Being fun at parties
November 6, 2014 10:47 AM   Subscribe

Scenario: college party with other folks my age, drinking and meeting folks. Problem: I'm not good at talking about light, non-intellectual topics at parties. I don't watch TV or movies or know about goings on on campus. What can I talk about (that isn't boring), or how can I improve this?

As above: I don't watch TV or many movies (not a holier-than-thou thing, I just haven't had the time). I spend most of my time doing academic work, or personal projects in cogsci and tech, or reading.

Thankfully, most of my friends here are similar to me, and we just usually chat about intellectual stuff when we meet. But in situations where that level of discourse isn't the norm (sure it's possible, but most likely not what is expected), I don't really know what to talk about. I catch up with friends and whatnot, but I don't have any experience in movies or TV or happenings on campus or other fodder to draw from.

The few topics I usually fall back on are news, which I read a lot of, or travel, since I've traveled extensively. With new people, I usually find out their interests off the bat and see what intersections we have. But those topics are kinda trite and I feel like they're boring topics.

So what do people actually talk about at these parties? How can I improve on this whole thing? Is the answer to block off this weekend, get on Seamless, and binge *Game of Thrones*? Or is it just taking a different strategy to conversation at these parties?

Thanks in advance.
posted by markbao to Human Relations (21 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Whenever you're in a situation where you don't know what to talk about, you can't go wrong asking other people questions. This is great because you let people talk about what they want to talk about, and you don't have to pick the topic of conversation.

It sort of seems like you already do that, so what's the problem? It's ok if it's a bit trite - not every conversation needs to be ground-breakingly scintillating. Sometimes it's ok to just shoot the shit.
posted by lunasol at 10:59 AM on November 6, 2014 [20 favorites]

Dig a bit. Forget about intersection, ask them what they geek out over. Try to get them animated and gushing. Everyone has such topics but they don't gushl right away out of politness; they will though drop hints and leaders that they have more to say if you signal it's okay. If you were interviewing them, make your goal uncovering that thing that they are dying to talk about but can't just blurt out.

I agree, gossip and pop culture are boring. People are fascinating, though.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:59 AM on November 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

Totally my world as well. It's trite and cliché, but I find it works wonders: Ask other people about themselves.

It keeps you from having to come up with things to say and keeps you from potentially prattling on about yourself (myself) too much.

It's a tough one. I feel ya.
posted by humboldt32 at 11:02 AM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Three things:

1) News and travel are not boring topics to many people. Although some people may roll their eyes at discussing the news, I think these are perfectly fine subjects to discuss at parties, so long as you don't view it as an opportunity to grandstand about your own opinions.

2) You say you read a lot. What do you read? Lots of people like talking about reading.

3) Ask people questions, and be genuinely interested in their responses. This is probably the single most important rule in human social interaction. I wish I knew it in college, myself - back then I thought the onus was on me to impress people with how fascinating or intelligent or charming I was. But I'm really not particularly fascinating or intelligent or charming, and it actually doesn't matter! You can be a regular person without much charisma and people will like you if you are genuinely interested in them.

Your default mode in new social interactions should be to actively listen, ask questions, and respond with your own anecdotes/observations where you can. It will take off a lot of the pressure you may feel to seem interesting or impressive, and it works.
posted by breakin' the law at 11:03 AM on November 6, 2014

People are powerful information sources. One of the best way to find things out about all sorts of different topics is to ask someone. You knew this already since you came in to the green to ask this question. Once you have asked someone a question then follow up with some more questions that dig into what they are interested in. So you learn about stuff which will make you a more rounded person as well as having a good conversation and getting to know someone. Asking people about themselves and what interests them is generally a good way to get on with them. So if someone mentions GoT then maybe say you have been thinking of watching it and is it as good as people say? What happens? What makes it good? These are just examples, you can probably come up with better questions yourself, and this is all stuff to do on the fly anyway, to suit the particular circumstances. Try to avoid thinking about whether a topic is boring, they can't all be about the meaning of life. Some conversations will wither and you move on, some will spark and you go from there.

You read MeFi I imagine, I find that to be a strong source of interesting stuff. Check news sites?
posted by biffa at 11:08 AM on November 6, 2014

On preview, others said basically what I was typing, but here is my nthing of the listening strategy:

I'd go with your last thought: different strategy. Focus on being a good and attentive listener. In general, people love talking about themselves or whatever they're into. You don't treat it like an interview. You interject with something from your own experience that relates, and then good conversation springs from there. If you relax and learn to enjoy it, you can find all kinds of common ground with people you thought wouldn't mesh with. I think this is a much better way to go than to try to bone up on pop culture that doesn't interest you, and may turn out to not interest the others at the party.
posted by gimli at 11:08 AM on November 6, 2014

You didn't say WHY you want to be a better conversationalist at parties. Have you gotten negative feedback about your behavior at parties? Are you hoping to make more friends and/or meet a significant other? If you can articulate your goals it would be easier to give advice.

