The etiquette of working a room.

I have never been a big party person. I find being in a roomful of jubilant people about as fun as having a toenail removed with a putty knife by three-year old. Yep. A laugh a minute.

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This is ironic because long ago I worked as a social hostess for a beautiful resort, where six nights a week I hosted a cocktail party for at least one hundred people. But that was work. And I got paid handsomely for it. Plus I had nothing to do with the prep, set up, operations, or the washing of thousands of glasses smeared with freshly applied lipstick. All I had to do was glide and gush—and discourage the odd wayward hand.

The ‘speaking to folks I didn’t know’ part wasn’t so difficult because my job was simply to make my way from one end of the room to the other, butt in on conversations, ask a few questions—all totally rehearsed with practiced ad libs as answers—and make empty promises. I was instructed to be agreeable. Say you’d love to sit with them at Chef’s six course dinner (never happened), promise to have a drink with them later after the resort’s evening show (I was nineteen—couldn’t happen), consent to many a game of tennis on the clay courts the next morning (nope), and pledge to meet guests up on the championship golf course after lunch (sorry, Charlie). No one was ever fussed, because that kind of talk was as meaningful as a basketful of air kisses. Just cocktail chatter. And I got the hang of it in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.

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Well, that was then and this is now. Right now is graduation season where everyone and their uncle are celebrating the commencement of someone special.

My kid just graduated high school! Potluck at our place!

Come help us applaud Harold for his achievement at finishing first grade! Formal reception at the Four Seasons.

Your father just passed a three-year old kidney stone! We’re breaking out the good booze and getting ready to play lawn darts.

Whatever the occasion, it’s Graduation Party Season. Having a high school senior, and admiring their success at convincing the requisite number of teachers that they deserve a diploma, has morphed into recognizing the tiniest of achievements leading up to graduation day. All of them honored with a party.

– This month is the last month of school for our seniors. We’re starting it off by giving them a skip day, but come back for the BBQ in their honor.

– Let’s celebrate our seniors with one last senior appreciation day lunch in the cafeteria.

– Parent potluck with our seniors. Let’s bring in their favorite food. (I truly was expecting a table full of Ben & Jerry’s pints.)

– Senior’s, parent’s and teacher’s brunch. Let’s rehash all those stellar grades.

– Graduation rehearsal and picnic to follow.

– Breakfast before Graduation.

– Reception to follow ceremony.

– Lunch to follow reception.

– Diploma party.

– Diploma framing party.

– Slide show party of all the parties.

Ugh.

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I understand how important these life events are, and the necessity of celebrating the terrific efforts of our loved ones, but parties nearly kill me with the amount of energy I apply trying to fit in like a normal person. It probably wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t other people at these parties. Or if there had to be other people, then the rule was you could only acknowledge them with a wave. No talking allowed.

As a writer, I work with a lot of words. Hundreds of thousands of them flow out my body in any given year. But they flow out of my DIGITS and not my MOUTH. I get little practice chatting with folks currently apart from dialoguing with my hound all day long. Except he and I have our own language. We’re like Hans Solo and Chewbacca. Or Kristoff and Sven. No one but us understands us.

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And I’m pretty sure that wonky part howl, part growl parlance is the first thing to slip out as soon as somebody sidles up, gives me a hug and asks how I’m doing.

It’s guttural, it’s primordial, it’s dysfunctional and makes people take a large step back.

But one cannot dodge these mandatory events without some sort of judgment and backlash, therefore, I plaster on a face and pull on a dress. I make my way from one end of the room to the other. I remind folks to try the chef’s newest award-winning dish of elk and sea urchin pie. I hype up the ballroom’s upcoming show and encourage people to get a seat early. I point outside the cafeteria window toward the outdoor basketball court and suggest we volley a few balls over the net in the morning. I promise a handful of fathers I’ll have a drink with them before the evening is out.

I turn back to register a sea of parental faces staring at me quizzically and note several women dragging their innocent husbands to the door. I stand in horror over my massive faux pas.

I garble something that sounds like it came from the mouth of a German Sheppard.

I fumble for my car keys and dash to the parking lot.

I am not a party person.

~Shelley

Don’t forget to check out what we’re cookin’ in the Scullery and what we all talked about down in the pub. Plus, you can see more of Robin Gott‘s humor–all from the only pen carved from a human funny bone.

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99 thoughts on “The etiquette of working a room.

