HOW TO FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT
OK. There you are, standing alone, frozen against the wall in a room full of people. You've just arrived, and you've already done the two things that made you look busy: taken off your coat and said hello to your host or hostess, who has long since dashed off to greet another guest or check on the ice supply. What now?
Number one (and numbers two and three): Don't panic. You are not the only person feeling this way. Many people descend into a state of existential angst when faced with tough mingling situations. Some people deal with their fears by withdrawing into a corner; others become nervous or clumsy. Some giggle; some play with their hair or fiddle with their clothing. In fact, minglephobia can cause people to drink too much, eat too much, smoke too much, or—and this can really be dangerous—even dance too much! So it's important not to give in to your fears, especially in those first few crucial moments. Just try to relax and say to yourself, I'm going to fake it till I make it.
Believe it or not, this simple affirmation is an effective, almost magical, way to transform party terror into a positive outlook. Remember when you were little and you used to tell ghost stories to scare yourself and by the end of the night you really did believe in ghosts? It was amazingly easy to fool yourself when you were a child, and it's just as easy to fool yourself as an adult. Just pretend to be happy to be wherever you are; make believe you are confident; simulate self-assurance—even for ten minutes—and an amazing thing will start to happen: You'll actually begin to feel that way, partially because of the response you receive from other people.
Let's face it. Very few people want to talk to someone who is showing outward signs of fear or depression. (Unless it's a Goth or fetish party. But that's a whole other book.) So even though you will probably have at least some apprehension when approaching people you know little or not at all, you must practice putting it aside. Just as if you had to walk out on a stage. Deep breath. Curtain up. Before you know it, you'll discover you're no longer faking it, that your fears have disappeared and you are actually having a good time!
Fake It Till You Make It is an attitude aid rather than a specific technique, but it's important to remember it as you begin to mingle, because it is the basis of all the opening gambits and entry lines. Your mind-set as you enter the fray is extremely important. For the first few minutes of a difficult mingling experience, what you project is more important than what you may be feeling.
FOUR SURVIVAL FANTASIES FOR
THE TRULY TERRIFIED
Sometimes the Fake It Till You Make It mantra isn't enough when you are faced with a room full of Serious Terror Inducers. Serious Terror Inducers are usually defined as people with whom you feel you have nothing in common. The scariest groups for me are investment bankers, people at East Hampton art gallery openings, or the women's bridge club in Provo, Utah. But whether your own worst mingling nightmare is a singles' soiree or your own block association picnic, and whether you are attending a high-pressure business affair or a holiday cocktail party, the following survival fantasies can be lifesavers. They are for those times when you can hardly breathe, when you can't remember your name or the name of the person who invited you, when you suddenly have no idea why you were invited and suspect that someone's secretary must have made a horrible mistake in adding you to the guest list.
The need for this kind of psychological armor varies greatly, of course, with each individual and situation. Extraordinarily shy people and people who haven't been out of the house for two months may use the survival fantasies regularly. Some people (like me) find the fantasies to be so much fun that they use them all the time for the pure kick they get out of them. But in any case, they can provide you with an instant shot of social confidence, enough to allow you to approach a group of intimidating strangers. All you need to make them work is a little imagination.
The Naked Room
Suppose you have just arrived at a large party. As you enter the room, you realize that (1) you don't know a soul there; (2) everyone is talking animatedly; and (3) the second you walked in, you lost every ounce of self-assurance you ever had.
Try this: Just for a moment, imagine that everyone in the room—except for you—is wearing nothing but their underclothes (preferably raggedy ones) and shoes. There are variations, naturally, according to what you think makes people look the most ridiculous and powerless; some people prefer to visualize them in only socks, ties, and jewelry, or in their pajamas, or even completely naked. You can try to imagine them all as four-year-olds. But whatever version works for you, the Naked Room fantasy can be an easy way to turn the tables when you're feeling vulnerable or exposed and is an excellent place to start to build your party confidence. Old acquaintances will wonder what the devil has put that secret smile on your face, and strangers will be intrigued by your cocky demeanor.
The Invisible Man
This fantasy is based on a very simple truth, something my mother used to tell me all the time. Nobody is looking at you. Everyone is too busy worrying about themselves. While this may not be 100 percent true, it is mostly true. The Invisible Man fantasy merely capitalizes on this basic fact, taking it one step further. Ready? You're just not there. You don't exist. Do you think someone's looking at you, wondering snidely why no one is talking to you? You're wrong; everyone's looking right through you because they can't see you. They're looking at the food table, at the wall, at another guest. Remember in the 1933 film The Invisible Man when Claude Rains took off his bandages and was totally transparent? What power he had! How he laughed! Now, invisible as you are, you are free to unself-consciously walk around the room, looking at everyone, looking at the furniture, the paintings—the whole scene—with total relaxation. This gives you time to catch your breath, psychologically, until you feel ready to become visible again and enter the conversational clique of your choice. (Warning: The true introvert may want to be careful with this one; you don't want to stay invisible for too long. I suggest timing yourself for the first couple of tries. Reappearance is an absolute must.)
