Wine-glass in my right hand and precariously balancing a plate of hors d’oeuvres in my left, business cards in my breast pocket, I make my way through the room chatting. There is that person standing over by the window—how do I break the ice? What meaningful words might I say to unlock the doors to communication? Inside I feel shy, unsure, but circulate I must!
The cocktail party: the bane of professional co-existence! We dread these and yet we anticipate them as an evening out, a chance to network, a way to hobnob in circles that are professionally meaningful, but they still daunt us. Why is that?
While I consider myself socially skilled, and like the best of them, I can don a suit and articulate my thoughts, the contact feels rather forced and fleeting. There is that sense that I’m in a contrived situation, not unlike siting through that first dinner at the new boyfriend’s parent’s house. Only you may never see the parents again, while these cocktail party contacts may be your professional future.
There is something innately unnerving about balancing dishes, while trying not to talk with your mouth full (as taught by well-meaning parents who obviously had in mind that you would be attending many cocktail parties in years to come!). And lest we forget, how does one chew, swallow, and satisfy the appetite while doing all this, not to mention perform the business card trick?
I'm no Emily Post, and Martha Stewart--last I heard--was negotiating with Walmart, rather than renewing with Zellers (what Cocktail party was that?), so here are tips that make sense to me. Call them Guidelines for Cocktail Party Survival, in true adult learning style:
1. Dig out those dusty business cards. Forget the fancy carrying case whose little gold clasp jams just as your pickles go sliding off the plate in your left hand. Wear something something with pockets, so you can carefully withdraw your card with a sleight of hand not unlike a party magician executing a card trick. Make sure your scatchings are done ahead of time—bringing a pen into the glass-plate-business card equation is a little ambitious at this point. So if your e-mail address has changed, ensure that it's already noted. By the way, if you’re a man, you have the added bonus of not toting a purse (in most cases anyway!), which means that both your shoulders will be relaxed. If you’re a purse-toting woman, expect to do a further balancing act as you wear a purse slung on one of your shoulders and hopefully not the shoulder of the hand in which you have the wine-glass as we may have experienced that slip that sloshes the wine—looks like we can't hold our liquor, let alone all our belongings: plate, glass, business cards, and now purse! Maybe leave the purse at home or tucked away safely in the car.
2. Eat before you leave home. While this may seem unfair, think about the sheer enjoyment of sitting down to a quiet meal versus picking at finger foods while balancing that wine-glass in your right hand! And you might eat less, a definite sell for those individuals not wanting to overindulge!
3. Pay attention! You can only shake hands with so many people at a time, and this while holding that wine glass. First of all, make sure your plate is big enough to hold your wine-glass in such circumstances! This doubling up is really freeing. You’ll be speaking with one person, while out of the corner of your baby blues, you spot another person you’d like to talk with, and at the same time, your peripheral vision shows someone to your left, looking like they wish to chat with you (And then you drop your napkin! Oh, I forgot to tell you: this is another item you might be holding—it could be tucked under the plate in your left hand.). How do you make the transition? Well, you can begin by introducing the person in your peripheral vision to the person with whom you are speaking. Eventually they’ll get to talking then you can carefully excuse yourself to go see the person you spotted.
4. But listen, and this must be genuine. Cocktail parties can yield a wealth of information that can be meaningfully obtained during a short interchange. Think back to those active listening skills you always wanted to try but could not use with family because they are onto you. With all the chatter and clatter, there is much distraction. Focus because you have a short period in which to make a long-lasting impression.
5. Be gracious. Most socially adept individuals know how to work a room, saying just the right thing. You can't go wrong speaking about the evening itself, any presentations that were made, the décor, the food, or the theme of the evening. Be careful though because many of these cocktail conversations can be overheard (Remember that person in your peripheral vision?).
6. Ever wonder what it would sound like to have a hundred alarm clocks going off at once? Well, with the growing cellphone technology, you need no longer wonder! Your cellphone can be clipped to your waistband or discretely hidden in your purse (maybe that's why it keeps slipping off your shoulder!). How useful is this little item at your cocktail party (“Oh, one moment, I need to call my Uncle Bert—he knows how to repair chicken coops!”)? Unless you are on-call, just shut it off. If you really need to keep in touch, clip the phone to your waistband and set it on vibrate so that you feel the ring rather than have the room hear it. Then if you must, discretely answer the call upon making the appropriate apology and moving to a quiet corner.
The cocktail party is a necessary obligation. As my colleague Anna-Maria tells me: “La noblesse oblige!” It’s a healthy way to network, increase your visibility and learn about what's going on in the world outside yourself. So, lighten up and have fun. It will be over before you know it and you’ll be looking forward to the next cocktail party! Now where did I put that business card the Director of Services gave me the other evening as I sloshed wine onto the pickle sliding off my plate?