You might think that being interesting is an innate talent, or that it means you have to be the "life of the party." Neither of those things are necessarily true. If you want to leave a good impression, you don't have to make sure all eyes are on you. Here are some tips anyone can use in any social setting.
First, You Have to Show Up
Look, even the most misanthropic of us and those of us with the least self-esteem can be interesting when we get going on a topic we're passionate about, or we're talking to someone we genuinely find interesting. The key is to find those great conversations and let the interest come naturally without having to force it. To do that though, you're going to have to break out of your comfort zone for a while.
The first thing you'll have to do, obviously, is show up and talk to people. On a recent episode of The Splendid Table, author Jessica Hagy (who wrote the book on being interesting — literally, How to Be Interesting) told Jennifer Russell that the first thing you have to do is actually show up, which can be enough of a challenge for a many of us:
"You can show up basically as an observer of other interesting people and let that be a learning experience for you, or you can show up and be a little bit more of the life of the party. But the main thing is to show up.
"The first step is to go exploring — if you're out of your comfort zone, if you're wandering into somebody's house for the first time — that's one step in and of itself."
Hagy doesn't mean rummaging through your host's medicine cabinet, closet or drawers. She means be adventurous, try different foods, engage strangers in conversation.
"Be prepared to have awkward conversations with strangers, because good conversation is a little bit like coaxing a feral cat out of a drain pipe," she says. "You need bait, you need something to talk about, you need to be perceived as non-threatening, and you need to prepare yourself to be hissed or clawed at.
Hagy's description is pretty apt. While no one is going to actually claw or hiss at you, social situations carry enormous stress, and even those people who do well in them can struggle in a room full of people they don't know. Whether you're there with one or two people you know, or don't know anyone else in the room, your first step is to just show up.
Be a Good Observer and a Great Listener
Remember, being "interesting" doesn't mean you left the biggest impression, or you're the one telling the story that everyone is enraptured by. It just means that you leave a good impression on the people you interact with, and in turn, those people had a good conversation with you. Bring the bar down — not everyone at a party has to be the "life" of it.
We've talked about how you can learn to work a room, and also shown you some ways to start conversations with people you've just met. Now's the time to break out those skills. Make a circuit of the room, or if it's a dinner party, try something new or interesting on the table that you've never tried before. As Hagy mentioned, stepping out of your comfort zone may be tough, but it instantly gives you something to talk about should you need to. Your first goal is to be an observer of people you find interesting. When you find them and engage them, you're almost sure to be interesting yourself.
Before you start talking though, it's important to just listen, even if you fancy yourself a good storyteller. If you approach a group of people who are already discussing a topic, watch their body language and see if they reposition themselves to open their conversation to you and give you a place to stand. If they don't, move on. If they do, just listen for a while and let the conversation flow naturally. If you have an opportunity to say something, go for it, but don't manufacture a reason. The best part of "small talk" is getting past the "small" entirely. The first step to that is to listen to people's stories, and learning to ask them questions based on the things they have said. Plus, if you're the type of person where just showing up and being around people is draining enough, listening is a good way to participate without spending your precious, precious willpower.
Go In With a (Flexible) Plan
Make a mental game plan of conversation starters and prompts that will serve you well. You don't want to script conversations before you go out, but you should keep a couple of things in your pocket to keep the conversation going, or questions to ask if it stalls out. Simple things like "How do you know the host?" and "How did you get here?" are always good go-to conversation starters to a certain extent. The former is always a good opportunity to talk about your host and how the two of you know them, which can move into a solid conversation about other topics (work, school, hobbies, or whatever else comes up). Hagy specifically suggests the latter though as a way to talk not so much about the trip itself, but where the other person is from, what part of town, where they're staying if they're in from out of town, and so on.
Our friends at Hackerspace have some more tips on starting those early conversations, like remembering to pay a compliment to someone's dress, choice of food, drink, or even their chosen topic of conversation. Nothing is more disarming than a genuine compliment, and most people, when paid one, will be happy to talk to someone who's actually nice to them, even if the only thing you have in common is how awkward you both are.
Remember, your goal in those early parts of the conversation are to turn your so-called "small talk" into real conversations without the "small" part. It's not hard — just don't get caught up in filling every gap with a question, and don't be afraid of silence. A little interest goes a long way. While we've mentioned steering clear of the classic "So what do you do?" question in the past, sometimes it's appropriate, especially if it's a professional gathering or one where you're curious about others' line of work. If you just had a great discussion on climate with someone at a party, learning they're a climatologist can open the door to even more interesting discussions.
Don't Fear Silence, Save the Day Instead
Awkward silences are part of conversing with people. Don't be afraid of them, or rush to fill them. If there's a pause or a lull in the conversation, let it run its course. If you want to disengage, a lull is always a good time to stop by the bar or grab a drink. If you want, offer to bring one back for the person you were speaking with. Otherwise, just say you're going to grab another drink or something to eat, and find another group to converse with. If you do want to keep the conversation going though, Hagy offers one trick that's near foolproof, especially at smaller gatherings like dinner parties:
"If you're faced with an awkward silence at a dinner party, the only thing that always gets everyone murmuring and talking again is to give the host a compliment," Hagy says. "He or she is the person who is feeling the weight of that awkwardness the most. Just quickly turn around and say, 'This souffle is magnificent and you have to tell me all about it.'"
She's right — in small gatherings, you may think that silence is awkward, but it's the host that's sweating bullets, hoping someone will say something that will get the room talking again. Saving the day with a compliment — especially one that leads into a discussion — doesn't just get the conversation going again, it certainly makes you the memorable one (in a good way, of course.)
Relax, It's Just a Good Time
If you catch yourself struggling to keep a conversation going, or wondering what you should say next, or overthinking the entire affair and stressing out, take a few deep breaths and relax. Remember what we said about leaving your comfort zone — it's a departure, and you need to come back to process your experiences and recharge. Grab a drink or a snack, find a secluded spot or somewhere out of the way, and take a little time to yourself. Give yourself a little time to clear your head, relax, and head back into the fray.
After all, the most common awkward conversation mistakes usually come from overthinking or trying to say too much. Relax — it's just a party. No one's expecting you to keep it going, or keep everyone entertained. If someone's interesting to you, great — keep talking to them. if they're not, then excuse yourself and move on. If you can take the stress out of those social situations — even in your head — they become much easier to deal with. At the end of the night, you'll head home, the whole thing will be over, and ideally you'll have had a good time, but whatever happens, you'll be just fine. If you need more tips, Adam Dachis' guide to handling life's most uncomfortable people is a great place to start.