Going to an event by yourself is scary, but do-able. Five years ago I would have laughed in my own face for typing that sentence. When I was in school, the prospect of attending professional events felt harrowing, and the thought of going alone wasn't something I even considered. One day there was an event I really wanted to go to that none of my coworkers or friends were available for. After bouncing between "Oh I could never" and "This is stupid, just go" I eventually put on my big girl pants and went solo. And you know what? I didn't die. I ended up meeting one of my good friends now and was introduced to an entire group of people I would have never met otherwise.
It is common knowledge that attending professional events is key to building a network and staying connected in the industry, but can be intimidating. I'm sure this skill comes naturally to some people, but it really didn't for me. It's something I had to build slowly and get used to with practice. Clearly, I am no expert, but I have picked up a few tips and tricks in the past few years that have made the process easier. If you are like me, and socializing in this format does not come naturally, this post is for you.
Step One: Figure Out What to Wear
Feeling self conscious about the way you look destroys confidence. Wear something that makes you feel comfortable. For me, feeling comfortable is about blending in and looking like I belong. In practice, that often translates to a little black dress with 3/4 length sleeves that looks quite chic, but feels like pajamas. Most importantly, I feel like myself in it. It also allows me to fly under the radar until I find someone to talk to. My absolute worst nightmare is showing up in an outfit that screams "HERE I AM!" and makes it easy for people to pick me out of a crowd and say "Oh look! That girl in the bright yellow dress looks really uncomfortable." If it isn't a dressy event, whatever you wore to work is probably fine. Just make sure you have comfortable shoes in case you end up standing the whole time. Also make sure you don't have to keep adjusting your clothes to stay decent. It's hard to hold a conversation when all you can think about is whether or not your skirt is riding up.
Step Two: What to Do When You Get There
After you have parked and worked up enough courage to leave the safety of your car, it's time to walk in. To be honest, this is by far the scariest part of going to an event alone. In general, walking into a room full of people is not my favorite thing, and I think most people would agree. It's awkward, and there is just no getting around it. In my experience, the best thing to do is get it over with and make it as quick as possible. To do this, my foolproof method is to walk straight to the bar right when you arrive. Even if it's just to get water. This is helpful for a couple of reasons:
- It keeps you from awkwardly standing in the door looking bewildered.
- It gives you a chance to scope out the room and find someone you know while you're walking and waiting for your drink.
- Holding a drink (even if it's water) gives you something to do with your hands.
- Sipping on something is a good way to fill weird silences and gives you a chance to think of something to say.
I can not tell you how many times I have been saved by this. The goal is to give you something to do when you get there and buy some time to make a plan. Also, if you are meeting friends, but they can't be seen from the door, it allows you to move around the room and find them without being obvious.
Step Three: Find a Buddy
In general, I prefer to be the person to approach someone instead of waiting for someone to approach me. Not because I am super outgoing or anything, just because like being able to choose who I talk to. There is nothing worse than getting stuck in a conversation with someone who makes you feel uncomfortable and won't take the hint that you want to leave. Conversely, when you are striking up a conversation with someone, pay extra close attention to their body language and how they respond to you. If you pick up any signs that they are already waiting for someone, or just plain don't want to talk to you, move along.
You don't need to infiltrate an entire group of people (that's way too intimidating), you just need to find one person to talk to who looks like they aren't already in the middle of a conversation. Best case scenario, you see someone you know and things fall into place. If that doesn't happen, look for one of these people:
- The person who has definitely met you, but might not remember your name. Confidently walk up to them and say "Hey how are you? I'm Claire, we met when I was working at ____________." Just state your name and how you know them so they don't have to awkwardly try to place you. Doing this puts the other person at ease, and they can say "Oh hey! How are you doing? Are you still at ___________?" Or something like that.
- The person who you kind of know, but aren't super close with. Again, confidently walk up to them and say "Hey, do you mind if I join you? I came here by myself. My name is Claire, I think I know you from ___________." If they are also looking for someone to talk to, this should be enough to break the ice.