The Buddy System
Remember in elementary school when you went on field trips and your teacher used to make you line up with a partner so that no one would get lost? In my school, they called this the Buddy System. Well, here you are now, feeling virtually "lost" in this room full of intimidating strangers. How can you possibly get up the nerve to speak to anyone?
Easy. You and your best buddy will go together. Tell yourself that just behind you, over your right shoulder, your very best friend in the whole world is moving with you through the room, listening to everything you say. Voilà: instant calm. After all, your friend loves you, right? Understands you? And probably will have a lot of the same opinions of the people you meet as you do. When you talk, you will be able to imagine this friend smiling at everything you say, offering encouragement and approval. If by chance you are snubbed by some ignorant dolt, you'll hear your friend whisper in your ear, What a jerk!
Of course, you mustn't get carried away and actually speak to your imaginary friend (at least not so anyone can notice).
Pros and Icons
This technique is kind of the Invisible Man fantasy in reverse. It may seem drastic to some people, but I find it so effective, as well as so much fun, that I highly recommend it, especially for the more adventuresome. Don't forget, these fantasy techniques are specifically designed for initial courage; to get you to take that first step, to transform you from a wallflower with an inferiority complex into a participating, mingling member of the party. So try this: Be someone else, just for a little while. This might seem a bit radical, especially since other people have probably been telling you for decades to "be yourself," but if you're standing there at the party terrified, halfway wishing you were somebody else anyway, then why not just do it? The person that you are is giving you a lot of trouble right now and is obviously not the least bit happy about where he is. So pick a favorite celebrity, someone whose poise, posture, or personality you particularly admire, and then . . . slip into him or her. When done right, this technique works much more quickly than the other survival fantasies, because of the mingling power most people attribute to stars—power that instantly becomes accessible to you.
I used to become Bette Davis, especially when faced with really tough rooms or if I was just feeling insecure for some reason. I would visualize her in one of her movie roles, usually as Margot Channing in All About Eve, and pretty soon I would sense my eyebrows going up slightly and my body relaxing as I surveyed the social battlefield with a truly languid amusement. As Bette Davis (or, more specifically, Davis in the role of Margot) I would not just be ready to mingle; I'd be positively hungry for it. No one, by the way, ever looked over at me and said, "Look at that weird woman pretending to be Bette Davis!" because no one, of course, ever noticed the difference. They merely saw a confident—perhaps even interesting—woman. Likewise, no one will be able to tell what you are doing when you use this technique. After all, that's why these are called fantasies—they're secret. Also, you don't have to use a celebrity. You can, if you want, pretend to be someone you know in real life, someone who is never ill at ease (or, more likely, who never seems to be ill at ease—she probably feels the same as you do inside, of course). The only guideline is that you must choose someone you know pretty well; the better you know this person, the easier it is to assume his or her persona.
Some favorite Pros and Icons for women: Ingrid Bergman, Campbell Brown, Katie Couric, Bette Davis, Kirsten Dunst, Goldie Hawn, Katharine Hepburn, Scarlett Johansson, Grace Kelly, Vivien Leigh (as Scarlett, of course), Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Onassis, Sarah Jessica Parker, Julia Roberts, Diane Sawyer, Gertrude Stein, Venus Williams, Oprah Winfrey, and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Men can use Antonio Banderas, Humphrey Bogart, Tom Brady, Pierce Brosnan, George Clooney, Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, Harrison Ford, Jamie Foxx, Bill Gates, Cary Grant, LeBron James, Derek Jeter, Larry King, David Niven, Jack Nicholson, Brad Pitt, Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, Denzel Washington, or even Prince William. Please note: It's best not to use people who are charismatic but may actually be frightening (such as the Rock, Michael Jackson, Christopher Walken, or Janice Dickinson).
Each of these survival fantasies will take some practice, particularly if you've never tried anything like this before. But believe me, they will help, especially if you are a person who tends to freeze, to one degree or another, at the very beginning of a difficult mingling experience. You may also develop your own personalized survival fantasy—one that works better for you than any of the ones I have outlined—and that's fine, of course.
And now, bolstered by the survival fantasy of your choice, you are ready to enter the ring, to approach a person or persons—to get to the actual "meat" of mingling.
CHOOSING YOUR FIRST CLIQUE
As in any game or art, deciding where to begin is very important. Every party, every large gathering, has its bright lights, its superstar mingle circles, its personality power points. Should you forge ahead and go right for the loudest, laughingest, most powerful enclave of people in the room?
Absolutely not! Not unless you consider yourself on the intermediate to advanced level in the art of mingling. After all, you've just gone through at least one survival fantasy to get you this far, and you don't want to blow it now by getting shot down by the coolest guest at the party. First you need to get in some relatively safe practice.
