How Not to Act at Parties

I fervently believe there’s a level of hell that’s full of people standing awkwardly around a bowl of pretzels, trying to make small talk. I really hate parties. I never know how to dress, how to act, what to say, where to stand, or what to eat. A lot of my party-going time is spent standing in corners, staring at the wall across the room, with an expression that I think is a friendly, welcoming look, but which has been interpreted as a withering, “stay-away-because-my-best-friend-just-died” look. (Those aren’t my words. A stranger once described my face that way in high school.)

I spend a lot of time being awkward. It’s such an innate skill of mine that I’m thinking of turning it into a street performance act and making a little money. Unfortunately, it’s not a skill you can really brag about at dinner parties or after-work get-togethers. I demonstrate it for people instead, but no one really gets my art. The point is, I’m terrible in social gatherings of four or more. I can’t be the only one, either, so I made a guide. (I know I’ve been making a lot of guides lately. It’s all in the hope that they’ll help me, too. So far no dice.)

Stephanie Summar, Conjuror of All Things Awkward, Presents “How Not to Act at Parties”

Don’t rely on food to help you.

This is a rookie mistake… that I make all the time. I spend a tremendous amount of my life vigilantly avoiding food that isn’t bite-sized because I know the instant I put it in my mouth, someone will ask me a question or need CPR. At parties, however, I do the opposite. Some foolish part of me believes that if my mouth is full of food, it will discourage conversation. This is wrong. Exactly as you’re struggling to close your mouth over a piece of sushi the size of your fist, someone will ask how you know the host. Then you’ll both have to stand there in embarrassed anguish, while you plead with your eyes that they walk away so you can tilt your head back and swallow the raw fish like a pelican.

I’m saying I don’t eat sushi gracefully.

Avoid getting a drink because you’re not thirsty.

Cups are great, because you always have something to do with your hands. I sometimes grab two cups, because then I have something to do with both my hands and when I’m alone, I can wander around pretending I got the second drink for someone I’ve misplaced. The only drawback is if you talk with your hands. (I didn’t realize I do until a date that ended when the chopsticks I hit animatedly smacked our waiter in the back of the head.) You may end up sloshing yourself, or another partygoer with your beverage. This is especially bad at ice skating parties when you’re drinking hot chocolate.

If there’s alcohol, don’t drink until you feel more social.

For me, the outgoing feeling doesn’t hit until about two drinks in, which also happens to be around the time that I need to stop drinking before I say something foolish. The result of this unfortunate coincidence is that I end up laughing a little too hard and saying things like, “Do you know that song? The one that goes like this?”, then singing. I’m going to let Tina Fey demonstrate my drinking style, in yet another unlucky Liz Lemon/Stephanie Summar parallel.

Don’t stand in a corner or against a wall.

Cosmopolitan, which is never correct, may actually be right this time. Their articles urge you to go to the center of the room, to focus attention on you. For introverts, it sounds like cruel and unusual punishment. We naturally gravitate towards the edges, where it’s safe and no one can stab us with forks from behind. (Not that I’m worried that will happen.) (Yes I am. I’m so worried that will happen.) Although corners and walls make you feel protected, they also cut off your escape routes. In a corner, you have one side open. If someone engages you in an awful conversation on that side, all hope is lost. The only method of escape is to tackle them and run, which doesn’t seem very sociable. Against a wall, your only option is to slide sideways, hoping you’ll eventually hit an opening and be able to duck into another room. This method’s drawbacks include accidentally bumping the light switch and shrouding the party in darkness (WHICH IS EVEN WORSE BECAUSE YOU CAN’T SEE ANYTHING COMING) or finally feeling that break in the wall and stepping backwards, only to find it was the top of a staircase.

Don’t bring an outgoing friend to the party, thinking they’ll be your buffer.

By definition, extraverts get their energy from other people. They want to mingle at parties, which means you’ll be abandoned the second a newer, shinier, less-neurotic person comes into view. Your friend will come back to check on you periodically, but never long enough for you to hold their their attention. They won’t save you from small talk because if they see you talking to someone else, they assume you’re finally having fun and not dying on the inside in the most horrible, slow, painful way possible.

It’s impossible to convey this message with your eyes because the discreet eye signal for “I cannot breathe. Help, this is awful” is always mistaken for the eye signal for “I’m having the time of my life! This is so interesting! Wheee!”

Don’t try to sneak out quietly.

Someone notices every time. When you quietly thank the host, they’ll beg you to stay because you haven’t met half the people at the party. Even if you extricate yourself from that situation and time it so perfectly that you’re at the door at the very same second a giant punchbowl has just fallen over your host’s baby, and everyone’s worrying because the kid is trapped beneath the bowl like a confused fish in an aquarium, the baby will be rescued in time for one person to notice you turning the doorknob.

That person will always say something like, “Leaving so soon?” and every eye in the place will turn to you.

You’ll have to smile and say something like, “Yep. I hate fun,” even though you don’t hate fun– you LOVE fun. You just love the kind of fun that involves a roller coaster or a large bowl of mashed potatoes or reading about astronauts, not this kind of fun. Everyone will laugh awkwardly and judge you, and you’ll walk out of the party exhausted, feeling like a party-pooper, thinking, Next time. Next time I’ll do what Cosmo says. Next time I’ll stand in the middle of the room and laugh like Julia Roberts and everyone will love me and ask me questions about astronauts and mashed potatoes.

Maybe I’ll even bring Tom Hanks. (Image via Flickr, by newscred)

Don’t accept an invitation for next time.


