How to socialize when you're in a big group of people
October 3, 2008 6:46 PM   Subscribe

I'm good at one-on-one conversation, but put me in a big group, and feel like I can't get a word in or connect with anyone. I'm looking for your tips on socializing when part of a big group of people.

While I’m basically introverted, I’m good at socializing one-on-one. People say I have a great sense of humor, and I can have intelligent, fun conversations with friends as well as with people I’m meeting for the first time.

But put me in a big group, at a party, a bar, or dinner, and things aren’t as good. When I’m in a group conversation of more than two or three people, I clam up and feel like I can’t even get a word in. There’s usually some talkative extrovert who dominates the conversation and diverts everyone’s attention with exciting tales of their doings, thoughts and travels. Or the conversation will drift toward a subject that I know nothing about, and then I have no idea how to participate. When going to a party, I'll sometimes arrive a bit early so I can meet people individually before the crowds arrive, at which point it's more difficult to get anyone's attention. Overall, socializing in a group makes me feel invisible and unable to form real connections with anyone. It's especially bad when some of the people already know each other.

Those of who enjoy socializing in groups, how do you do it? Do you have any tips on how to do it better and not feel so invisible?
posted by lsemel to Human Relations (20 answers total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
eye contact helps tons in separating yourself from the group
posted by femmme at 6:52 PM on October 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

WHen I am in a big group, I try to break that group into a smaller group of people near to me physically with whom I can more easily converse. I also accept that there will be that one person who dominates the conversation. You and the other 18 "listeners" all feel the same way about the talker. My point is that being good one on one and in smaller groups is just what you need for larger groups.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:20 PM on October 3, 2008

I'm absolutely an extrovert, but everyone at times feels awkward socializing with a big group. This is especially true when you don't know most of the people.

The key is not to force anything. Nerves beget awkwardness, which results in a feedback loop of discomfort for you. If the topic isn't something you know a lot about, put effort into being an active listener. Everyone likes attention being paid when they're talking, and this behavior can make people notice you in positive ways just as much (or more) than talking yourself.

If you feel the need to say things, concentrate on being a facilitator of the conversation: ask leading questions of the extrovert who is telling travel tales. "Oh, you've been to X place? I've always wanted to go -- how does the culture compare to Y place?" If the speaker and story is interesting, there should be plenty of opportunities for this. If not, well ... the topic will shift soon, and you'll have another chance.

Eventually, the time will come when a large group breaks into subgroups, at which point you'll know who the folks you're interested in getting to know better are. Perhaps you'll have had the chance to make some small talk at that point. If not, sooner or later the topic is going to switch to something you're interested in and/or knowledgeable about. Don't rush yourself or get flustered if it doesn't happen soon.
posted by jeffmshaw at 7:26 PM on October 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

I am an introvert myself, so my advice is limited. The only thing that I have found is make sure you say something (anything!) early in the social outing. If you wait until you have something "profound" to say, you will not get an opportunity to because no one will be expecting you to contribute. Start with little things like "oh, I agree" or simple questions to provoke someone who is speaking to continue speaking. However, they will be directing their answer towards you which will open you up to a follow up comment.
posted by ezabeta at 7:26 PM on October 3, 2008 [4 favorites]

I also find large groups difficult too, but I always remember something I read about Princess Diana who said that she's very shy in large groups; she said that she would find the one person at the event who looks more out of place and shy than she felt and talk to them, make them feel welcome and comfortable and that things would kind of work out from that point onward.

One of my strategies is to join a pre-existing group, and usually someone will start to include you, or you can make a side comment to someone in the group, and kind of worm your way in. Like any situation where you are talking to strangers, simple questions or compliments get the foot in the door; simply ask the time and take it from there, or maybe just a "great tie!". You can practice by going to large events that don't matter to you so that when you go to events that do matter, where you need to make an impression, you are well-practiced in various techniques.
posted by kenzi23 at 8:02 PM on October 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

i'm a total introvert and can definitely relate. probably the biggest single thing i would recommend is to pay attention to your non-verbal communication. i used to get upset about how that 'talkative extrovert' could captivate everyone with a story about nothing, while my relevant inputs were barely acknowledged. my eventual conclusion was that people in group settings respond much more to non-verbal than verbal communication. your words may be saying 'i have something to contribute,' but if your non-verbals are saying 'ignore the timid person' then that's what people will often do. tone-of-voice, posture, eye contact (as mentioned above), etc, are tremendous.

i've also formed the related conclusion that group conversation has nothing to do with exchanging information. it used to baffle me when someone would bring up a point, and i would respond with a thoughtful reply, only to watch the conversation instantly die. group conversations are meant to jump from topic to topic, never really going in-depth on any of them.

my solution has been to develop somewhat of a secondary 'persona' for group settings. an alter-ego who thinks that butting-in and using a commanding tone-of-voice is acceptable (things that i would normally consider very rude). it's easier than trying to constantly police all those individual non-verbal cues the entire time.
posted by bilgepump at 9:08 PM on October 3, 2008 [4 favorites]

hmm... i think my last comment may have come out a little bit off... i'm not suggesting to just walk into a place and act like a dick.

more like 'fake it till you make it.' meaning that even if i'm not comfortable and at ease in a group social setting, i find that as long as my outward behavior projects that i am comfortable and at ease, then that's what other folks will respond to.
posted by bilgepump at 9:30 PM on October 3, 2008 [3 favorites]

I totally know what you're talking about. Being a big introvert, I find myself totally silent in big groups, but when that group starts to fragment to smaller ones, I'm able to laugh along and talk a bit more (not significantly more, but at least a word or two in).

