You’ve been in this situation before: Someone you don’t want to disappoint has invited you to a holiday party full of people you don’t know and aren’t totally convinced that you want to know. Sure, you’re going to go but you’re dreading the moment someone walks up to you and asks some inane question such as, “Hey, how’s it going?” or even worse, “Cool party, isn’t it?” People who have social anxiety hate those questions. We hate small talk in general. If we don’t know the person talking to us, we aren’t especially inclined to stand there chatting about things that don’t matter.
Some of us meet these situations and the ridiculously mind-numbing questions with a touch of orneriness. Ask me how it’s going and I may just come back with an answer such as, “Everything’s fine until my medication wears off. Hope you’re not put off by random fits of screaming.” Ask me if I think the party is cool and my pat answer is, “Yeah, I’m just sizing people up for the orgy later.” Both those answers do a wonderful job of making sure the conversation ends right there.
Occasionally, though, you don’t want to say anything that might embarrass the person who invited you, especially if the party is connected to their employment in some way. Behaving in a way that could get someone else fired is not cool. What do we do in those situations? How do we cope being around people with whom we may share absolutely no interests?
Fortunately, Darrah Brustein at Forbes magazine has come up with a list of 55 questions one can use to help navigate the social terrors of holiday parties or any other social events that force us to interact with strange people. Ms. Brustein is something of an expert in the field of networking and writes frequently on that and other topics as she goes jet-setting around the globe—thanks to her network. While her life may sound glamorous, however, many of us would be just as happy making it through a single company holiday party without having a panic attack. This is where her 55 questions come in. Asking these questions avoids the stupidity triggers and replaces them with a better opportunity to meet people we might actually end up not hating.
Ms. Brustein’s approach isn’t exactly new. Dale Carnegie taught that asking questions was not only a good way to meet people but that asking the right question and actively listening to the answer is critical to making new friends. The concept was apparently pretty radical when Carnegie introduced it in the 1930s, but his method has been so watered down with time and social changes that it has dissolved into the mindless drivel we now dread. Ms. Brustein’s questions give us a chance to fix that problem.
There’s a catch, though. When we ask a question, we have to be prepared to answer the same question should it be turned back on us. While our hope is that the person’s answer to the question launches us into a full conversation, that doesn’t always happen. A person whose anxiety and/or boredom is equal to our own might answer the most carefully constructed question with an answer that goes nowhere. When that happens, they inevitably turn the question around with a deft, “What about you?” Then, you’re stuck. You’re the one who has to talk now. You have to be witty, or at least mildly interesting, or you look lame. Preparing your own answers in advance helps solve that problem.
Ms. Brustein divided her questions into three groups, depending on the type of situation and the environment of the party. Sometimes we can ask really deep questions quickly. Other times we need to stay superficial. My advice is to pick two or three from each group and run with those. Practice both asking and answering the questions. Yes, your mind is going to go blank in the moment you actually have to speak, but once one starts talking what you’ve rehearsed is likely to make its way back into your consciousness and hopefully, most the words come out in the correct order.
What follows is not only a recapitulation of Ms. Brustein’s 55 questions but answers I’ve prepared just in case I’m not the only one reading Forbes this week. Funny how many people end up reading the same articles in a magazine. I’m including the answers as a guide for helping you shape your own response. Use your experience, your life, and your interests in answering the questions. Write them down, even. Prepare now and the chances of embarrassing yourself at a holiday party are instantly reduced by at least 3.25 percent, more if you can speak more than five seconds without passing out.
The Mild Set
Any upcoming travel plans?
Yes, I’m planning on going home for the holidays just as soon as I can pry (whoever I’m with) away from the punch bowl. Home is typically my favorite travel destination. I go there often.
What brought you here?
Someone else’s car. I was going to come in a one-horse open sleigh but these roads are so horrible! I bent a runner on a pothole and the blacksmith is all backed up with seasonal work.
How do you two know each other?
We sleep together on occasion. Sometimes we’re even in the same bed.
When you’re not working, how do you like to spend your time?
