’t mean you should stick to the high-brow stuff, either. “I know a couple people who run associations, and they have their staff read People magazine before they go to an event with their members,” RoAne says. “That guarantees they know what’s going on and can talk about it!”
So maybe you don’t care at all about the fact that Taylor Swift just released the most perfect album of all time. But you should at least know that it happened, because chances are someone else will care about it and will be interested in chatting about it.
11. When in doubt, talk about food.
After all, everyone eats. And most people like talking about it, RoAne says. “They talk about recipes, they talk about diets, they talk about restaurants.” An easy way to talk about food? Strike up conversations with people at the buffet table. Nom nom nom.
Along those lines, may I recommend the BuzzFeed Food newsletter? Food for thought, straight in your inbox.
12. Don’t wait for people to approach you.
“A major roadblock that people have is that we’ve all learned to wait to be approached,” RoAne says. “But good things come to those who initiate.” When you approach anyone, smile warmly, stand up straight, and make good eye contact — “People who do those three things make the other person feel immediately at ease,” she says.
13. Talk to the person who isn’t talking to anyone.
“The one person that’s very easy to talk to is the person standing alone,” RoAne says. “They might be shyer than you. And they’re most likely going to be so relieved that someone’s found them. When you approach someone to talk to, what you’re inherently saying is, ‘You look interesting, you look smart.’” And that’ll make them feel great and appreciate your kindness.
14. Join groups of three or more, especially if they look like they’re having fun.
“A group of three or more people is typically more open to a new person than just two people having a conversation,” RoAne says. When it’s three or more people, they’re not necessarily talking about something personal. When it’s just two people, an unexpected third can feel like a crowd.
15. Find an equal balance between making observations, asking questions, and revealing things about yourself.
This balance is the key to being a great conversationalist, RoAne says. “If you’re always observing, you’re probably pontificating,” she says. “If you’re always asking questions, you can come across as a busybody, or nosy. And if you’re always revealing things about yourself, you’re going to share TMI. The magic’s in the mix.”
Here are examples of each type of statement, in case it helps:
Observation: Wow, this hotel has recently been renovated and it looks gorgeous!
Question: Do you remember what this place used to look like?
Revelation: I was last here a year ago, before they fixed it up.
16. When you’re standing in a circle of people, notice if someone is trying to join in — take a half-step backward to open the circle up.
“If you include someone that’s in on the periphery, it’s a smart thing to do, it’s savvy, and it’s nice,” RoAne says. “You’ll make a great impression on that person, and on the other people in the circle.”
17. Be nice to everyone.
Let’s say you’re at a work or networking event, and a lot of people brought their spouses or children or guests. Your ultimate motive might be to rub shoulders with people who could be good connections at work, but it’s important to pay attention to everyone. “Be nice to the guests, the spouses, and the children of the people who might be in the room with you,” RoAne says. Think about it: “If I work with this woman and her spouse is standing there and I’m ignoring that person, that’s not smart, that’s not nice, and that doesn’t make a good first impression.” Quite the opposite, in fact.
18. When you’re talking to someone, give them your full attention.
“The key to making a great impression is really listening when you’re talking to someone,” RoAne says. That means don’t zone out, check your phone, or look over their shoulder or past their head to see if you can find someone else in the room who you might prefer talking to.
Paying attention and being fully involved in the conversation has benefits beyond not being a jerk. For starters, it might help make the conversation flow more easily. “People tell you what they want to talk about, if you listen,” RoAne says. “But if you’re planning your grocery list in your head, you’re going to miss picking up on small cues that they’re excited, or bored.”
19. Learn to make a graceful exit from a conversation.
RoAne offers this game plan for when you’re ready to mingle elsewhere:
1. Interrupt yourself, not them.
2. Smile warmly, tell them what a pleasure it’s been to talk to them about [fill in the blank… whatever it was you were talking about], and that you could just monopolize their time all night.
3. Say, “But if you’ll excuse me, I need to…” And then offer an excuse. Try: Catch up with my friend from college over there. Grab a bite to eat; those cookies are calling my name. Go help my husband take care of the kid. Go thank the hostess.
You may also want to offer your hand for a handshake, which most people understand to mean, “It was nice meeting you, good-bye.”
“The point is to leave a conversation knowing that you made someone feel better because they’ve talked to you,” RoAne says. Making it clear that you were paying attention, enjoyed the conversation, and are leaving for a reason (rather than because the person is boring) all help.
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