Wednesday, October 22, 2014

How to Mingle the Socially Awkward Way

My sister-in-law Megan, who's getting her master's degree in speech language pathology, was recently awarded a big deal scholarship. As part of accepting the scholarship, there was an awards dinner in her honor and she invited Phillip and I to be her guests.

The catered dinner was tasty and the speeches interesting, but the mingling beforehand. Ah, the mingling. It made me realize something: I don't know how to do it.

And it's crazy, because I'm a social person. I love friends and getting to know new people. You can count on me to introduce myself to the visitor at church or start chatting up the other mom at the mall playplace every time.

You might think it's just that I don't like small talk, which really isn't it. I have no problem approaching a random stranger and striking up a conversation. In fact, I like to do this. If I could just go to a function, meet one person, and talk to them for the rest of the night I'd be completely happy.

It's moving around. It's circulating. I'm lost when it comes to group socializing.

The first few minutes after we arrive are the worst. I get my drink (water, of course) and stand there feeling like a potted plant, mentally chiding myself, You're standing too stiffly! Relax! And then mentally retorting, I know! I'm trying, okay?

What do I do with my posture? Where do I put my hands? Crossed over my chest is unfriendly. On my hip is brash. Limply at my side is weird.

Okay, I've stood there awkwardly for the requisite time period. Now I need to go find someone to talk to. How am I supposed to do that? Everyone else in the room is already part of a group, engaged in a conversation. How do I insert myself into one of those?

I suppose I could just wander around with my little plate of finger sandwiches, creepily hovering near groups waiting for a break in the conversation and hoping they'll let me in.

Oh, there's a group with a gap in it! I could just lodge myself in there and start nodding at what they're saying and laughing along at their jokes... would that be weird? What if I don't successfully make it into the group and I'm kind of stuck halfway in and halfway out? Do I need to excuse myself before leaving?

Even if I successfully manage to get in a conversation, the trouble isn't over. I'm worried about when the other people in the group will want to keep circulating and move on. Isn't there like a 10-minute time limit on these things? 20 minutes? I don't know.

What if they start talking about something I know nothing about? What if I have nothing to contribute to the conversation? If we all run out of things to say does that mean it's time to revive the conversation with a new topic, or is it time to cut our losses and go find someone different to chat with?

I also become ultra-conscious of my hands. I feel like I'm gesturing too much as I talk, or not enough. Am I over-analyzing my hands? Do other people over-analyze their hands?

If I've got a drink or a little plate in one hand, that cuts my worrying-about-what-to-do-with-my-hands in half, so that's good. But then I'll be eating, which means I'll probably have a mouth full of food when someone asks me a question. And I get nervous, which translates into chugging my drink or going to town on my food. So then I've got an empty plate or glass in my hand.

Another thing I have no clue how to do: exiting a conversation. How is this done smoothly, especially in light of the fact that you're all milling around the same room and may well run into this person again over the course of the evening?

I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to just wait until conversation flags and then awkwardly back away. Or to say abruptly, "Well, I'm done talking to you now." Seriously, you're mingling at a party so you both know you don't have anywhere you really need to be, you just want to go talk to someone, anyone, who isn't them. How do you say that without saying it?

Some people are really good at this mingling thing. At the scholarship dinner, I watched one person after another working the room like a boss. They seemed to just know how to flow seamlessly from one part of the room to another making friendly small talk, like a bird knows how to build a nest or Monarchs migrate to Mexico every winter.

It's like they don't even know that there is some kind of complicated social choreography going on around them, they just go with it.

What I took away from the scholarship dinner is this: God has given me a lot of strengths, but mingling at parties isn't one of them.

If you're ever sitting next to me on a plane, rest assured that I'll strike up a conversation with you.

If you're watching your granddaughter on the playground, I'll ask how old she is and chat for as long as you want.

But know that I'll be extremely awkward if I meet you during forced-mingling hour at a social function.

It's just not my thing.

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Jenny Evans (sister, not author) said...

You just perfectly described my behavior in the very same situations!

Unknown said...

I'm a bit weirded out by the fact that the person above is also called Jenny Evans! So confusing :-) I totally, totally know how you feel almost exactly! I too think of myself as a sociable person and would be exactly the same in all the one on one situations you mention, but get me in a room full of people socialising and I am useless. I went to the British blog conference Blogfest last November and it went well because I knew a few people in advance and had arranged to meet up with them - I always had one or two people to search out in between sessions, but in those moments when I was on my own I felt a bit like a deer in the headlights! I think this is fairly common though if what I read of other's experiences is anything to go by. There should be a little corner where all the socially awkward people can go and meet and be socially awkward together :-) I also realised that I have never really managed to be a part of a friendship group (bigger than three anyway!) - I have lots of really good individual friends but I just lose my voice and feel invisible in bigger groups especially if there is an 'alpha' female dominating the scene. I thought I'd grow out of this but even in my early 40s I still feel that way. X

Jenny Evans (sister, not author) said...

What's even weirder is that I'm her sister-in-law and we grew up in the same town. Pretty sure I accidentally stole her library card/account when I went back to visit once and tried to renew it. Haha!

Jenny Evans said...

I keep waiting to not feel intimated by people who are older than me... I've legally been an adult for 14 years, and I'm still waiting!

As for Jenny and I, we're a few years apart so when I was a teenager we went by Big Jenny and Little Jenny. Not sure what to call ourselves now that we're both big.

Unknown said...

I live in a small town where I am related to half of the people at any given function, so I haven't really had this experience, but I totally get struggling with thinking about your hands. I am a big hand talker and have more than once knocked someone drink into them with my hand when I was talking, including my son's teacher. Talk about awkward!

Jenny Evans said...

And then you are "that mom" for the rest of the year... I feel your pain.

Unknown said...

I'm fairly inept at the Mingling part. I like to just sit and talk. I could do that all day.