  1. ACW

    I’m not good at parties either. I am usually the one asking the question “how do you know the *host*” and then after the person answers, there’s nothing much else to say! I think your observations are quite right though – people tend to eat and drink to avoid being awkward – I know I do!

    I never understood why people like to have parties and invite all these random people to get together especially if they know their friends are so different from each other that they will most likely not get along or have anything in common. I much prefer parties with a small group of friends who all know each other and know for sure that everyone will have a good time.

    • Stephanie

      I’m a small-group-of-people-party-person too. (Wow. Say that four times fast.) I’m considering throwing a party for everyone who commented on this post, just to see how awkward we all are. Of course, none of us may show up because we’ll feel too awkward.

    • Stephanie

      Ooh, that’s a good one. If it wasn’t completely rude, I would constantly hide behind my phone. I have used fake phone calls to get out of parties in the past, though. Oops.

  2. Fletcher Gill

    Parties are worse when people invite you because “you say funny things sometimes” and now they expect you to perform for them, like a circus monkey. Then you say something not funny or maybe a little offensive (or just plain ole racist). Everyone stares at you blankly for a second and you pretty much know that you won’t be invited next time.

    • Stephanie

      That has definitely happened to me, and the worst part is where you have to look around frantically for someone with more social aptitude to get you out of the hole you just dug for yourself. Awkward city.

  3. marcsart

    parties where everyone stands around and talks suck… I like to organize stuff to do at parties. stuff like a beer pong tournament or a jenga tournament is good because I will organize the brackets and everything and it gives me something to do besides standing around being awkward. when I have parties at my house I will just be working the grill the whole time so that keeps me out of harms way as well. u just can’t stay in one place too long because thats when u start feeling awkward, amirite?

    • Stephanie

      Ah-ha! I should get a grill! Actually, that will solve all of my awkward situations. I’ll just pull a grill behind me everywhere I go, and any time things get weird I’ll offer people a burger.

  4. shenanitim

    Find a television and camp around it. This way you can spout off your pop culture knowledge and fool everyone into thinking you’re social.

    Or follow your last tip, and stop going to parties. Or go with a predetermined time limit. “Oh, as you know, I came straight from work, having worked all day, so I really must be going…”

    • Stephanie

      When I read “camp around it”, I immediately imagined me setting up a pup tent and building a little fire in front of the TV. So my first thought was, “I don’t think they’ll like me setting their home on fire very much.” This is why you should not respond to comments at 2 a.m. I like the work excuse. As soon as I get a job, I’m using that one.

  5. Marija sKeri

    Hah very nice entry. However, I’m sure you can do better than this! As you are definitely someone who has something interesting and smart to say you would be great to meet on some party! :)))
    About having drink in you hand, not two only ONE, as you can have second hand free to hit who ever you want while telling the story and still stay dry!!
    About not accepting invitation: Always accept invitation, whenever you are able to go!! :))

    Lots of <3

    • Stephanie

      Ha. I like your tips better. They seem more constructive. As far as me being fun at parties goes, though, I’m afraid I sort of clam up around people. If I went in with a chalkboard I could write snarky things on it, but I’m still working on that whole “talking” thing.

  6. Elena Fultz

    Hahaha…Thanks for the great post! I’m so with you on this one! I totally use food and drink as a crutch at parties and it’s sooo insufficient.
    Maybe we could have a party for introverts, and we could all get together, and–no, wait, um…there’s a reason that one doesn’t…nevermind.

    • Stephanie

      Ha. I kind of want to make a party invitation that says exactly that. “You’re invited to a party for introverts! We’ll all get together and– no, wait. Um… there’s a reason one doesn’t… never mind.” That’s the kind of invite I could get behind.

  7. tbelcheva

    Hi from a 10:0 extrovert! 10:0 is what I got on one of these extremely long personality tests our social studies uni professor used to fill the time with.
    I love your post! It is so great! I admit I can talk almost about anything with anyone – plenty to say even on astronauts and mashed potatoes. I could even sit in an yoga pose in the middle of the room and not care.
    Yet, the moments I felt like screaming and running away from ‘intriguing’ party conversation are countless. I know that pain very well. And since when people started calling parties, places where you gather and pretend that you are interested in others and current ‘important’ topics, talk gently, smile, discuss, drink moderately, eat cocktail bites and go home. This is not a party. This is not fun.
    I also tend to hate dealing with my hands at such events and tend to eat and drink too much. Or smoke. I know it is bad and I am killing myself but smoking allows you to leave the room anytime :)

    • Stephanie

      I am SO JEALOUS of your abilities to talk to anyone. I can stare awkwardly at pretty much everyone, but I can’t have a conversation with anyone. I don’t like stuffy parties either. I’d rather be at a loud, crazy party where everyone is distracted. Then I can still be awkward, but no one notices. :)

  8. Uruinme

    You just describe me right there. I’m a guy and can’t seem to be able to socialize in big groups, and end up saying “Next time I will be my Super Fun Outgoing Self and not the party pooper” Hahaha

    • Stephanie

      So as a guy you probably do less of that whole “I’m going to laugh like Julia Roberts” thing, right? I don’t know why she’s my go-to example of outgoing people, but it seems like she’d be a hit at parties.

  9. S. Trevor Swenson

    I always find bad behavior at parties makes things more interesting. Rearrange the medicine cabinet, inquire as to the ingredients of everything served, then mumble, “can’t eat that” OR borrow someones pet fish and bring them as your date.

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