How do I break into group conversations and meet new people?
April 16, 2018 8:58 AM   Subscribe

I have a lot of trouble meeting people at parties and events because I don't know how to insert myself into group conversations. I'm not shy and I'm good at small talk and one-on-one conversation. I don't have any more social anxiety than the average person and I'm not afraid of public speaking. I have a lot of friends so I'm not a generally awkward person. But I dread parties unless I'm going to know more than 4-5 people because I feel like no one wants to talk to me.

For example, I was at a birthday party this weekend. I know the birthday-person and one other person very well. There were also a few vague acquaintances, and a lot of strangers. The b-day person was understandably busy, and until Other Person arrived I sat a table with two acquaintances and a stranger. I'll call them Jesse, Riley and Dylan. Jesse and Riley are married, and Jesse and Dylan work together, so all three of them were able to talk to each other. I've met Jesse and Riley a couple of times through Birthday Person but we've never had meaningful conversations. I've never met Dylan but he seemed interesting to me. Anyway, none of them made an attempt to include me and did not offer to share their appetizer when it arrived, something I'd never do.

I'd write them off as jerks except this happens all the time. I'm sitting/standing in a group of 4-5 people and no one makes any effort to include me. I feel rude butting in - especially when I'm not very familiar with the topic of conversation. If I do insert myself I feel unwanted and frequently ignored. This is even more true when there are no (apparent) LGBTQ people in the group, either because I feel less comfortable or they do. But I can't write everyone off as bigots, especially since Birthday Person is T and Q and wouldn't invite those sorts.

What's going on? Why does this happen so often to me, and what can I do about it? This happens at professional networking events, conferences, parties, bars, etc. unless I am specifically introduced into the group by someone I know. Even if the rest of them are strangers to each other! So it has to be me, and I don't know what it is. If you've met me in person and can be bluntly honest, please memail me.
posted by AFABulous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
People tend to stick to the groups and people they're more familiar with. I'd like to think we grow as individuals and can relate to each other better with age, but in my experience it actually gets worse. I'm guilty of the same thing, and hanging a little too closely with the hosts when I don't know many other people at a gathering.

I think the key is to make sure you sit somewhere in the middle of a couple groups, in case one group gets stuck in some conversation that's a continuation of their group dynamic. And, if there are a couple people you've met previously, use it as a bridge to conversation -- if Jesse and Riley were talking about buying a car at the last gathering, ask how that went. As far as the appetizer thing, which isn't necessarily rude because not every gathering has a free-for-all, I'd say to buy an appetizer for the table to share if you can! You're trying to break in to a conversation, so give them something to talk to you about, even if it's thanking you for some nachos.
posted by mikeh at 9:05 AM on April 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's not your fault. People are oblivious. If you look interested and make it clear you're open to joining, or make a comment or two and they still don't open their conversation, I say forget 'em. They're not being very gracious.
It's OK not to talk in those situations. Don't be embarrassed or ashamed. In my opinion, it's not worth fighting your way in. Why should those people get the gift of your input if they can't bother to stop acting like middle schoolers in the cafeteria?
Get up and roam around, or entertain yourself at the table. This is why God invented smart phones.
posted by velveeta underground at 9:20 AM on April 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

Personally I just assume that everyone wants to hear my voice and my opinions all the time, so if I'm near a group talking about something and I feel like participating, I actively wait for an opportunity to insert myself with a relevant comment.

This isn't really a mindset that's considered socially polite, and I'm certain there are people in my life who think I'm a bit of a conversational asshole and think I dominate too many evenings with my yapping. But I spent enough years of my life being left out of things (either intentionally or unintentionally), and at some point I just decided to take ownership of it and not let it happen anymore. If I want to talk, I'm going to talk god damnit. Developing an attitude that my participation not only has worth, but that the world needs to hear me, helped make that happen for me.
posted by phunniemee at 9:45 AM on April 16, 2018 [15 favorites]

It’s not you, this is a thing. I’m a photographer and shoot a lot of events and GENERALLY have no problem going to parties by myself. I think it’s actually easier when I don’t know ANYONE, because then you don’t have that awkward acquaintance dance. Sitting down is hard because then you’re tied into a conversation. Standing and keeping it short is good. Sometimes after a little small talk it’s cool to just be like “oh I’m gonna check out the snack table!” And make an escape just before the conversation peters out. Keep it short and light and low-pressure.

