“I don’t know how to interact at parties, especially if I have to talk to strangers or go to a party alone. How can I be more confident and enjoy myself?”
In this guide, you’ll learn how to talk to people at parties and how to mingle. These tips and techniques will show you how to socialize at a party and how to fit in with the other guests.
You’ll feel more relaxed if you know the social rules everyone will expect you to follow. For example, if you are going to a formal four-course dinner party, you need to know what cutlery and glasses to use, and in what order. The Emily Post Institute’s website has lots of free articles on etiquette.
Here are a few etiquette tips:
- Never arrive early.
- When eating at a dinner table, eat at the same speed as everyone else. You want to avoid finishing much sooner or later than the other guests.
- Do not put your elbows on the table when people are eating. However, it’s OK to do so when chatting to other guests between courses.
- Show enthusiasm if your host suggests an activity. Do your best to join in and enjoy yourself.
You might have heard that it’s best to arrive at the start of a party. That way, you can greet people as they arrive and make conversation by introducing yourself and asking how they know the host. Another benefit is that if you have already spoken to someone at the start of the party, it’s less awkward to start another conversation with them later on.
On the other hand, arriving later when the event is in full swing can also work well. You’ll have more people and groups to approach. Pick whichever strategy sounds best to you, but avoid arriving before the set time.
A “safe” time to arrive at a party is 30 minutes after the set time. If it’s a dinner party and food is being served, a good time is 15 minutes after the set time.
It’s good manners to find the host or organizer and tell them you’ve arrived. After thanking them for inviting you, ask them to introduce you to other guests.
“Hey Gina, can you point me towards someone friendly? I don’t know anyone here.”
A host will usually be happy to introduce you to a couple of people. But if they are too busy or they introduce you to someone who doesn’t want to talk, you can still use the tips in this guide to strike up conversations.
Food or drink can be a useful conversation starter. For example, let’s say you pick out an unusual-looking bottle of wine and bring it to the party. When you overhear someone asking, “What’s that wine with the cool label?” you can naturally join the conversation by explaining that you brought it along.
Lots of people aren’t sure how to start a conversation with someone they don’t know, so give them an opener by wearing or carrying an accessory that stands out. This could be a watch, a piece of jewelry, a shirt with a striking or unusual design, a purse, or a pair of shoes. It doesn’t have to be anything outrageous, just slightly quirky or unique.
When you get a question or compliment on your accessory or special shirt, don’t just say “Thanks” or give another one-word answer. Give them a bit of background information, and then ask them a question.
Let’s say you’re wearing a special ring that belonged to your grandmother, and someone compliments it. Here’s how the conversation could go:
Them: That’s such a pretty ring!
You: Thanks! It was my grandmother’s. I think it’s about 70 years old. Do you like antique jewelry?
Them: Yeah, I have a small collection actually, including a few antique rings…
From there, you have lots of potential topics to dive into, including jewelry styles, family heirlooms, and antiques in general.
Helping the host keeps your hands busy and gives you something to focus on, which can make you feel less nervous. It also gives you an easy conversation starter. For example, if you have offered to arrange a makeshift cocktail bar, it’s natural to begin a conversation about drinks.
Don’t stay with the host or help out the whole night in order to “escape” the party. This is called a subtle avoidance behavior, meaning a subtle thing we might do to avoid something uncomfortable (such as interacting with strangers).
Help out for 10-20 minutes to warm up, then interact with the guests.
People will be more likely to react positively to you if you appear open and friendly.
- Use open body language. Keep your arms uncrossed, don’t fidget, keep your hands visible, and stand up straight. Some people find that holding a drink in one hand helps them feel less nervous.
- Relax your facial muscles and smile. Practice friendly expressions in the mirror until you know what they feel like and can replicate them without a mirror.
- Make eye contact. It’ll make you appear more likable. See this guide to making comfortable eye contact.
Here are some more tips on how to be more approachable and look more friendly.