You're always going to have the "big talker" in big groups, and sometimes you'll have to make some one-up moments. Don't act like a dick, like bilgepump said, but I think you'll have to be one, maybe once or twice just to get your words in and make an impression. Like, maybe Mr. Big Mouth brags about his girlfriend, to which you quip, "That's what SHE said!" Yeah, poor example, but the point is, sometimes that little one-up moment will, for the moment, get attention to you, and you'll get your words in for a while.

Don't try this all the time though, otherwise you'll be a dick.
posted by curagea at 10:00 PM on October 3, 2008

Another thing: Accept the fact that large groups will generally be less qualitative than small groups or one-on-one. And I bet there are other people in the group who feel the same way you do - left out, frustrated at not being able to get a word in - but their outward behavior might not convey that feeling.
posted by curagea at 10:06 PM on October 3, 2008

The other thing about large groups is that if there's only one conversation going on in a large group, each speaker will naturally end up with less speaking time than happens in a small group. If you remind yourself of that, the fact that it takes longer for your turn to come around, and the fact that you'll need to be a little quicker off the mark to get a turn to speak, will feel less like you're just being talked over all the time.
posted by flabdablet at 11:35 PM on October 3, 2008

They will have only a vague impression of us as A Nice Person, because, frankly, we don't shine at conversation, we lack the confidence to thrust our faces forward and say, "Hi! I'm Heather Hooten; let me tell you about my week." Mostly we say "Uh-huh" and "Oh, really." People smile and look over our shoulder, looking for someone else to meet.
Garrison Keillor
How To Write A Letter

The above quote is the first thing that popped into my mind upon reading your post, remembering his bit about people looking over my shoulder for someone else to meet. I remember the first I read that, smiling with recognition but not exactly happiness; I guess I'm happy to know others have it also, not so happy that I'm not one of the Heather Hooten's of the world.

I've done the "gotten there early" thing and it's good, and getting there late is also good because it's in full swing and nobody notices that I'm a big dope. Or they don't notice as much, maybe. Hopefully.

Also. I look for another person, off to the side. (That is, I do this when I remember to do so, I do this if/when I can let go the fear which has gripped me so tightly my chest feels crushed.) Some of those on the side are like me -- scared witless -- and some are sitting back and watching real closely, listening intently. Either of those two will be glad to talk with me but only if they can tell I'm not looking over their shoulder for someone 'cool' to talk to -- the person who's like me is usually really glad to have someone to listen to them sincerely (as I know only too well), and if it's the person sitting back and watching closely and quietly, I maybe get a chance to look at the world through their eyes, and I learn one hell of a lot. And to hear this persons perspective on Heather Hooten, what an arrogant twit she is, and "Look there at the spinach on her teeth" -- well, I see things in a whole new light.

But you're looking for ways to talk into that group. One thing I've learned over the years, through lots of public speaking, is to cop to the fact that I'm scared witless, "Heck ya'll, listen to my dang voice quiver; I hate when I get scared like this when speaking publicly. Don't you hate it when it happens to you?". That's really counter-intuitive, and I've got to have the jam to step right out there and say it or I just don't pull it off. It works though, like a charm, unless I'm just totally snowed in fear, and old Heather is going on and on and maybe even interrupts me as I stand there, with spinach on MY teeth, probably.

Oddly, I often come off as this wildly extroverted person, my heart on my sleeve, and that sleeve on a loud shirt, I'm jumping up and down, etc. And I guess that actually is a piece of me, one facet of my personality. But I also suffer a lot of what you describe, and it's sortof hard for people to figure me out, those who bother to try, those who can see past the spinach on my teeth, the mustard on my shirt. I guess it all just adds to my air of mystery and stuff, right?

If/when I'm rooted when I stand there, when I'm like the person who is sitting back listening closely, people notice that I'm not scared, and they sometimes come over and say hi, they wonder what I've got up your sleeve, how is it that I'm so self-possessed. Strength and poise really can carry the day, if/when I can find them in myself, which I can, at times.

Someone up thread remarked about how they'd come up with a thoughtful answer which would quiet the group. Party chatter and office chatter just isn't usually thoughtful, it's more like volley ball than bowling, in that the chatter gets tossed around, getting tossed hither and yon and higher and higher as it bounces around, whereas in 'conversational bowling' we all come up to the line, sight up, roll our comment and wait with everyone to see the pins knocked down. (This isn't my metaphor actually, I read it a hundred years ago in some text or other, a guy describing his style of conversation and interaction vs that of his wife and her family, he an American and she from a different culture, a culture more into bowling than volley ball, conversationally.) No one at a party wants to wait for anything, they want to watch and experience the conversation get bounced around and higher and higher, back and forth, etc and etc.

