Do You Know How to Work a Room?

Submitted by: Big Little Wolf

zzzworkroomHas it been awhile since you were out there, socially? Are you afraid to walk into a dinner party, a casual gathering, or any other social setting now that you’re on your own? Do you know how to work a room?

Many of us suffer from some small measure of social anxiety. Or more than a small measure. Dare I say an abundance of agita? And after divorce? It seems like every one of our insecurities rears its ugly head. Even an informal environment that requires conversation or – heaven forbid – flirtation, is a potential minefield.

Break out the Tums, the anti-anxiety meds, or a few glasses of liquid courage.

Well, you’re not alone. And there may be a few alternatives to meds, booze, or the perpetual blues when you have to face the social scene on your own.

Ice breakers in a social context

Some of us learn to break the ice in our professions. We have to, or we’ll zzzworriedwomannever get the job done. We’re required to engage co-workers, clients, prospective customers. If we teach or give seminars as part of our working life, we must overcome the fear of public speaking, and do – by learning tricks to put ourselves at ease, and to break the ice.

But socially, we may remain uncomfortable. As women, especially, we often worry about our appearance. The inner dialog may include some of the following:

  • Damn, all the women are so much prettier.
  • Damn, I should’ve worn a dress.
  • Damn, I should’ve worn my jeans.
  • Damn, I’m wearing too much perfume.
  • Damn, I put on too much makeup.
  • Damn, I should’ve worn more makeup!
  • Damn, why didn’t I lose those ten pounds?
  • Damn, they’re all so young!

Does any of that sound familiar? Well it’s been my internal dialog at various points, including long before I ever married. Those questions ran through my head any time I had to enter the social scene and even dream of chatting with strangers – men and women, both. But over the years, I learned to apply a few of my business ice breaker tactics to my personal life. And the same principles of working a room are quite effective.

Preparation, practice, and confidence

Whether it’s a dinner party, a wedding party, a luncheon, or the bar scene at a crowded club, the same principles apply. First of all, a little preparation goes a long way.

  • Know your goals in attending (personal, professional).
  • Know something of the ambiance you can expect (formal, casual, etc.).
  • Find out the sort of people likely to be present (age range, professions).
  • Formulate a few good opening lines or conversational topics before attending.
  • If you need to – practice them! And the possible follow-up.

If there is a professional theme running through the gathering, you have plenty of topics that you could potentially use to break the ice. For example, you could ask what someone thinks about a new development in your field, or a particular trend.

If there is a special interest theme (sports, music, art), you have many gateways into the conversation, including someone’s favorite team, game, performance, exhibition, and why they hold that opinion.

If these are other parents, you can ask about children, their schools, their interests. Who doesn’t love to talk about their kids?

What else? Practice! Get out there.  The worst that can happen? You’ll be a little uncomfortable. You’ll learn from the rough spots. And then you will get out there again. Use whatever metaphor you’d like – getting up after falling off the horse, walking before you run. But do it. Start small. Then keep going.

As you do, you gain confidence – you’re facing your fear head-on, and each time you will improve. Slowly you’ll find you are widening your circles, and enjoying new social arenas, making friends, meeting interesting people. Connecting in ways that will enrich your life.

Opening lines that may help break the ice

You don’t have to use the old standby lines like “Do you come here often?” But there may be variations that are less cliché, and very workable. For example, these are effective in almost any context:

  • Hi. My name is Jane. Are you enjoying yourself here?
  • Hi. My name is Lulu. I’ve never been here before. What do you think of these gatherings?
  • Hi. I’m Sylvia. I find these crowds to be a little daunting, but you seem at ease. How do you manage it?

Do you notice that there’s nothing particularly original in any of those ice breakers?

zzzbreakiceOf course if you can come up with something funny, surprising, or thoughtful – do! Perhaps you want to comment on an entertaining bow-tie, or a smashing tattoo. But what the lines above have in common is introducing yourself (that lets down barriers), showing a bit of vulnerability (it puts the other person at ease) and, they’re open-ended questions.

That’s the point. Ask questions. Then listen, observe, and engage. Remember that attentive listening is rare, and a balanced exchange of talking and listening is critical to an enjoyable chat with anyone, for any purpose. There’s a reason it’s called the “art of conversation.” And beneath every art lies craft – tools and tricks that you can master.

Learn to work the room. I know you can do it.

© D A Wolf  

These days, Big Little Wolf (”Ms. Big”) reflects on life and her Daily Plate of Crazy, where she writes essays on everything – sometimes serious, sometimes fun – whatever strikes her on a given day as interesting, unusual, entertaining, or of concern.

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  1. 1


    I never thought to practice!!

    This is timely, as I’m sure you know. I have quite a few gatherings that I will be attending in the next couple days and need all the help I can get!

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