  1. I like the cartoons and what you write, I am not a big party person either. They drain my energy! Smaller ones are better for me, if they involve conversations

    • Thanks for the lovely compliments, Raj. Rob is a master with his magic pencils.
      And these days, party-wise, I’m much better suited to staying in the kitchen and being put in charge of full bellies. The only conversational sounds I truly want are the one’s where I hear a series of burps escape from folks on their way out the door.
      Compliments to the chef, indeed. 🙂

  2. I have a Grand daughter graduating from high school this year and thankfully I won’t be attending any potlucks or parties. So you have my sympathies for the mandatory frivolities you will attend. You could always feign laryngitis. However your way would be a lot more fun.

  3. “Your father just passed a three-year old kidney stone! We’re breaking out the good booze and getting ready to play lawn darts.”

    There are too many quotes from this post I would love to steal (but I am honorable and won’t).
    Wow!
    My Parents, such as they were, did not attend my HS grad. Hell! I barely showed up my own self; it being the Seventies and all…
    Needless to say, I was disappointed they did not take the time.
    (My Grandparents showed and gave me a car, which I had been offering to purchase for some months prior)
    Anyway, I am rambling…
    Loved this post:
    Hit close to home.

    Cheers,
    Lance

    • Lance, I’m totally flattered, but mostly just happy to hear you had a good giggle. My dad slipped me $1 for my graduation and whispered that I should keep it to myself lest the other three kids in the family find out. Still, it was one of the nicest dollar bills I’ve ever gotten. Sounds like your grandfolks were truly caring people. A car!

    • Thank you for your lovely compliments Diana! I’m smitten with Rob’s artwork too. It’s magical to have one’s words come to life in picture form.
      And you are one of those kinds of people I’d give my left lung to be.

        COMFORTABLE.

      Maybe give lessons?

      • (smiling) sure… if I can get lessons on how to focus on those longer one-to-one conversations. We all have to adapt in the areas we aren’t strong in, right? Sounds like you aced it in your hostess job!
        Diana xo

  4. hilarious post and one i can well identify with. i’m a bit of an introvert and therefore prefer to chat with just one or two people rather than work a room. like you, part of my job in the past has been doing just that very thing, and it is very different being paid for it, almost like an acting gig. i loved this post ) beth

    • Aw, thanks, Beth. I’m so glad you liked the writing. And I think you nailed it, when you’re schooled and paid for you behavior, it’s pretty much nearly the same things as behaving like a trained monkey. Not a lot of thought. But improv? YIKES!
      What was your job?

  5. Hee, hee, heeeee. I’m guessing you want me to hold back on the invitation to attend my husband’s graduation a week from Thursday, then??? I’m SO not a party person either. Six people for dinner, eight if I’m forced to it, is my comfort zone. Big hugs, best of luck with it all.

    • Holy cow, Ardys, you must have a bucketful of smarts floating around your house as this will be the second graduation in a few weeks, right? Another degree? A bigger bolder title? Felicitations to the fellow! And to you? Good luck with the party. ugh.
      xxx

      • Yes, this is a big one… PhD for the dear fellow. Two graduations within 7 weeks of each other is a bit much, but happy days nevertheless. Am only doing something very low key, 6 or 7 of us. I ‘freeze’ when I have guests, though. It’s as if I’ve never cooked in my life and I am a mess with the preparations. B is so good at it, learned a lot from her! xxx

  6. Shallow conversation is exhausting, but how can you do much else at a large party, especially when you don’t know people well? I think the amount of celebrating before and after events has gotten out of hand. We “graduate” pre-schoolers, then kindergartners, then middle-schoolers. Even my 8th grader thinks it’s silly.

    I feel your pain and angst, but just about spit out my tea at:

    “I turn back to register a sea of parental faces staring at me quizzically and note several women dragging their innocent husbands to the door. I stand in horror over my massive faux pas.”

    Fabulous drawings as always.

    • Yes, Alys, somehow the highest point on my mortification meter seems to rise with each new adventure I embark upon. At times I think it’s best I’m not let out of the house. In fact, my training ground really should simply be answering the door to the UPS guy and occasional maintenance folks who come to check on the water filters. If I’m feeling bold, I’ll skip the self-checkout line and go to an actual cashier in the supermarket. Baby steps, right?
      (And me thinks you’ve got yourself one smart cookie of an 8th grader. 😉 )

      And thanks for the lovely compliment regarding Rob’s work. He really is something special.

    • Thanks for the fabulous comment about my drawings. The kind of parties I used to really dread (and which I thankfully don’t go to anymore) were the ones where you stand with a glass in your hand and the opening line in a conversation is “What do you do?”

      • You’re a tremendous talent Rob. I admire your ability to blend your drawings skills and your humour into one hilarious whole.

        Yes…”what do you do?” can be a killer, but you do something so incredibly cool I would assume others would flock to your side.