Practice Your Mingle on the Socially Challenged
That's right. Scope out the wimpiest, limpest, nerdiest soul in the whole room. This will vary from party to party; it's all relative. Usually it's a quiet person, but not always. (Sometimes it's someone who is laughing way too loud.) He may be inappropriately dressed or at least not completely well put-together. Lots of times you can identify this party misfit by his lost, timid expression or shuffling stance or by the way he appears fascinated by one of the wall fixtures. At any rate, you must think of this first person or cluster of people (perhaps even several clusters, depending on how much practice you need) as your sketch pad, your scratch paper, your dress rehearsal. The PSAT of your mingling experience.
Keep in mind as you approach this person or group that your main purpose here is to learn how certain kinds of conversation work on people, how they feel to you. Did a certain line come naturally to you, or did it sound rehearsed? Was it perhaps executed with the wrong inflection? Because you are interacting with the party's lowest common denominator, you can try out mingling techniques you'd ordinarily never dare to try. It's like practicing your swimming in the shallow end of the pool before venturing into the deep end. Of course, you must always remember, when you are "practicing your mingle" with the socially challenged, that the reaction you get is not necessarily the reaction you can expect from one of the party's bright wits. Nevertheless, the opportunity to practice is invaluable for the minglephobe and should be taken advantage of whenever possible.
There is, as you might have guessed, an added benefit to this technique: Some of the most fascinating people in the world happen to be severely socially challenged. While getting in some stress-free practice with your misfit, you may accidentally have the conversation of a lifetime.
Judging a Book by Its Cover
If you can't find any socially challenged people to practice on, there is another very effective way to choose a safe and easy mingling target. I learned this method while watching my father, a musician, at a rather stuffy party of mostly lawyers and bankers. He stood there, scoping out the party, not talking to anyone, for about fifteen minutes.
Typical Dad, I thought, totally antisocial. Suddenly he made a beeline for a man standing in the corner. Before long, the two of them were engrossed in conversation, laughing away. Curious, I joined them. ("Hey, Dad" is, by the way, always a good entrance line!) The "subject" my father had singled out was a journalist and turned out to be rather a kindred spirit to my father. I noted that they talked on and off for the entire evening.
Later I asked my father how he had chosen this man to talk to, out of all the people at the party. "Easy," he replied. "He was the only man there without a suit and tie on." My father, who never wears a suit and tie if he can help it, had selected his first mingling subject on the basis of similar taste in clothes, on the assumption that the man's attire was an indication of a creative personality. And Dad was right!
Fact one: You can often tell a lot about a person by appearance. Fact two: It is almost always easier to converse with someone who is similar to you than to someone who is dissimilar (though it might not be as interesting). Therefore, if you choose a person who is dressed as you are or even as you would like to be dressed, your chances of a comfortable—maybe even fun—exchange are increased. Because you are at the very beginning of your mingling and you're nervous, it's vital that your first couple of encounters go well, or you may give up and go home before you've even begun to mingle.
Body Language Check
If you were to enter a room where everyone was sitting, the first thing you would do is look for an empty chair. In most mingling situations, you're going to be entering a room where everyone is standing (more or less), but you still need to find an open spot. Examining body language will help you to find a person or group of people who will be receptive to talking to you.
I don't mean that you should stand around for a long time analyzing your surroundings until you suddenly realize there is no food left and everyone has gone home. With a cursory scan you can fairly quickly ascertain which people are "open" and which are "closed." If, on the one hand, you see three people in a tight circle who are laughing hysterically or talking intently with their arms around each other, this is a closed group and will be hard to enter. If, on the other hand, you see two people standing loosely together, looking around the room with pleasant (but hopefully not vapid) expressions on their faces, this is an open situation. Most enclaves will fall somewhere in between these two extremes, of course. Take a quick inventory: Is there space between people's bodies? Is someone in the group looking out at the party population in general? Are they leaning in toward each other, as if they don't want anyone to overhear them? Trying to join two people who are talking earnestly to each other is riskiest; if their eyes never leave each other's faces you might take it as a Do Not Disturb sign.
The Safety of Numbers
When making that all-important decision of whom to approach first, keep in mind one of the simplest, oldest maxims in the history of human interaction: There is safety in numbers. Whether you are making a gentle approach or a boisterously dramatic entrance, your chances of avoiding total disgrace are statistically better with a larger group of people. Either everyone will notice you as soon as you enter the circle and, because there are so many people, some of them (at least one, anyhow) are bound to be polite, or no one will notice you joining the group, giving you ample time to listen, digest the different personalities, and choose an appropriate opening line—or escape from the clique totally unscathed, a virtual mingling virgin.
In general, the larger the group, the larger your range of options. Perhaps most important, in a large group you will almost definitely not die the horrible death of awkward silence, something that can happen to you when you are involved with a cluster of two or even three people.
Of course, the best defense against awkward silences is a great opening.
Copyright © 2006 by Jeanne Martinet. All rights reserved.