It sounds like a simple thing, something we all should know: When you go to a cocktail party, it’s best to leave whatever social “goals” and expectations you may have at the door along with your coat and hat.
The best conversations are spontaneous ones. And while folks who live in parts of the country where the pace is nice and slow may not have to remind themselves to simply shoot the breeze or chew the fat, we do here. (In fact, here we are more likely try to burn off the fat.) The Big Apple is such a who-do-you-know, where-are-you-headed and how-fast-can-you-get-there kind of town that it makes us less able to let go and just be in the moment. (What—me, stop and smell the roses? Okay, but while I’m doing that, I’d better go ahead and buy a couple dozen, so I’ll have them ready for next weekend.)
When your average New Yorker sets out to mingle at a party with strangers, there are usually thoughts in the back of his mind like, “Who are the most important or most interesting guests here?” “Can this person further my career or my project in some way?” or “How can I find out what this person’s marital status is?” Others have a different sort of mental agenda, one that is more or less information-seeking. These are the multi-taskers hoping to make the party “worth it” who are constantly thinking things like, “Maybe there is someone here I can talk to about which schools would be good for my kids,” “I wonder if this person knows where to shop for a new bed” or “Ah…he’s at Chase; might he tell me what stocks to dump?”
And of course, often the party-goer’s mind isn’t even at the party. She may be smiling on the outside, but inside be wondering who is texting her (she can feel her phone vibrating) and whether it would be rude to excuse herself from the current conversation to check, or thinking about what she is going to have for dinner or whether she and her husband are going to continue the fight they were having before they got to the party once they get home.
Not too long ago, I went to a book launch downtown. The main reason I went, besides being interested in the author (which I was) and besides the fact that I never turn down any invitation if I can help it, was that the hostess had promised she would introduce me to a man who was, by all accounts, the perfect dealer for an antique desk I was hoping to sell.
After a semi-productive conversation with the dealer about the desk and after having the author sign a copy of his book for me, I found myself feeling aimless—in a good way. Aimless, in this situation, is actually what we aim for. I wandered for a few minutes before encountering a tall, tweedy couple (a middle-aged man and woman, obviously together). They were looking out the window at a building across the street. “It looks like a beached whale wearing mirrored sunglasses,” the man said. The three of us laughed. It actually did kind of look like a whale from that angle. The conversation took off from there.
I talked to that couple for a truly delightful 45 minutes. I still don’t know who they were or what, if anything, they do for a living. They didn’t ask me; I didn’t ask them. It was totally anonymous mingling (which, unlike anonymous sex, is completely risk-free.) It buoyed me, it rejuvenated me. I don’t even really remember what we talked about for all that time, except that it was fun and playful, creative and parenthetical. It was conversation for conversation’s sake. It was like a piece of verbal art we all wove together—effortless, improvisational and ultimately inspirational.
That night I remembered why I love talking to strangers. I had thought I was going to the party to meet an antique dealer, but it turned out it was to commune with the wonderful tweedy couple. I was in a good mood for hours afterward.
So at your next cocktail party, try conversing without any aspirations. Because, trust me, expecting no social reward is the key to the most rewarding kind of socializing there is.
*Originally published in the West Side Spirit, October 7, 2011