  7. Great post Shelley. I’m not much of a party goer, and always seem to attract the people with tales of woe looking for sympathy!
    I’ve been the hostess of a New Year Party for 50 when only 6 people turned up (I did all my own catering and most went in the bin) which incidentally was the last big party I gave.
    The best was for my Mum and Dad’s Coral wedding anniversary when I invited them up for Sunday dinner not telling them that I’d also invited the family. I gave Mum a bouquet and Dad a box of cigars on arrival. There were 39 of us in our little semi, and the following morning I was cooking the full English for 18.
    Best invitation we had was to a Garden Steak Party. At the bottom after the RSVP was ‘Please bring a spade plus a steak for the BBQ’. We had a great time. 🙂

    • Holy cow, you really have had a terrific amount of experience with party hosting and attending. The Garden Steak Party actually sounds intriguing enough to entertain. Bring your own meat and as a reward for using our grill, we’ll let you pull some weeds. I AM SO GOING TO USE THAT! 😛
      And your mom and dad must have been absolutely chuffed to be thrown such a shin dig. Bet you got a massive amount of brownie points for that one. What a lovely girl you are.

      • Thank you for your lovely comments.
        Yes, Mum and Dad were a little overwhelmed, though Mum was disappointed to see I’d laid on a buffet rather than the traditional roast, but that was before everyone started coming out of the kitchen! It’s one of the few times I’ve seen my Dad speechless. It was such a wonderful day, one I loved doing for them, and a really special memory as it was one of the last times we were all together as it included his 2 surviving sisters and brother.

  8. Oh goodness. I am so not a party person. The thought of entering a room full of people, strangers or friends, has me on edge. I have no idea how to ‘work a room’. One reason I shy away from social gatherings is the superficiality. Particularly air kisses. I love, love, loved your phrase – as meaningful as a basket of air kisses.

    • Thank you, thank you for your sweet compliments. I’m going to guess that running into you at a party would be like smacking into a mirror.
      So glad the season is over. And now I’ve got two years to go before it’s round two with another graduate. I shall work on building up my meaningless, trivial patter. Cheers to you!

  9. I love parties! There, I’ve said it, please don’t judge me too harshly. On the other hand I do appreciate where you are coming from – as someone who is also very comfortable being on my own, to the extent of not even needing a radio on for company in a rare period without pets, I can see that a big, noisy room is anathema. I’m an extrovert living an introvert life.

    I bought ‘Quiet’ by Susan Cain for my husband to read, as he’s an introvert in a job where he’s required to act like an extrovert. It’s next on my non-fiction reading list, and was wondering if you’d heard of it, read it even, and if you had what you thought of it?

    I must add, Rob is clearly working very (too?) hard – last week 26 cartoons and this week all those intricate drawings. Those digital words must have taken ages! Take care, Rob, we want you around for the long term, please!

    • Wahoo! We’ve finally struck gold in finding a specimen of someone many of us would likely want to put beneath a microscope to see just what “ease” really looks like. I am in awe with folks who handle parties with aplomb. It’s a well developed skill for many folks, but for the rare few who blossom beneath the heat of meet and greets, I applaud you. And envy you.

      The book sounds fantastic. I’ve popped it onto my library list. Apparently twenty folks are in front of me–it obviously must be a terrific read.

      And lastly, yes, Rob has been churning out an impressive amount of doodles. I’m guessing his colored pencils are nearly at stub level by now. And I am forever grateful for his efforts. He’s a total treasure chest of comic relief. 😀

      • Rob’s drawings are a joy, if not his puns, but your writing always makes me laugh.

        While I love parties and being in big groups of people I hate small talk too. I just figure that if someone is impossible to draw into a more meaningful conversation there are a hundred or so other people to try and get to know. If it’s a party of old friends then it’s easy, the joy is in catching up. One of the perils of moving around is that you leave friends behind. We did have a tradition of having a massive catch up with everyone party every other year, people were offered space to put sleeping bags, or even tents in the garden, or given B&B referrals if they preferred. It stopped when Rowan’s father died and we haven’t quite got round to getting going again, but maybe this year would be the year to bring back the tradition?
        booking a bouncy castle for the kids was always a popular move, but I’d make sure it was big enough for adults so when they’d gone to bed we could have a go too. Gosh, this is making me nostalgic.