Also if you’re going to an event alone, timing is key. The first hour, hour and a half, everyone is awkward and acclimatizing to the space/group. After that is the sweet spot where it’s chill and people are warmed up and have already said hi to the people they know and will be more mingle-y.

And sometimes it’s just a general kind of group that’s more clique-y and awkward and very hard to make small talk with, and then I give you full permission to make your presence known to the host and then skip out to preserve your own sanity.

The appetizer thing in your example is super awkward and I’m sorry, and yes, I second ordering something yourself to share; they would be complete monsters if they didn’t then offer their own to you.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 9:47 AM on April 16, 2018 [4 favorites]

4-5 people is also a big group to break into, conversationally, look for other people on their own or smaller groups.
posted by jeweled accumulation at 9:49 AM on April 16, 2018

I hate this! I always drag somebody I know to the party so it can't happen to me. If I go alone, this exact thing happens every time. Although usually people stop at not conversing. The thing where they didn't share the appetizer is unbelievably, shockingly bad; if that ever happens to me, I'm going to put my head down on the table and start audibly sobbing until everyone in the restaurant goes quiet and someone calls the cops. Either that or reach across the table, grab the whole basket of mushroom caps, and turn it upside down over my plate. "You didn't even notice I was here. HI."
posted by Don Pepino at 10:22 AM on April 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Look for a group with an odd number of people. Whether it's 3 or 7, somebody is sort of going to be the odd one out at any given moment, and that person will be more open to striking up a new conversation.
posted by COD at 10:23 AM on April 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

Firstly, it's not your job to put yourself into a conversation, it's the other people's job to include you. You seem to sort-of already get that, but the crucial thing is that people are rubbish at doing this. We are also shy and introverted and feel awkward and low social-skilled and we're nervous about saying anything to this new person, and we don't want to be the one of the group who invites them in if they turn out to be boring or a jerk or something, and it's incredibly easy to just keep on having this nice chat with the person we do know well.

This is not about you; it's about all of us struggling with sociability. I'm only saying this because I have genuinely been to training events that focus only on how to stand in 'open' groups (this is in a conferencey-working-networking context, but the principle's the same) that invite new people to join, and how to work a new person in to a group and help them join in the conversation. And even with training and practice I still don't always do it well/at all!

The best tips for being a butter-in, then, are to facilitate the socially awkward groups so that they don't screw up and they do include you, for example:
Generally the smaller the group the better, and if you can find someone on their own, going to the bar, or whatever, that's ideal. But 3 is easier than 2.
Be alert to lulls in the conversation.
Have a couple of 'ins'. One I do use at conferences is the 'hey do you know that guy' gambit - which for a social situation would probably be "do you know who that guy over there is/oh he looks just like a work colleague of mine but I guess it's not him after all. Anyway how do you know the hosts?" (NB this only works if you don't mind a bit of white lying to open a conversation).
posted by AFII at 11:56 AM on April 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

It’s not you, this is a thing. I’m a photographer and shoot a lot of events and GENERALLY have no problem going to parties by myself. I think it’s actually easier when I don’t know ANYONE, because then you don’t have that awkward acquaintance dance.

This makes a lot of sense -- as an outlier like a photographer, you're going to have to make small talk and kind of drift in and out of the group. People see the camera and somehow reclassify you as someone they need to engage with. I have friends who have had the same role, and it's interesting how it really helps you build the skill for quick engagement that's so slippery when you're just grasping for a foothold into conversation.

It's as if they have an imaginary camera from there on out. We just need to all find our own imaginary cameras.
posted by mikeh at 11:58 AM on April 16, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm not great at this, either, and it's easier if people are standing up / groups are more fluid.

Look for the person in the group of 3+ who is bored / looking around the room / not conversing. Usually a couple/few people will get deep into some work drama or hobby minutiae that someone in the circle can't engage with - engage the bored person with small talk. Eventually, the others will be done nerding out and will usually join your conversation with formerly-bored-person. Sometimes you may even notice that two people are bored with each other and you can jump in and introduce yourself to both of them.

If I know a couple people and know a topic they love to talk about, I can also join the conversational group around them, wait for a lull, and get them going on $interest. YMWV depending on what the interest is and whether you can tolerate hearing about it.

