Dec 23, 2009

TRULY SPEAKING: How to Break the Ice & Survive Social Anxiety This Holiday

Summary: If you're less of a social butterfly than you are a shy wallflower, the thought of holiday festivities may cause you worry and fear. Follow these basic tips to break the ice at social gatherings—now and any time of year.

If your calendar is bulging with the weight of social functions—office holiday parties with clients and co-workers, seasonally-themed dinner parties with friends, school and social outings with the kids—you are by no means alone. (And if you've attended even one of those functions, you already know that's true!)

For all of you social butterflies out there, this is your time to sparkle and shine. But what if you're less "social butterfly" and more "wallflower"? Or perhaps you like to socialize, but get burned out after two or three occasions in one month (or week): What do you do?

Mustering up enough energy to be bubbly at every seasonal social occasion that comes your way may not be realistic. But there are some tricks you can apply to make certain you at least socialize appropriately—and even have a little fun, yourself, while you're at it, no matter how much you want to run to the shelter of your own home. The phrase "breaking the ice" is a commonly-used American idiom that refers to those awkward first moments upon meeting strangers. In corporate team-building exercises, "ice-breakers" are the ones done at the start of the experience, usually involving pairing off into partners or forming small groups and answering personal questions in a novel way.

Here are just a few ways you can break the ice in a variety of settings—now and all year round:

Ask questions. Most people like to talk about themselves. If you're having a hard time thinking of a conversation-starter, have a handful of general questions in mind that you can ask anyone, anywhere. Some good basics are: "How do you know the host(s)?" and "Do you live in this area?" With the exception of company parties, another stand-by is: "What do you do for a living?"

Sometimes seemingly innocent questions can spark controversy, but don't take it personally if this happens with someone you're addressing. After all, you aren't psychic. A graceful way to back out of such a situation (say, if someone you've asked, "What do you do for a living?" begins hemming and hawing about having been downsized or, worse, launches into a tirade about the economy that offends your sense of politics) is to kindly reply, "Oh, I'm sorry for asking," and change the subject using one of the other tactics noted in this blog post.

Compliment people. Flattery will get you everywhere! (Never mind the popular idiom to the contrary—at least not in lighthearted circumstances.) Some of the easiest conversation-starters begin with, "I really like that centerpiece. Did you make it?" (or "That scarf is beautiful. Where did you find it?"). Be sincere when making such comments, because that helps to build rapport.

Keep it simple. When it comes to answering questions yourself, your best bet is to keep your answers brief and to the point, particularly if you have hard time trusting people you've just met. It may be tempting to become gregarious, but this will only backfire on you emotionally later if you're prone to worry that you may have said too much. This doesn't mean to respond in only yes-or-no answers. Just provide a few details and then redirect the conversation with some questions of your own. This keeps a momentum to the conversation, as in a kind of verbal tennis match with each side lobbing words instead of balls. ("So, how do you know the hosts?" "We do business together. Tim's been a wonderful client for about five years now. And how do you know them?" "We're neighbors. We've been neighbors now for nearly a decade. It's hard to believe. Are you in sales, like Tim?" "Direct marketing: I'm a printer, actually. My company prints brochures and flyers and business cards for Tim. What do you do for a living?")

A final tip for breaking the holiday party ice is to keep the cocktails and spiced eggnog to a minimum. Sometimes food and drink can be a crutch at a social affair. It's okay to use it as a conversation-starter, such as saying, "Have you tried the eggnog yet? It's very flavorful!" But if you eat or drink to excess, you're more likely to give yourself indigestion or ignore all social graces than to successfully enjoy the party. After all, if you truly didn't want to be invited back next year, you probably wouldn't be attending in the first place!

Happy mingling, my friends!

© KiKi Productions, Inc. 2009

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