        • I would not be able to wait until the kids were asleep. You’d find me in the bouncy castle for the whole party. Kids to need cocktail chatter. And they hardly need you to apologize if you accidentally knee them in the chest while doing a back flip either. They just shake it off and keep on bouncing.
          GREAT IDEA! 😀

          • The secret to a good party is good food and entertainment. The hog roast helps with food, cousins who can juggle while unicycling and breathe fire add to the latter 🙂

            • I did draw the line at lawn mower racing, though. I thought adults, booze, a sloping garden, sit on mowers and kids running around was just too much of an accident waiting to happen. I was not popular. For about 5 minutes when more food came out. 😉

              • They might just be happy to travel at that. 😉 They taught my husband to breathe fire, so that was cool. To be honest most parties we just chatted with the kids running around in the background. Having good weather so everyone can be outside really, really helps.

    • Thanks for your concern. There was a song by Jona Lewie back in the early 80s called “You’ll always find him in the kitchen at parties!” I’ve never been a kitchen-hanger myself, although it’s usually the best place to find the booze and snacks. I’m more of a drawing-room person 🙂

    • Have you read Elizabeth Gilber’s The Signature of All Things? If you’re into historical fiction, then this might be a terrific read for you. The world of great botanists comes alive. Although I’m not finished, I highly recommend the novel. There are quite a few dinner parties, but they’re filled with scholars and scientist – might be just your kind of thing. 🙂

  10. Oh I sympathise. When you small talk, something has to come out of your mouth immediately, and I can never think of anything, except tactless stuff. I like the waving idea. Go into a party, wave at everybody, go home. Yes. Sounds like a plan.

  11. Elk and Sea Urchin pie? Shelley, I’ve seen you perform in the kitchen and yes, your creations are amazing as are your beautiful stories, but if I may suggest leaving this menu item off the list. This blog, however, is more in line with the muse Melpomene… I can relate.

    Being a caterer and chef, you understand I too have seen my shares of functions, gatherings, weddings, gradu… bla bla bla. And WTF do people ALWAYS hang out in the KITCHEN where we are trying to accomplish our end of the business?

    A little secret… I was always able to cordially (no pun intended) able to help those guests quickly move along by offering them a bottle of wine or champagne from the owners wine cellar and suggest they offer it to the person throwing the party as a “gift.” They never suspected it was from their own cellar, brilliant. We always kept a raided stash in the corner of the kitchen just for that “emergency need.” “DKW!”, (Dead Kitchen Weight), which sent one of my key servers to offer this bottle to the guest who then quickly left the service area and thought they had won the lottery and an in with the host. I’m quite sure I’ve dented many cellars. 🙂

    Congratulations to you Ms. Cleo! I am so proud of your well earned accomplishments. You will go far… perhaps in a galaxy far far away… (I trust that reference was not lost).

    P.s. Great pic of you and Beno, but is that a mullet you’re growing? Safe travels to you both my love.

    Much love Shelley,

    Stoshu 🙂

    • I’m sure someone up in Sweden could make elk and sea urchin pie taste brilliantly, don’t’ you think? Maybe sprinkled with a little reindeer moss? Drizzled with some salted, rehydrated snow from an ancient stream bank? Think outside the box, buddy. (Okay, never mind, I just reread that dish’s description. It’s beyond my ken.)

      And I can’t believe you’ve just released one of your biggest secrets. Surely the leak will find it’s way to some of your loftier clients, eh? Although, I will not spill the beans.

      Lastly, if you want to follow along on her travels, Chloe set up a “travel blog.” Did she send you the link? Let me know if you want it. She’s somewhere between Spain and France right now. YIKES!
      big hugs, buddly! xx ❤

  12. Please send it to me via my e-mail as I need to live vicariously through her. It’s been too long since my travels there and I miss it terribly.

    Cheers,

    S

  13. Shelley, I was reading this and wanted to shout, “This woman and I are sisters–I know it! Someone has some explaining to do!” (I didn’t shout, however, because my oldest dog likes peace and quiet during the day, and anyone who dares raise her voice is chastised with a barking reprimand.) Anyway, my mom calls me the recluse, and she’s not even joking. When I was 13, a teacher asked everyone in class where they would like to live when they grew up. Some students said Paris or New York. I said Wyoming. The teacher asked why, and I said as far as I could tell, it was the state with the fewest people, so I wanted to head out there. I didn’t go to my prom; I didn’t go to my high school graduation. I only went to my college graduation because the school threatened to keep my diploma if I didn’t show up. I have suffered through far too many weddings, showers, graduation ceremonies, etc. etc. Just reading about your stint as a hostess makes me want to find a corner where I can hide. Sorry to ramble on about this, but in a world filled with extroverts, and with so much pressure to get out there and “be social!” it’s a breath of fresh air to read these words from a kindred spirit. Thank you, Shelley, from hermits everywhere! 🙂

    • Wyoming? ME TOO! And for the same reason, Miranda. I swear we are each other’s personality doppelgangers.
      I’m sure my dad used to think I was a bit of a bad egg in that my life’s ambition was to live solo on top of a mountain with only a few big hairy Newfoundlands hounds to help with the hauling of wood for heat. But till this day, those desires of experiencing life in a very solitary and self-sufficient way are more than just appealing–they are nearly compulsory for contentedness.
      Scotland is my other land of peace and quiet. And because I’m wholly smitten by a strong brogue, I’m never fussed if I run into anyone. (Okay, and because a man in a kilt is just an itty bitty swoon-worthy.)