“I don’t know what to say at parties. I have social anxiety and always worry that I’ll come off as boring when I make small talk, and I don’t see the point in small talk anyway”
Small talk helps establish trust and signals that you are friendly. It shows that you understand the basic rules of social interaction. It may seem boring or superficial, particularly if you’re an introvert, but small talk is the first step towards deeper conversations because it helps you uncover similarities.
Pairing a comment on your surroundings with a question is a good place to start.
- “This is probably the most amazing buffet I’ve ever seen at a house party. Have you tried the triple-layer chocolate cake yet?”
- “It looks like someone’s put a lot of work into designing this garden. Have you seen the huge koi carp in that pond over there?”
You don’t need to be brilliant or witty. It doesn’t matter if your remarks are ordinary, as long as they get the conversation started. In fact, people expect some generic small talk at first so they can get comfortable with you. Once you’ve built rapport, you can move on to move interesting topics.
Complimenting someone is another way to start a conversation. Pair a compliment with a question. This makes it easier for the other person to respond with something other than “Thank you.”
- “That’s such a cool purse! I love the kitten pattern. I’m guessing you’re a cat person?”
- “I like your shirt. Where did you get it?”
It’s normal and expected for party guests to move between groups and mingle with new people. Most guests won’t mind if you join their group conversation, even if you don’t know anyone there.
Here are a few tips:
- If you already know the group, approach them with a smile and say, “Hey, do you mind if I join you?”
- Use subconscious signaling to break into the conversation. Immediately after someone finishes speaking, breathe in quickly and make a hand gesture. This signals that you are about to speak and attracts everyone else’s attention.
- It can be easier to join a group if they are playing a game. Wait until there’s a natural break, such as a new round of a card game, and then ask whether you can play too.
- In a group, you’ll spend much less time speaking than you do in 1 on 1 conversations. To make other people see you as part of the group even when you aren’t speaking, listen carefully and respond to what others are saying. Acknowledge the speaker’s points by nodding and saying “Yeah,” “Uh-huh,” and “Oh, cool” when appropriate.
Here’s some more advice on how to join a group conversation without being awkward and how to be included in a conversation with a group of friends.
“I don’t know what to talk about at a party. I get really nervous, and my mind goes blank. I can make small talk, but what should I do next?”
To move beyond small talk, share something about yourself while asking questions that encourage them to open up. The Inquire, Follow-up, Relate (IFR) method gives you a formula to follow.
You [Inquire]: What’s your favorite type of music?
Them: I’m really into heavy metal, actually.
You [Follow-up]: Haha, so the jazz band here tonight isn’t really your kind of thing?
Them: Yeah, you could say that!
You [Relate]: I’m more of a soft rock person, but there’s a couple of metal bands I like.
You [Inquire]: Who have you been listening to lately?
You can then repeat the cycle.
See this guide for more tips on how to keep a conversation going.
Avoid R.A.P.E. topics — Religion, Abortion, Politics, and Economics — until you know someone well. You should also avoid talking about sex, personal finance, and medical problems at parties. The F.O.R.D. topics are suitable for most conversations. (Family, Occupation, Recreation, and Dreams.)
When you listen attentively, other people will sense that you care about what they have to say.
You’ll also feel less self-conscious because you’ll be focusing on whatever they are talking about. It becomes easier to think of questions when you allow yourself to feel curious.
For example, if you are talking to someone who mentions that they went to their sister’s graduation party yesterday, you might start wondering:
- What was the party like?
- Who was there?
- What college did their sister graduate from?
- Does this person have any other siblings?
You can use any of these points as inspiration. For example, you could ask, “Cool. What kind of party was it?” or “Was it a family-only party, or did she invite friends along?”
Find out who will be at the party. This will help you think of a few relevant questions in advance. For example, if your friend is throwing a party and lots of their relatives will be there, you could prepare some questions about what your friend was like as a child.
If you know that the guests work in the same field and you don’t know anything about it, do some background reading on the latest news in their industry. Skim a few articles and columns online. Come up with a few questions you could use to keep a conversation going.