- The person who also came alone, and looks pretty nice, but is clearly too shy to go up and talk to someone on their own. This one is a little trickier, but if they are standing at a high top or sitting at a table, test the waters by saying "Hi, do you mind if I sit here?" Watch their body language, if they brush you off, this is not your person. If they say "Sure!" and kind of readjust to face you, you're good to go. Instead of introducing yourself right away, comment about the event and see how they respond. Something like "I've never been to this restaurant before, it's really cool!" You'll know if they want to talk or not. Once the ice has been broken and the conversation has gotten a clear green light, go ahead and introduce yourself. It feels a lot less forced that way.
If you absolutely cannot find someone to talk to, find a landing place. Set your drink down on a high top or sit at a table. Do your best to look approachable and be very aware of your body language. Hopefully someone will approach you, or you will see someone you know.
Step Four: Keep the Conversation Going
After you have found a buddy, you are good to go. In most cases, the rest of the event will unfold naturally. If you aren't comfortable with small talk, here are my best tips.
- Be the question-asker. In most conversations, there is a question asker and a story teller. Do whatever you can to be the question asker. Mix up your questions with presumptive statements so they don't feel like they are in a job interview. There is a huge difference between "So where are you from? Where did you go to school?" and "So where are you from? Ah you must be a *insert sports mascot* fan!" They both get the other person talking about where they grew up, but one feels like an interrogation and the other feels natural. That's worth repeating, whatever you do, do not interrogate them.
- At least have some idea of what is going on in your town. I'm specifically saying town, because there is nothing I hate more than discussing national politics with coworkers or strangers. Especially right now. If you are aware of the major sports teams in your area, the new restaurant that just opened, or the new stadium being built you will probably find something that the other person is also interested in, even if it takes a few tries.The same goes for popular TV shows, movies, or music. You don't have to be a total buff, but at least know the names of things and a general idea of what they are. That way if they say "OMG have you watched this?" you can say "No, but I've heard it's great, did you like it?" and everything will flow from there.
- Get them to teach you about something. I have often heard that a fail proof way to keep a conversation going is to get the other person to talk about themselves. This is true for some people, but certainly not all. My husband, for example, hates talking about himself. If you ask him how he is doing he will say "Good" and that's it. But if you get him going on something he is passionate about, my friend, you might as well get yourself a glass of wine and settle in because you'll be there for hours. Getting someone to teach or explain something they are passionate about is my favorite conversation technique. It firmly places you in the question asker position and usually can keep the conversation going for a while. However, beware of talking with strangers about something you are equally passionate about because it can get awkward if you disagree, or can get weirdly competitive depending on the topic.
While you're talking, pay attention to your own body language and mirror their body movements. Don't be rude and check your phone while they're talking, or look for someone else to talk to while they are in the middle of a story. Be present and really listen to what they are saying. Also, be conscious of other people's time and watch for signals that you might have overstayed your welcome. As I said before, there is nothing worse than getting stuck in a conversation when you want to leave, so do your best to not put the person you are talking to in that position. If they start shifting their weight around, looking past you around the room, or messing with their keys or phone, it's probably time to make a graceful exit.
I recently read "The Like Switch" by Jack Schafer and "How to Make Friends and Influence People" by Dale Carnegie. If you really want to get into detail about human psychology and the subtle ways that body language and perception can influence others, I highly recommend these books. There is such a science to it, but when conversing, it really boils down to this: people will like you if you make them feel good about themselves. If you do this, it doesn't really matter if you nervously fumble some words, or leave an awkward silence or two. All that most people will remember is that you were nice, and they left the conversation feeling good. That's what matters.
The most important thing to remember when going to an event alone is that everyone else feels awkward too. I used to think that I was the only one who felt nervous in these situations, and that it came naturally for everyone but me. I now know that these people are just well practiced, not magically gifted. Also, in the times that I have approached total strangers, I have found that most people look relieved to have someone to talk to. While there are a few bad apples, most people will be nice to you if you are nice to them.
It's also helpful to remember that the worst case scenario is that you go, chat with a few people, and leave. You have a "just okay" night instead of a "super fun" one. And that's okay, not every event will be spectacular. Just try to manage your expectations and be realistic. You don't have to talk to the entire room of people, you just need to find one or two buddies to chat with for awhile. Eventually, you will get more and more comfortable, maybe even up to the point where you are ready to, dare I say it, mingle.
While these four tips can't guarantee that you won't feel awkward, they should give you a place to start. Whatever you do, don't be too hard on yourself if things aren't perfect. Give yourself permission to take some time as you learn this new skill, and be proud of yourself for trying!