  14. I’m with you. I hate situations where I have to “mingle”. I’m no good at small talk. Id much rather go to a bar with one person and talk for hours that have to come up with one or two sentences to say to a hundred people.

    • I’ve found that in most situations, folks are really listening to each other anyway. One’s mind is reeling with the thoughts of, “What could I possibly say or ask next? What do I already know about this person? Where is the onion dip?”
      Best to stay at the pub with a bowl of peanuts and a capable barman.
      Thanks for sharing, Barbara. I always enjoy hearing what you have to say. 🙂

  15. I so feel your pain. If you’re looking for someone to second your Nomination of “It probably wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t other people at these parties. Or if there had to be other people, then the rule was you could only acknowledge them with a wave. No talking allowed” you’ve got it.

    Thank you so much for a delightful read!

    • Oh, thanks for the support, Tana – and of course for your kind words. It seems we are a happy band of miserable party goers for the most part. I’d say misery loves company, but that sort of defeats the point of this post, doesn’t it? 😛

      • True. Since we’re claiming to have a hard time with the “company” part of the party, and by definition a party means lots of company. The more the better (or so I’ve been told.) However, there is one type of party that’s small, “pity” parties, with their cast of one. But having been to plenty of those I can tell you, they are BORING! I think when it comes to parties, it’s simply one of those grin (or in some cases, grit) and bear it. Sending good thoughts your way as the season of “working the room” is upon you.

  16. Hi Shelley, I feel your pain on those “slide show parties about all the parties.” Ha! I am definitely not a party person, and feel completely exhausted at the end of the night. I just attended an editors’ conference over the weekend, and I am dead on my feet (even though I had a great time). I had already decided to write about networking for introverts this week, and then I saw your post – I guess we’re all on the same wavelength! 🙂 Best of luck surviving all of your parties!

  17. I can relate – I would much rather speak to one or two people than attend a party and have the “opportunity” to work the room. However if I do go, I don’t sit in a corner with one person very long – I make the effort to say hi to everyone I know that I haven’t seen for awhile. I usually come home exhausted, but unable to sleep until I wind down. (I think these are the symptoms of a closet introvert!)

    • You are truly admirable, Cinda. I think it’s terrific that you engage and make the effort while so many others of us would simply lock ourselves in an upstairs bathroom and read old issues of The Farmer’s Almanac and Time magazine. Cheers to you!

  18. People assume I’m extremely extroverted – but the truth is I hate big parties and the whole working-the-room thing. I’m much better (and happier) in smaller settings with deeper connections. Plus small talk makes me want to stab myself in the eye with a fork.

  19. I can so relate here…. Not a party person at all, either! 😦 But put me on the internet, and I’m everyone’s buddy, haha.

    • You’ve got a really good point, Alex. It’s so much easier relating to folks via the beautiful written word, rather than having to throw in the wonky wrench of coming up with pithy conversation on the spot with the other distractions of having to look someone in the eye while wearing an incredibly itchy dress.
      Very good point, indeed.

  20. I’m a very shy and quiet person by nature and parties are torture, lol! People try to make small talk. I open my mouth and instead of a coherent answer, something akin to “Blaaaaarh…um.” comes out. There’s an awkward silence before their eyes land on something behind me and then it’s: “Oh, there’s so-and-so! I wonder how they are. Bye.”

    • Oh, Melissa, even the picture of you suggests you are shy and quiet. I bet someone had to sneak up on you with a camera. You remind me of a tiny deer in the woods. But you’ve come to the right meadow. Most of us are grazing on the same grass right along side you, sister.
      I won’t make you talk–especially since your mouth is full.
      But you do have worthy words to say, and I love reading them!

  21. Pingback: Friday Pick 106 | talktodiana

  22. Hi Shelley
    Thanks for following. I’m a happy camper now you are joining me as I trip around by RV, plane, car and time machine to the past.
    Comments, compliments, critiques and wisecracks are most welcome.
    You have a great blog. “See” you again soon.
    Which Way Now 101 aka Carol

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