For example, if you were talking to a group of guests you know work in finance, you could say:
“I read yesterday that Bank X has suddenly merged with Bank Y because Bank X is in big trouble. I don’t work in finance, but I’m guessing that’s a big deal?”
Questions that you might think are boring in most situations will be fascinating to the right people.
Most parties have spaces where people go when they want a break away from the main crowd or get away from the music. This might be a garden, a terrace, or a corner of the kitchen. If you prefer talking to one or two people at a time instead of a group, these quiet spots can be a good place to start a low-key conversation.
People go to parties to have fun. You are more likely to fit in if you have an upbeat attitude.
Here’s how to come across as positive:
- Talk about the good things that are happening in your life instead of complaining about your problems.
- Say positive things about the party. For example, it’s better to mention how much you love the food instead of complaining that the music is too loud.
- Avoid passing on gossip. If you are talking about someone who isn’t there, don’t say anything that you wouldn’t say to their face.
- Give sincere compliments. When you compliment someone, focus on their abilities, personality, or an accessory they’ve chosen to wear.
- If someone says something you find offensive, do not start an argument. Quickly move on to another topic.
- Use positive humor. Do not put yourself or others down for the sake of getting a laugh. Read this guide on how to be funny in a conversation.
- If you tell a story, keep it short, light-hearted, and relatable. Here’s how to be good at telling stories.
- Act like a high-energy person, even if you are naturally introverted. Check out this guide to being a high-energy person.
“I know how to talk to people at parties, but I’m not always sure when it’s time to end a conversation. How can I tell when it’s time to move on?”
Here are some signs that the other person isn’t enjoying the conversation:
- They give you short answers.
- They don’t ask you any questions.
- They aren’t making eye contact.
- Their feet are pointing away from you.
These signs don’t necessarily mean you should find someone else to talk to. You might be able to fix the problem by changing the topic. But if that doesn’t work, it’s time to wrap up the conversation with a gracious exit line and move on.
- “It was great to meet you, but I’ve just seen a couple of my friends arrive, and they’ll be wondering where I am. See you later!”
- “It’s been wonderful to chat with you, but I’d better mingle a bit. See you soon!”
- “I’m sorry, but I’ve got to step outside for a moment; I think I heard my phone buzz. Excuse me.”
“I don’t know how to be fun at parties when I’m sober. I just feel awkward and self-conscious all the time. Is it OK to have a drink to calm my nerves?”
Having a couple of drinks can help you feel relaxed but overdoing it might make you do or say things you regret. It’s best to learn how to socialize without alcohol as a crutch because you can’t rely on it at every social event.
Do not assume that everyone at the party drinks alcohol. If someone says “No thanks” when you offer them a drink, show good manners by respecting their choice.
If you’ve had a great conversation with someone and have discovered some commonalities, ask whether they’d like to meet up to do a specific activity and offer your number.
- “It’s so good to meet another writer. Would you be interested in writing together in the library sometime?”
- “I can’t believe I’ve met another Dalmatian owner! There aren’t many of us around. Would you like to get together for a walk?”
If the answer is “Yes,” say, “Great, let me give you my number.” Follow up the next day and fix a date and time. If you don’t get an enthusiastic response, say “No problem” and change the subject.
Playing a game is an excellent way of getting to know people. Because everyone is focused on the same activity, there’s less pressure to think of things to say. Read up on games in advance to get a few ideas.
The Spruce has a useful guide to party games for adults.
If you’re in a group of people who are in a good mood, just say, “Hey, would anyone like to play a game?” Make sure everyone understands the rules before you start. If you like card games, carry a deck in your pocket or purse.
If you’re an introvert or have social anxiety, you might find parties very draining after a couple of hours. You don’t have to stay until the end. Arrange your own transport home so you can leave whenever you want.
It’s good manners to let the host know that you’re leaving and to thank them again for inviting you.