Reader question #53: Important Work Party Anxiety

Social Anxiety Comic by Natalie Dee
Toothpaste for Dinner feels your pain.

Dear Captain Awkward,

This weekend I’m attending a housewarming party for which I’m incredibly anxious. Some background: I am a first year graduate student in a phd program, and I am going to a housewarming party hosted by one of my professors and her new husband. I’ve always been shy, have some confidence/insecurity issues, and I have struggled with mild to medium social anxiety on and off over the past couple of years. I can handle most lower-stress social situations without much problem thanks to some therapy, but high-stress situation still give me problems. 

The situations that cause the most anxiety for me is a social setting where I don’t know most of the people, and I perceive it as high-pressure. This party will fit both of those conditions. There may be a couple of fellow students, but primarily people I don’t know. It is high-pressure for me because some of the guests will be well-known academics and journalists, and thus ‘intimidating.’ Also, unfortunately, these kinds of events are an overly important component of one’s ‘professional’ academic career. It is my first time at one of these more important kind of events, but it is something I need to be good at (and I’ve been told this by a couple of professors, including the one hosting the party). 

Do you have any advice you can give to me, or links to previous posts of yours? I really like the way you approach giving advice and writing, I would appreciate the help!

Thank you,
Already Anxious

That is a high pressure situation, and I understand your anxiety, but the good news is?  You’re going to be fine.

First, check the prom thread comments for some good basic advice on making party small talk. For instance, from Lesley:

Always have three interesting out-of-nowhere stories on you. Something science, something celebrity, something history.

Just look up a science blog, or a history blog, or a music blog, whatever, and if you have gotten past your hellos and the awkward begins (noting that some awkward is good to get used to), go ahead and say Oh! I was reading this super interesting thing about… and explain the phenomenon or the recently discovered civilization or the famous person who also has a doctorate or whatever. If he has any social grace at all, it will remind him of something HE read, or he’ll react to what you tell him.

By having three “safe” stories tucked in your head, you have 3 awkward moments saved. I have to go to a lot of conferences and this method has saved me dozens of times from serious boredom and awkward moments.

And from Chatterbox:

Best advice I ever got: Most people like to talk about themselves, so ask them questions. Preferably something you’re genuinely interested in, but stuff like what hobbies they have, what they like to do/watch/read/listen to, future plans (further education, summer holidays, jobs, etc), and family (do you have any siblings? Pets? What do your parents do?) can all work. Don’t be afraid to be a little nosy.

Something I learned later was to just start talking to strangers as if I’d already met them before. Choose the same conversation topics that you’d use with your friends: recent events, big news stories, mutual acquaintances, what are they doing this week/weekend, topics you know they’re interested in, classes you both have, and so on.

While you’re panicking about thinking of “safe” stories, let’s go back to basics.

Table manners, you have them?  Good.  If you’re not sure, eat a meal with a trusted friend and ask her to give you some feedback.

What to wear, you know it?  I’d look around the department and see how people dress, especially the woman who is holding the party, and dress as if you are going on a first-casual-dinner-and-a-movie-date.  Your clothes should fit you, there should be no holes or stains, if it needs to be ironed iron it (or hang it in the bathroom and let the wrinkles steam out of it while you shower, it’s the Captain Awkward Way).  A shirt with a collar and nice pants should get you a long way, but if the hostess really dresses up at work then kick it up a notch.

A small gift, you have picked one out?  Standard housewarming stuff:  Bottle of wine (ask them at the wine store for a recommendation if you’re not a wine person), a houseplant, or a bouquet of flowers are safe choices.  I teach at an art school so I *might* bring a cool coffee table art or photography book if one of the honchos invited me and we already had a good working relationship, or I might go to the cool olive oil store if I knew the person cooked.  The point is to make a gesture, like, “a new house is an important occasion and I am happy to be here and celebrate it with you and I understand social niceties.”  Don’t spend more than $20 or present it with a big fanfare or it’s weird.

Your liquor, you can hold it?  I would think about having 3 drinks max, spaced out over the evening.  It’s just comforting to have one in your hand sometimes.

Don’t be the first person there or the last one to leave.  But if you do get there on the early side, ask if you can help with any chopping or whatever.