Also, I've moved to a smaller town, and strangers frequently start conversations with "do I recognize you from somewhere?" It gets the person talking about what they do that you might have in common and you can branch off from there.
posted by momus_window at 12:54 PM on April 16, 2018

I love introducing myself to groups at parties. It's great way to meet new people. Here's what works for me:

-I actively relish the awkwardness of introducing myself to strangers. I own it. I'll go up to a group, smile, and say 'Hi, My name's tooloudinhere.' I don't wait for a pause in the conversation, I just pick someone to say it to within the group who's not currently talking. Then you've created the pause, and the whole group will introduce themselves. To start the conversation I then ask a question: 'How do you know the host?' etc. Then THEY get to ask a question. When you both run out of questions, the conversation has ended. Move on.

-I pick groups that I actively want to talk to. People can tell when you're ambivalent about talking to them, and it does not make them like you. If you can't pick someone you want to talk to, that could be your problem and you should probably go home at that point.

-I don't care if they respond to me positively. If they don't, I'm on to the next group. It's the same if you both run out of questions or just have no personal chemistry. 'Oh, I'm going to refill my water,' BOOM, next group.
posted by tooloudinhere at 1:30 PM on April 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

This happens to me all the time, especially at work networking events, so it’s not just you. People are bad at socializing in my experience. Anyway I’m pretty introverted and a bit socially awkward and after this happened to me enough here is what I’ve learned to do, similar to suggestions above:

1) Pick smallish group of people (I aim for like 2-3, maybe 4 tops)
2) Walk over and just interrupt by cheerfully introducing myself
3) They usually will introduce themselves
4) I then ask them questions to get them to talk about themselves. People love to talk about themselves and will usually happily do it if you seem interested.

That’s really it. If I don’t get a good response or the group clearly doesn’t want me there I just make an exit and move on, usually saying something about getting food or drink to make an easy exit.
posted by FireFountain at 1:38 PM on April 16, 2018

One thing that might work is to come equipped with a party job that's the opposite of the photographer job: an appealing-to-guests, helpful-to-the-host job. A friend of mine used to be great at parties because he'd come with a whole tea set-up or his Turkish coffee equipment or he'd bring a giant jugful of cosmopolitans or his signature bizarre jello-shots. Or a tank of helium that one time when he was supposed to make a green balloon ceiling for the Emerald City party but instead just spent the entire night sipping helium and singing, "we represent the lollipop guild" and half-filling balloons for the rest of his impromptu lollipop chorus. Which was arguably a bigger boost to the Emerald City ambiance than the balloon ceiling would have been, anyway.

But so anyway, you wouldn't have to do anything that pyrotechnic; instead you could bring some irresistible snacks like brownies or pigs in blankets to the party and instead of dropping your plate on the table with the other snacks, put it out of sight somewhere and then after ten or fifteen minutes, go grab it and circulate, offering the snacks to the people.
posted by Don Pepino at 2:35 PM on April 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

People are terrible at breaking in to groups and groups are terrible at bringing in new people. It's seldom personal. Usually lazy or oblivious.

I'd be considered someone who does really well at big events where I know no-one. Ask the Sydney MeFites! The truth is I fret probably every bit as much as you do. But I do lurk around food or drink tables or music systems or kitchens or pets or kids (basically something to talk about that's not me or them) and look for fellow awkward turtles to chat too. Once emboldened I bring others in to our group or wait for the other turtle to.

Big hugs. Sounds like you met some lazy turds, as we all do from time to time. You sound empathic and I'd love to meet someone like you at a gathering so we could share food together (not chicken though, I hate it) and compare our awkward. Remember, at events, it's people like us looking out for fellow awkwards that save someone's night. If an awkward hasn't reached out to you, you have to be a reacher. There is always more than one, and if you haven't been approached by an awkward yet, you're wearing the super hero Awkward Cape of Comfort that night.
posted by taff at 4:06 PM on April 16, 2018 [1 favorite]

Miss Manners recently addressed a question from a reader about this very subject. Here's the article.
posted by Dolley at 6:55 PM on April 16, 2018

I'm someone that usually does reasonably well in groups of 4-5 but is often in situations where I must manage the social dynamics of groups that contain at least one or two people that struggle in groups. This repeated experience has shown me that a lot comes down to details of body language, eye contact, and tone and style of voice. Specifically:

Do you speak loud enough? The people who are hardest to include have a habit of speaking too softly to be easily heard in a group setting. They speak at a volume appropriate to a one-on-one situation, or only slightly louder. They mumble. They are not aware they are doing this and often have a very hard time correcting it; I am sure that speaking at an appropriate volume feels far too loud to them. But speaking so quietly is absolutely chilling on their inclusion in the group -- you simply must speak A LOT louder than normal, particularly when there is a lot of ambient noise. If you are too quiet then most people will simply give up trying to speak to you before long; in a group, all you need is two of these before you've lost control of the conversation. Even people who want to be kind will hesitate to reply to you because they know that if they interact with you they will get pulled into a one-on-one with you (which they probably don't want if they were in a group). Basically, if you are anything like my friends you NEED to talk much louder than you think you do. And you need to do so consistently and not abandon the effort after a few sentences. This is seriously by far the hugest factor and one which it is easy to be absolutely unaware of.