Last. That whole Princess Diana thing, also upthread -- that really is a great thing, but as I said earlier in this comment rapidly turning into a small book, this will only work for me if I am totally sincere, if I really do give a damn about that other person, if I really do get soul to soul with them.

Enough out of me; I'm going to go be shy and retiring and stuff.
posted by dancestoblue at 11:46 PM on October 3, 2008 [5 favorites]

up MY sleeve...
posted by dancestoblue at 11:51 PM on October 3, 2008

As others have mentioned, body language and how you say something are very important. The more afraid you are in your mind about how something you say will be received, the more it will be reflected in your body language and how you say it. Being active and taking part in the conversation, even if it is well acknowledging replies (as someone else mentioned as well), sets you aside as someone who isn't just a nodder or timid in the background -- with that established you'll get more attention when you speak because you're considered as part of the conversation rather than someone who randomly just butts in or is a distraction
posted by NeoLeo at 2:47 AM on October 4, 2008

sorry, well = just
posted by NeoLeo at 2:47 AM on October 4, 2008

Sorry one more thing. Some of the attention grabbing people who blabber on and on about their life stories actually practiced/thought about what they are going to say beforehand, and after saying these things enough times they can say it with confidence. If you're looking to be the attention grabbing fellow, keep that in mind
posted by NeoLeo at 2:49 AM on October 4, 2008

I'm an extrovert who's also had to learn large-group socializing. What I try to keep in mind is that the group conversation isn't all about me or making myself known. I try to remember to listen, rather than focus so hard about what I'm going to say when it's my turn again that I miss hearing what others are saying. And if the topic goes places where I have questions, I ask those questions. People love to talk about themselves, so they don't mind explaining further.

And then, like jeffmshaw said, the group will eventually break into subgroups and you'll know based on your time listening who you'd like to talk more with.
posted by coffeechica at 9:35 AM on October 4, 2008

Asking questions is always good way to stay involved in the conversation that is swirling around you. Even if sounds like an inane question, people love to talk about themselves, and they'll start sending the convo in your direction. For example, if someone is dominating the conversation with tales about the marvelous trip they just took through the Ural Mountains via train, an area you've never visited nor even really read about. You could say something like, "I've only ever ridden the Amtrak train, so to give me a better mental picture, how would you compare the Eastern European trains to those in the US?" This will be his cue to expound on how primitive rail travel is over there, and how he "toughed it out," and you can respond with "I'd love to try a trip like that sometime" or "Wow, I don't think I'd survive more than a day or two on such a trek," which will probably not only get him back on his soapbox, but others will chime in and start telling you the pros and cons of international travel.
posted by Oriole Adams at 9:58 AM on October 4, 2008

I have a tendency to be the loud-mouthed extrovert telling stories to the group. I try not to be a jerk about it and try to facilitate conversation, but I just can't take awkward silences, so I'll end up blabbing about something.

Anyways, it's perfectly okay to not be at ease interacting with large groups. If you're more comfortable engaging in conversation with one or two people, then do that. See that person standing a little bit off to the side? Walk over and say hello, and introduce yourself. Go get a drink or head to the food table- those are the easiest spots to make casual conversation. If you're a bit more trapped (like at a dinner party, versus an even where you can wander freely), don't put pressure on yourself, just listen along. If you feel like chiming in, do so, if not , don't worry about it.
posted by emd3737 at 10:54 AM on October 4, 2008

I also match your description of yourself. A huge problem, for me, is that I've found that I really struggle to hear what people are saying in a large group -- either due to background music or just the loudness of people's voices. As a result I often can't follow the thread of the dominant conversation, and quickly become bored (and probably look bored.) It also makes it difficult to converse one-to-one with a person next to me. Basically, it's a situation I really hate and can't do much about it so I avoid it when I can.

When the noise level is not too bad, then I find what works is two bits of advice mentioned earlier in this thread: (1) Try and get into a one-to-one conversation with someone else who's being quiet, and (2) just get into the conversational-volleyball thing: forget about exchanging meaningful information with people, and just contribute the occasional bit to keep the general conversation flowing. Only when you converse do you become approachable.
posted by snarfois at 2:59 PM on October 4, 2008

Another introvert here who does better in small groups than large ones. I survive big crowds by creating smaller groups, by including the people nearest me in side comments or a sub-conversation. I don't have the guts (or the interest) to interrupt the main speaker or try to take over the whole group; my comment might be only audible to a few people around me, but it makes them feel included and instantly creates a little sub-group. As the overall conversation develops, I've at least made my presence known to a few people, who are then more likely to make conversational room for me.
posted by bassjump at 6:36 PM on October 4, 2008

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