Let’s face it. Most social gatherings suck, and organized occasions, such as work parties or association functions are the worst. Weddings, extended family events, and other forced communal festivities are usually pretty bad too.
Well, maybe not for everybody. I’m sure there are people out there who enjoy making small talk with folks they barely know in crowded settings with music playing that nobody likes. Why else would these things keep happening?
But for introverts – those of us who prefer the company of just a small group of select friends and lots of time alone – these forced festivities can be emotionally draining. Even painful.
However, as a grown up, you have to attend. You need to make your presence known at a number of personal and professional events just to stay in the game. Ditching family functions and social events can cause resentment and hurt feelings. Worse, simply not showing up at your work party can be professional suicide. You can avoid it once or twice with a good excuse, but over time your absence will be noted, and your potential for advancement will take a hit.
You’re not a team player. Eventually, you’re the deadly, not a good fit with the culture.
Don’t worry. I’ve got your back. I’ve been there, and I have learned how to survive. Here is how you do it.
Never check your coat
Wear a blazer or a light jacket to any party, no matter how cold the conditions outside. This way any layer you are wearing can be part of your outfit, and you won’t have to check anything. There is no way to make a discrete exit from a social event when you have to find a ticket and wait at a counter for someone to retrieve your stuff.
Have a drink
Most people will be looking forward to getting that first drink in them to kick start the party. If you don’t call for one too, it will stand out. Right away you’ll seem off. So, have a drink. A hint of booze will loosen you up and make the rest easier. Nurse it, though. You want to have a drink in hand, so no one is pressuring you to hit the bar or to get another one.
I said ‘have a drink,’ but do not drink too much. You’ll end up staying and the rest of this guide will be moot. Plus, a drunk introvert who suddenly feels liberated from the weight of themselves at a work function is a recipe for disaster. Don’t be that guy.
Stay standing, and not in one place too long
Don’t sit at a table or join a group for any length of time. That situation makes it too easy for you to fall into awkward silence while the more introverted people chat it up. Also, there’s too great a risk of getting trapped. You could be pinned in, silence could descend over the gathering as someone starts a speech (making escape nearly impossible), or waitstaff could start taking food orders.
Staying on your feet (with that drink in hand) makes it easy to stay nimble, on the move, and to avoid those potential pitfalls. If you do get pinned in a group, use upper management to get out of it. Spy a high-ranking person across the room and excuse yourself, “I need to speak with / I just need to check in with …” Then head towards them.
Don’t get assigned to a team
I’ve been to work events that tried to include some ‘fun’ into the occasion. No joke, these include a bowling party, a ping pong club, curling, and trivia, just to name a few. This can be tricky, but it’s crucial: do not get assigned to a team.
When the organizers are picking or naming the teams, stay on the move. Never take your place with a team you are assigned to. If you do, you are done for. You’ve committed to spending the entire evening playing whatever game it is and making small talk with your designated group.
(Unless you fake an emergency of some kind. But that would be noticeable, talked about. The point of this is to stay professional and exit unnoticed, not talked about.)
Speak with the host / organizer
During the time you are at the event, nursing that one drink, speak with the host or organizer of the event. Compliment them on their choice of venue and thank them for putting it all together. Not only is it good strategy, it’s just the polite thing to do.
Also, have brief conversation with your boss. Make sure they know you are at the party and seem to be relaxed and social with a drink in your hand. A team player. Great fit.
Don’t say goodbye or make a production of leaving. If you want to get out early, after as little as 10 to 15 minutes – or even an hour – letting people know you are are ditching can be just as deadly as not showing up at all. So, move towards the door and make a discrete exit. You haven’t checked your coat, ordered food, or run up a tab, so just slip out and don’t look back.
Smokers or vapers ducking out can be problem sometimes, so once you are on the outside, don’t hesitate. Just get out of there.
An important faux call
If there are too many people by the exit – or the aforementioned smoker/vapers are gathered outside – you can use the cell phone fake out.
Again, since you aren’t gathering any belongings or making a big production of leaving, nobody should notice or care. Simply hold your phone up to one ear and place your hand over the other as though you were straining to hear what is being said. Then slip out and past the group in search of a quieter setting for your call. Then just keep going.
Don’t overuse this technique. It’s disingenuous and kind of cheesy. But it can get you out of a tight spot.
Thank your host
Later, send a quick note thanking the organizer for arranging the event and letting them know you had a wonderful time.
Bottom line: The key is to show up to an event and thank whoever invited you. They aren’t doing it maliciously. Even if you strongly dislike forced social gatherings, the host genuinely believes they are doing something nice for people.
So, make sure your attendance is noticed and your departure isn’t. With a bit of forethought and some strategy, you can avoid the awkwardness of too much forced small talk, the nausea of feeling trapped in an uncomfortable situation, and the career stigma than can be associated with those who seem ‘antisocial.’
Although, I suppose if this whole COVID-19 ‘new normal’ carries on long enough, even those of us who naturally avoid most social events may even start to miss them…