Sleeping currently takes up the majority of my non-working hours. My life is a mess if I don’t get in my 16 hours a day.
What are you reading currently?
Your thoughts. Have you ever considered therapy? I know a guy …
What’s the first concert you attended?
My mother took me to see Elvis a week before I was born. I came out of the womb with sideburns and a lip curl. The lip curl was fixed with surgery.
Where do you most hope to visit?
New Jersey. I’d like to see what hell is like before I’m doomed to spend eternity there.
What’s your favorite book?
You know, I’m actually writing a new book. This angel came down and gave me a pair of golden spectacles that allowed me to see things no one else can see and it really gave me a new insight into life. I’m thinking it would make a good companion to the Bible.
What’s your favorite 90’s show?
3rd Rock From The Sun. They didn’t get everything right about my species, of course, but you have to give Hollywood some room for interpretation. Most people can’t handle knowing how powerful we really are.
What’s the best Halloween costume you’ve ever had?
The year I went as myself. I didn’t even know they were having a contest until someone handed me the trophy.
What’s your dream job?
I’ve heard the position of President of the United States could be opening up soon.
What’s your favorite word?
Fuck, apparently. At least, that’s the one I use the most often.
What was your first job?
Pulling up Christmas trees with my bare hands. No, I’m not kidding.
What’s one thing you’re excited about that’s coming up in 2018?
Impeachment trials, I hope. I’ve already started stocking popcorn.
What was the worst job you’ve ever had?
Pulling up Christmas trees with my bare hands.
What is your most-used emoji?
I don’t. It’s been centuries since the Egyptians stopped using cuneiform and I don’t see any reason to reinvent a dead language.
If you could win an Olympic medal for any sport, real or fake, what would it be?
Avoiding giving serious answers to someone else’s questions.
If you could change your name, what would it be?
Almighty Thunderous Megabolt. Or Fred.
What movie or TV show title best describes your week?
Psycho up to this point but we could be looking at How to Get Away With Murder before the week’s out.
What was your favorite subject in school?
Anything that would make me look smarter than everyone else.
What’s your hidden talent?
I have a unique ability to make people disappear; one quick conversation and I never see them again.
If you had to eat one thing for every meal going forward, what would you eat?
Sugar-free chocolate; it’s not really as bad as it sounds
If someone were to play you in a movie, who would you want it to be?
Paddington Bear. I think he could capture the essence of my bearing.
If you could spend a day in someone else’s shoes, whose would they be? Why?
Niel DeGrasse Tyson, because being an intelligent person of color is pretty much the exact opposite of my own existence.
What’s one thing your mother/father taught you that completely changed your life?
Never turn down free food, which is a large part of the reason I’m at this holiday party
What’s been on your mind lately?
This pesky tumor that causes me to say really strange and random things.
What’s the first career you dreamed of having as a kid?
Was thoroughly convinced I was going to wake up the next morning and be the world’s youngest superhero. There are days I still think of that dream.
What’s the last text you sent?
Clean the toilet. You’d be surprised how often I send that text.
What’s one of your favorite memories?
The one where I save the world. Oh wait, that hasn’t happened yet, has it?
What’s one thing about you that surprises people?
The level of sacrifice I’d be willing to make for a good sugar-free donut.
Who, or what, was your biggest teacher?
Probably Mrs. Little, my first-grade teacher. Her name was the antithesis of who she was. Nothing about her was little.
What was something you’ve done that made you feel extreme happiness?
Being a superhero and saving the world. Oh, wait … yeah, about that …
Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your 18-year-old self?
Don’t spend the money on the super suit until you actually have the superpowers. I’m still waiting.
If you could instantly become an expert in something, what would it be?
Convincing people that public sex has social benefits. No one’s buying that argument yet.
What does success mean to you?
Making it through the day without anyone actually killing me.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
“Whatever you do, don’t embarrass yourself in front of the President.” Unfortunately, I did not take that advice.
Where is your happy place?
Anywhere that is not a holiday party. And Bali when the volcano isn’t so active.
If you could invite 3 people, dead or alive, to a dinner party, who would they be, and why?