The biggest thing is not just to ask other people questions but to BE INTERESTED in people. People can tell if you are asking them questions just to be polite.

But -- overall, for introverts such as myself (and maybe you), parties are not really the greatest places to form new relationships. (They're great for strengthening bonds with existing friends, though, which is why I love parties.) As long as you are somewhat capable of making small talk, not committing party fouls and are getting invited to parties, you are probably doing just fine. Put in an appearance, chat with people you know and focus on other activities for new-relationship-building.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 11:14 AM on November 6, 2014

ask them about themselves.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:16 AM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree that asking questions is your best bet, but only to some extent. I like to tell my stories as much as the next person, but I don't want to be grilled.

So ask a few questions then say, "I don't mean to pepper you with questions. Honestly, I'm just not sure what people talk about at these parties."

It's sincere and disarming. It shows a genuineness that is so much lacking in social structures. I'd bet money that the response would be, "Oh, I KNOW! It can be so awkward!" Seriously, you are not the only one struggling to find some way to connect with others, so why not connect over the disconnect?

I watched almost no TV growing up, and I'm still out of the loop on most pop culture references. Still, I have fun talking with people, and folks seem to enjoy talking with me. Let stories about your travels come out over time or in response to someone's mention of a place you've been. Nothing bores me more quickly than hearing about travels. Why? If I haven't been to the same place(s), I have nothing to add, and that means it's not a conversation but a monologue.

But again, just be honest about your uncertainty, and you'll definitely find that others are not as comfortable as they pose to be. Your vulnerability in that sense will endear you to people.
posted by whoiam at 11:21 AM on November 6, 2014

Response by poster: This is great advice so far, thanks all. Just to answer gimli's question:
You didn't say WHY you want to be a better conversationalist at parties. Have you gotten negative feedback about your behavior at parties?
I should have included this in the original post. Thanks for the prompt. I haven't gotten negative feedback, but two symptoms:

1) I feel uncomfortable talking to someone at a party since I expect my topics to be boring.
2) When meeting acquaintances in party settings (norm: light convo), I have trouble filling in the silences. When meeting them in other settings (norm: light, or more in-depth convo) I have no problems.
Are you hoping to make more friends and/or meet a significant other? If you can articulate your goals it would be easier to give advice.
Yeah, hoping to make interesting friends and also kind of explore what other people are doing. Are they studying something interesting? Working on music? Going out to Brooklyn and tagging subway cars? (Note: Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.)
posted by markbao at 11:22 AM on November 6, 2014

The best thing is to listen. Let the other people talk and direct the conversation.
Be genuinely interested in what the other person is talking about.

Most people do not want to hear what you want to talk about - most people want to talk about themselves, their interests.
Cultivate a love of learning about other people. Ask questions about their life. Let them talk.
posted by Flood at 11:26 AM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I see "conversationally speaking" recommended on here all the time and I finally caved in and read it recently, so it's my turn to recommend it now. It's a really quick and simple read, and I found it very helpful - I feel like I've already improved a lot, after just a few weeks of trying to apply the tips from that book.

My favourite was the suggestion to keep a rough ratio of 2 questions to one statement revealing something of yourself (opinion, experience, interest, etc). Super simple, but I tend to ask too many questions so trying to stick to that ratio helped me remember to also share information about myself in return. Others go too far the opposite direction and tend to monologue about themselves, so the same advice would be useful for them too.
posted by randomnity at 11:42 AM on November 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

"I'm not a huge TV watcher but I've heard such GREAT things about Game of Thrones. What is the biggest part of its appeal for you? I've heard a lot of comparisons between the book and show, which do you think is stronger? Do you think the shows actors are as good as everyone says, or are they carried by a strong story and good directors?"

"I don't watch a lot of TV but everyone just RAVES about Mad Men and I'm thinking of binge-watching it this summer. Do you need a lot of pop-culture knowledge to follow it, or do you think it's something I could get into? Do you have to be interested in the 60s? What part of the show makes it so amazing?"

The key thing in TV conversations when you don't watch TV is to say, "I don't watch a lot of TV BUT I've heard great things about ...." Because I do get you want to admit you are not knowledgeable, but you also have to say "I support your enthusiasm!" or you'll get an anti-TV-snob reaction. And the easiest thing to do with TV or sports or even high-falutin' fine-art conversations where you are lost and know nothing, is to say, "That sounds really interesting, tell me more about why you love it." You will probably learn things! And people will think you're a great conversationalist because they get to talk about things they like, and explain them to you!