Are you managing eye contact well? People who have trouble in group settings often do not gain and hold people's attention by making eye contact when they have something to say. Or they'll make eye contact with just one person, turning what should be a group-directed comment into a one-person-focused appeal. Or once they have the floor they will not make eye contact with multiple people throughout the whole group, rather than just the person(s) closest to them, thus making the further ones feel excluded. Basically, in groups contact and attention is managed through the eyes and people who struggle in groups don't seem to recognise that or do it appropriately.

Is your body language assertive enough? The people I know who struggle in groups usually have body language that tries to hide rather than command attention. Many times they literally hide behind someone else in the group: indeed, I have frequently had the experience of stepping back to let them in, only to have them step back with me and hide behind me! Even if they aren't hiding, their body language is usually folded in on itself, and they overall give off a vibe like they are apologetic for their very presence. This kind of thing makes people uncomfortable, and is much more apparent in a group setting than one on one. Here you really do have to fake it till you make it: stand assertively (not like an asshole, but don't give up space) and act as though you are confident that you belong there.

Do you speak quickly in lulls in conversation? The difficult thing about group dynamics is that pauses tend to be a lot shorter, simply because there are more people who might potentially fill them. This makes it very difficult for people who typically wait for a longer amount of time before speaking. They just get cut off most of the time. It's not dickishness (necessarily) on the part of the others. I have tried to make space for somebody else sometimes by using body language and eye contact to gain attention and then lob it to them ("What do you think, Bob?") and the silence while everyone waits for the response feels excruciating. It's just too long, and you can see people visibly tense or fidget or whatever as they wait. The same pause in a one-on-one conversation would not be at all weird. Basically, you need to be a lot quicker in a group.

Now, these factors don't explain everything -- sometimes people are just jerks, and sometimes it's far more subtle than this. And I don't know you, maybe none of this applies. But these are trends I have observed repeatedly across multiple people who struggle in these settings, so they might be worth thinking about and practicing.
posted by forza at 6:30 AM on April 17, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think forza explains it very well. You might want to ask a friend to observe you at the next function and tell you what he or she thinks.
posted by Kwadeng at 6:41 AM on April 17, 2018

I went to a party recently where I barely knew the hosts and no one else, and they all knew each other.

What worked for me pretty well was finding a single person who was kind of waiting around as well, and introducing myself. After chatting for a bit, and accidentally making eye contact with someone else i’d introduce myself and introduce the two people to each other. And say something inclusive like “we were just talking abou poetry!”

Voila!! You now have a 3-person group. Rather than waiting to be included, maybe you could be the nucleus and create your own group.

I feel like maybe this would work at mingly parties, but yeah if I was in a group and no one said a single thing to me, how rude/at least not gracious at all. I might excuse myself in that instance, no reason you have to put up with that! Xo
posted by pengwings at 10:27 AM on April 17, 2018

P.S. snack table is a great place to chat about the food as an intro comment “this hummus is so good! Do you usually eat healthy?”; lots of single agents dropping by.
posted by pengwings at 10:44 AM on April 17, 2018

Half the time I just say 'hey, mind if I join?' and there is usually always at least one enthusiastic person that puts me at ease. When this hasn't happened, its because these people were kind of cliquey and not really worth my time anyways.
posted by Willow251 at 3:02 PM on April 17, 2018

Late to the conversation. My theory is that it's a million years of evolution -- we are leery of those we don't know and avoid them to keep ourselves safe, if that makes sense. I see this at churches I try out and the church people are no better. Having one of two good questions at parties, "how do you know x?" or "where do you work?" can often get the ball rolling.

Someone said people are oblivious--sometimes you just have to throw up your hands at the losers and move on.
posted by intrepid_simpleton at 5:26 AM on April 19, 2018

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