How Do We Start at the Party?

I love children’s books. But now that my son is grown, I forget to reread them. Recently I dug an old favourite out of our collection of Keepers. It’s called “The Party” by Barbara Reid.   It is about two little girls going with their parents to one of those backyard summer family parties to celebrate their Grandma’s birthday.  I love the artwork and the simple but evocative prose of this book. But there is a more important feature of the story. It’s a practical guide to how we navigate social gatherings. “The Party” describes all the social elements of the C.A.R.E. model .  In social settings, there is so much to read and interpret, finding our way through can be daunting. Personally, I always found it nerve-wracking. I was well into my thirties before I felt enough confidence in myself to go to social events without being paralyzed by fear. Things are much better for me now but I know the pain and frustration of social anxiety and how it limits one’s life.

In this book, the big question is:  “How do we start at the party?” Initiating and navigating contact with others are skills that get stronger with practice.  But you need to know how to do them.

The first step is evaluation. In “The Party”,  the girls meet some cousins as soon as they arrive. First they all stand and look at each other. Then, they begin to share information. Someone has lost a tooth, someone else cut their own hair. Another boy skinned his knee. They each share their updates, events, big news. Watching and listening, we find what we have in common with others in the group. And we gravitate towards those people. If there are not many folks who share our interests, we can continue to observe the action. Consulting a cell phone isn’t usually a recommended practice for in person socializing, but it can provide cover for anyone wanting to “watch the room” and wait to see where they might slide in. Just don’t get lost in your messages!

When (and if) you do find your “people”, you begin to interact with them. In the story, the kids start to play tag. This eventually transforms into a fantasy game involving a dragon (sleeping uncle) and illicit treasure (some potato chips to be stolen away). Playing together is an important developmental step in learning to socialize. Eventually it evolves into interactions like chatting. But however we get there, we are looking for those we can relate to in some way. It need only be one or two others. Think of your little group as a mini oasis in the larger social gathering.

In ”The Party”, after the playing and eating and singing Happy Birthday are done, the sky begins to get dark and the gathering winds down. There is that last burst of energy as kids try to hide from their parents to avoid leaving. This is another tricky social skill: exiting. Eventually, after final pleas from the kids, lawn chairs and children are gathered up and packed into cars. Goodbyes are called and the party’s over. At the end of the book,  the two sleepy sisters are tucked in the back seat, with traces of icing on their faces and their hair all out of place. They are the perfect picture of a good time. Whenever my son and I closed the book, it always felt like we’d been at the party too.

Parties have been on my mind since the holiday season just passed.  In December, ImprovAbility hosted a “Festivus” Party., taking the theme from a famous Seinfeld episode.  (“A Festivus for the Rest Of Us!”) This was The Unparty for those who don’t party, for whatever reason. The room had specific areas devoted to activities.  There was a guitarist with some other instruments ( if you wanted to play along ), “Feats of Strength” (board games), The Airing of Grievances (a table with one of our coaches ready to hear any problems…or to take compliments if you were doing fine), and of course food.  Meatloaf is the suggested food for Festivus but we modified the menu in favour of more fun fare.  As people arrived, they read the signs (actual signs on the walls) to help everyone figure out where they might be most comfortable.

One young man was very anxious and kept his coat on until he felt O.K. to come inside the room.  When the party was over, he was one of the last to leave.  But to start, he needed to be able to join at his own pace. No one urged him to come in.  Everyone just let him evaluate the room from the hall until he had sorted it out for himself and found a place to start.

A group of our younger adults huddled together with their phones in hand, chatting and consulting their screens.  I overrode my impulse to suggest the phones go away so they could just talk.  This was working for them… They were
interacting in a socially typical way for their age group.

Groups formed and reformed.  People with varying degrees of social comfort chatted.   Some sat and enjoyed the music, others played board games intensely,  ( the only way to approach a “Feat of Strength”).  And while there turned out to be very little grievance airing, many people approached John to talk about a variety of topics.

After two hours, we made a clear announcement that the party was winding up in 15 minutes.  Most people were there till the finish.  They left wanting more, the best way to leave.  One real social pitfall is to try to extend a good time beyond it’s “Best Before” date.   Always exit before you feel too tired or stressed to leave feeling positive.  Imprint a memory of social success for yourself.  Stockpile your fun social events – to draw on when you feel down or socially shy.

So, the next time you go to a social event, assess the room before you do anything.  Then try to find someone else who may be a reluctant socializer. Maybe ask them an opening question:  “Have you tasted the dip?”  “How do you know… (Host’s Name Here)…?”   Or start with an opening comment,  about a neutral common subject: “This room is great for parties.”  “The food here is delicious.”  or  “I’ll bet they throw a lot of parties, the hosts are so relaxed”  (if that’s true…)  Then wait and listen.  See how the other person responds.  They might be nervous too. But no matter, you’ve made a start at the party.

Take CARE!

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