Okay, you said important journalist/academic people will be there.  This is easy and what I would do before ANY work or networking event.  Google the shit out of those people.  What are they working on now? What recent stuff have they done?  Write yourself a little list, flash cards, whatever.  The point is not to show off your sycophantic knowledge and stalking abilities by rattling off a bunch of facts about them to them at the party (Don’t do that), but I assume that these people are active in your field of interest and your professor’s field of interest and it’s part of being in your field to know who they are.

Because good news – you’re going to a nerd party.  All of these people are just like you:  They have a topic that they are REALLY, REALLY interested in.  And that makes them engaging and that makes you engaging, because passion for your work is engaging, and connecting with someone who is passionate about their own work and who can ask you good questions about your own work is potentially extremely engaging.  People are going to ask you “So, what are you into?”  Be prepared to describe it in a brief, engaging way.  I would aim for three sentences or less.Your goal is not to dazzle them, it’s just to be able to sum up what you do.  In the movie biz we call it a pitch, for example, I’m working on a feature screenplay about the year I tried to sell the most Girl Scout Cookies and ended up selling a massive quantity to the pot dealer who lived down the street from me.  What are you working on?

See?  You answer the question with your pitch, and then you ask them a question.

And because people like to talk about themselves, you follow that up with “Oh, that sounds really interesting…” and you ask a follow-up question.  If it’s one of the people you Googled you can say “Did I read somewhere that….(a thing about their topic of interest or a recent thing they did)?” and they will be flattered.

And then you try to genuinely get to know the person in front of you, and make them feel important and listened to and show a real, honest, true interest in their work and their lives. Because while there is an art to networking and conversation, it’s not fake. It’s not sucking up.  It’s not kissing ass.  It’s being genuinely interested in other people and making real connections with them.  And you will be more relaxed, because really you are just two dorks geeking out about the things you are nerds for.

Here’s the thing.  You’re going to be in this program and this department for a long time. These people are going to be your tribe for a long time.  There will be other parties like this, and department meetings, and classes, etc.  You don’t have to  put on a giant show of charisma – if you try it will probably backfire and you’ll come across as a pompous ass instead of Jesus Christ, Academic Superstar.  Oh, and despite your fierce pre-party Googling, don’t focus on the Very Important People exclusively.  Spend time with your fellow students who are likely feeling just as weird and nervous as you.  Your goal for the evening is to come across as a mannerly, pleasant dude who asks great questions, is genuinely interested in other people, and who knows when to shut it.

So maybe it will help to think of yourself as a spy on a mission, or…is there any chance you’re an anthropologist?  Your mission is to observe this strange culture and figure out the dynamics, and find friendly locals that you can make further contact with later.  Take frequent breaks – bathroom, go to the back porch for some air, get yourself a glass of water – and don’t be afraid to just watch people for a while.

Finally, there are lots of safe conversations you can have that aren’t about work.  It’s a housewarming party, so you can admire the house and ask about how they found it and compliment how they decorated it.  It’s a party for a new couple, so you can ask how they met.  You’re the new guy – new in town, new to the program, so you can ask for recommendations for cool things to do in town, where to eat, etc.  Expect to hear a lot of questions directed at you, along the lines of “How do you like it here so far?  How are you settling in?” and so forth.  If you don’t know, the answer to these questions in the United States of America is always some version of “It’s great!”  Even better, tack a question onto the end of it.  “It’s great, but I haven’t found a Middle Eastern restaurant yet, and if I don’t get some hummus soon I will die.  Any recommendations?”

After the party, send the hostess a thank you note or email.  “Thank you for a great evening.   I really enjoyed meeting everyone and eating your spectacular ____ (food item).   Your house is beautiful and I hope you and ____ (partner) will be very happy there.”

And finally, I know your anxiety feels awful and is really stressing you out, but on some level, your anxiety means that you care.  You care about making a good impression, you care about the work, you care about your relationship with your colleagues.  Caring is not bad!  And all the advice here is about having good manners, and manners are what we use to show that we care about other people and the social contract.  So, this is cheesy, but try just telling yourself “I feel anxious because I care a lot about this” and let your behaviors flow from the fact that you care.

You’re going to be fine.