When I was not a TV-watcher I always at least skimmed the headlines about TV shows in my favorite news sources, so I always knew that, say, Game of Thrones was up for a bunch of Emmy Awards and therefore had a hazy idea it had good actors, which gave me something to grab on to. As you do this a few times you can remember what people got really passionate about and go with, "Someone was telling me the other night that the actress who plays Cersei Lannister is miscast, do you think so?" and people will light right up to have that nerd-war-by-proxy.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:03 PM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Personally, I only go to parties where I know there will be people who like to discuss things I like to discuss, which is a way around your problem. But I'm not exactly a social butterfly.
posted by ktkt at 12:29 PM on November 6, 2014

I agree about asking people questions about themselves, but one thing I never figured out about college parties (or bars) is how the hell are you supposed to hold a conversation with anyone with the music cranked?
posted by doctor tough love at 12:58 PM on November 6, 2014

You could try watching the first couple episodes of a popular show (like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones) if you want to. But only if you actually want to, I wouldn't bother just so you have something to discuss. If you end up enjoying the first couple episodes you can use that as a starting point to talk to people that have watched them, and I am sure they will be excited for you since so much ends up happening in those shows. Just don't let them give away any spoilers! :)

Like others have suggested you can ask other people questions. If they are talking about Rugby, for example, you can just flat out say, "I don't really know much about that sport" and maybe ask them to tell you why they love it, or ask how the school team is doing this year, or tell them that you travelled to England and know it's very popular there but didn't get to watch a game and do they ever watch some of the professional English teams etc. I think you get the idea here. You can do that with a variety of topics and interests they express.

You could ask them what their major is and what interests them about it. And so on.

Personally, I find travel to be a fascinating topic so the fact that you feel able to converse on that level would hold my attention.
posted by thegoldfish at 1:15 PM on November 6, 2014

In addition to all the great advice you've gotten so far, I would also suggest you spend some time thinking about how you can make your intellectual pursuits accessible. Even if you ask someone a ton of questions about themselves, anyone reasonably polite will ask you a few questions, too. If you have a quick summary of what you're interested in that doesn't involve jargon and can be easily understood without any specialized knowledge of the subject area, you can continue talking about the things you find the most interesting. It's important not to think of such endeavors as "dumbing down" your intellectual pursuits as much as it is sharing your interests with someone who hasn't studied cogsci and tech. This way, you'll stay more interesting because everyone is more interesting when they're talking about something they're really passionate about.
posted by ohisee at 2:52 PM on November 6, 2014

To me, that's what banter is for. Joke around, make light of something that recently happened or a trend, imagine a conversation across the room... You can talk a bit about your interesting project and then laugh a bit about how only three people will probably read it. Some people might be more curious about your intellectual ideas than you expect, and others will be glad to move on and just be playful.

"Travel" and "news" are super broad, though. Those should give you lots of topics to explore. Culture doesn't have to be TV or "pop culture" - it can include music, art, theater, literature and everything you've seen in film/TV in your life, not just recently. And there are always those party question type conversation starters, the "Have you ever..." or "what would you do if..." or "kill, marry, screw" sort of things, if you feel up to it. Usually easier when everyone's had a few and there's a bit of a group.
posted by mdn at 5:52 PM on November 6, 2014

I, too, can run dry when trying to make conversation. It can be really hard when the other person doesn't know how to help, how to interact with relative (or complete) strangers. And you certainly don't have to be in college for this to occur.

Here's a nice link my brother sent me "How To Be Polite."

The part that stayed with me is a conversational gambit I've used a bit since reading the piece: when someone tells you what they do for a living, simply say, "that must be quite difficult." It's fascinating to hear how they respond!
posted by Browneyed1 at 6:19 PM on November 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

You could be upfront about it. Maybe talk about how you've totally lost touch with pop culture due to work stuff, and ask them about what they're into and what's the big thing these days. It could be novel for them to catch you up like you've been on a desert island or something.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:09 AM on November 7, 2014

I spent a few months on the road backpacking and learning how to converse with strangers became important to me pretty quickly -- here are my go-to topics.

Family (Do you have any brothers or sisters, etc).
Hobbies (So what are you into)
Job/Classes (What's your major).

Yes, they're horribly boring fucking topics, but basically it gives people an opportunity to say something that you can turn into an interesting conversation (Oh, you're taking physics, what did you think about Interstellar?, etc.. )
posted by empath at 8:09 AM on November 10, 2014

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