Plato, Abraham Lincoln, and Donald Trump. If the first two met the latter they’d totally re-think the concept of democracy and the presidency.
How can someone win a gold star with you?
Bring gold body paint and get naked.
What energizes you and brings you excitement?
Accidentally grabbing hold of an electric fence.
What qualities do you value in the people with whom you spend time?
Breathing is probably the most important one. I’ve hung out with people who weren’t breathing and the conversation was very one-sided.
For what would you be famous?
Being the world’s youngest superhero. That whole reverse-aging thing would clinch it.
What does your dream day look like?
Something directed by Stephen Spielberg but with better sex scenes.
If you didn’t have to sleep, what would you do with the extra time?
Go ahead and sleep anyway. The world can’t handle me 24/7.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Who said I was guilty? No one can prove anything! That chocolate was sugar-free!
At what job would you be terrible?
Anything that required actually working.
If you had to choose only 3 adjectives to describe yourself, which would you choose?
Other, human, and unintentional. I think those pretty well sum up who I am.
Holiday Hard Core
What do you give a damn about?
Survival of the species. Given the past year, I’m gravely concerned about our continued existence.
What is a dream you have that you’ve yet to achieve?
Becoming the world’s youngest superhero. That whole reverse-aging thing is throwing me off.
What’s something you say you’ll do, but never will?
Becoming the world’s youngest superhero. That whole reverse-aging thing is throwing me off.
What did you have to give up to achieve your current level of success?
Every other level of success.
Has anything ever happened to you that you could not, and cannot, explain?
Whatever they used to spike the holiday punch.
Do you ever find there are things about you that people misunderstand? What are they?
Simple things like why I still exist, how did I survive the ice age, and why I think everyone should pose nude at least once in their life.
For what are you most grateful today?
Not being dead …. yet.
If you could have one ‘do over’ in your life, what would you do differently?
Maybe not depend so much on being the world’s youngest superhero.
Of what are you most afraid?
Holiday parties where they only serve fruit cake and unspiked eggnog.
Thinking Before We Speak
Planning and trying to remember questions we can ask at a holiday party is one thing. Actually pulling them off at the right time so that we don’t sound creepy is an entirely different situation. For any of these questions to be effective, even the mild ones, we have to be paying attention to other people, what they’re doing, to whom else they are talking, whether they’re in the process of leaving the party, and other little details. Asking the wrong question at the wrong time can take a difficult holiday party right into the awkward zone.
Brustein and Carnegie both emphasize that one needs to actually listen to the answers people give to our questions. Understand this before opening your mouth. Ask a question and someone is probably going to answer it. That means listening, running the risk that the person standing in front of you is as boring as dirt with nothing of interest to say no matter what question you ask. In fact, the less interesting the person, the more likely their answer is long and involved and not something we’re remotely interested in hearing. We have to be prepared to at least pretend to listen. Nod your head. Say things like, “Oh, really?” and “That makes sense (even if it doesn’t).” We can’t just wander off and get another drink.
There’s also the off chance that the person to whom one is asking the question doesn’t answer the question at all. They may not even acknowledge your existence. Those are the people who have their heads stuck so far up their own ass that they think they’re the center of the universe. That’s okay. They have a right to their universe. If they don’t answer, walk away and amuse yourself with how entertaining it would be if they backed into the holiday candles.
One also needs to stop asking questions of anyone after the second drink. You’re in no condition to converse with anyone when you’re drunk. The words don’t come out in the right order and your breath makes people’s eyes water. Find a seat and try to not fall out of it until the person who made the mistake of bringing you to the party decides to take you home. And hope they don’t forget you’re there and leave without you.
Holiday parties are full of angst and worry and social expectations we’re sure we’re going to mess up long before we ever get dressed for the party. People with social anxieties don’t party well but sometimes we have to be there. Arm yourself with some questions and try to have fun with it.
And before you leave, invite your hosts to come dance naked around the bonfire with you at your Winter Solstice celebration. If you go to their party, they have to come to yours. This is what holiday traditions are all about.
Abide In Peace,
The Old Man