10 thoughts on “Reader question #53: Important Work Party Anxiety

  1. The Captain (and associated quoted Team Awkward) has knocked it out of the park on this one. Everything here is something I’ve done at an Important Work Function, including going to the bathroom to just CHILL for a bit.

    The one thing that helps me the most in situations where I’m supposed to be Outgoing and Friendly is to acknowledge that the person I’m trying to connect to is probably freaked right the fuck out, too, and then trying to help that person feel at ease.

    It gets me out of my own head, and focused on the other person. I turn “I’m scared!” into “I bet that person is scared. Let’s get unscared together.”

    And the Cap is also right about this: you’re going to be fine.

  2. Other thoughts:

    “Where are you from?” is usually a good ice breaker. If you’re new to the area, this can segue into a discussion about something cool and local.

    Often, “Hi, I’m so and so,” is enough to get someone to talk to you so you aren’t standing there looking like you may have wandered into the wrong room but aren’t sure, which is how I feel at parties where I don’t know anyone sometimes.

    Three drinks? I’d say more, “Know your limits,” and keep in mind that you only *think* you’re more interesting after you’ve had a drink. Plastered grad students at department parties are just… not admirable. It is, for example, particularly impolitic to push a faculty member’s pregnant wife out of line for the bathroom because you need to vomit. For example.

    Avoid saying anything negative. People just don’t like talking to someone who’s complaining about something. On the other hand, being Pollyanna about genocide would be a bit of a faux pas. This is more for your neutral stories and commentary about local weather, traffic, restaurants, etc.

    Celebrity stories may be problematic. My husband (a physics professor) and his colleagues just look baffled by pop culture most of the time, and I can’t imagine my husband would be terribly impressed by a student who wanted to talk about Nicole Ritchie.

    Since it’s an academic party, though, I feel moved to point out that my husband would probably feel an urge to hide in the corner himself, and I think he is delighted that he can stand next to me looking thoughtful while I chatter with his colleagues and their wives. Chances are good that all the people at this party used to be exactly like you, and unless you get falling down drunk, shove celery sticks up your nose, or crack jokes about genocide, they will think you’re a fine young student.

    1. Oh man, I cannot echo the “DON’T BE A BIG WHINER” enough. No complaining!

  3. I can’t improve upon Captain Awkward’s answer, but let me emphasize the following, because I am an academic and these are my people:

    Academics are not socially smooth people. You surely do not fall anywhere on the awkwardness spectrum that is outside the range of what these nerds fall into themselves. That’s true even if they are leaders in their field and total heavy-hitters on campus. Maybe they are a little more practiced at small talk, or How To Act At Department Parties, but their advantage over you is so small as to be hardly measurable. Trust me. Whatever they have learned socially is also learnable by you, and it ain’t gonna take long.

    If you’re a grad student, go find an article about Imposter Syndrome and realize that everyone in grad school feels inadequate. Not just socially, but academically. ESPECIALLY Academically. Going forward it might help you socially to realize how much the social exchanges in academia are shaped by people’s crushing feelings of inadequacy.

    1. Writing this question made me think back to my own grad school wine/cheese meet & greet with faculty and fellow students. The faculty were all SO NICE AND FRIENDLY, but yeah, they are giant nerds and I knew I was among my own.

  4. “It’s just comforting to have one in your hand sometimes.” At parties, after finishing a bottle of beer I will rinse it out, refill with water, and drink the water before getting another beer. That way I always have a “drink” in my hand and no hangover the next morning!

    1. Smart, how much do you have to rinse it so you’re not drinking horrifying beerwater?

    2. I have a “one adult drink only” rule at work functions. I think it’s just too risky to have an “in vino veritas” moment at an Important Person’s elegant ‘do.

  5. I accidentally arrived 40 minutes early for the wine & cheese meet & greet at the beginning of my grad school career. I sat in a little park across the street from the building and watched people entering. I distinctly remember this one impeccably dressed man walking past me several times, hovering outside the door, putting his hand on the door handle then stopping and walking around the block again before he finally entered the building 3 minutes after the event was scheduled to begin. I walked in 10 minutes later and he was there, smoothly small-talking with the chair. He looked so put-together, it was nice to know that he was nervous too and that I was not the only one who had a hard time getting through that door!

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