If you are reading this with mounting excitement, thinking about the wonderful parties you’re going to throw or attend this holiday season, allow me to congratulate you. I’m one of the millions of party-impaired individuals who stand in awe of people like you—people who love to entertain, meet new friends, cavort with fun-loving crowds. When you invite the rest of us to your celebrations, we are honored, even though it brings us the same joy we’d feel if you handed us a large, angry scorpion.
For party-phobes like myself, it’s a struggle to remember in the celebratory horrors of the season that we are not alone. Everyone around you may look as happy as a hog in slop, but if you spiked the punch with sodium pentothal, you’d probably find that a large number of the guests get nervous, if not at this particular party then at others. I have friends who dread intimate get-togethers with close friends, the only type of party that doesn’t make me want to open my veins with a crab fork. Yet they actually enjoy experiences that haunt my nightmares, such as huge revels where thousands of strangers chug beer from plastic cups and shout to one another over deafening music.
If the thought of a party alarms you, it’s likely you suffer from some level of social phobia, the most common anxiety disorder to afflict Americans. Its primary symptom is an oppressive sense of being criticized and judged. True social-phobes are so unnerved by this feeling that they can’t relax unless they are completely alone. Most of us aren’t that badly afflicted, but the season’s festivities are likely to ignite any wisps of social anxiety we happen to have. Headed for some gala event, you might find yourself feeling tense and irritable rather than relaxed and jolly. You may feel as if you’re walking into a war zone.
A War Party
The phrase “war party” not only describes a gang of soldiers but also signifies a method of heightening courage before combat. A phenomenon called social contagion accentuates emotion when we gather in groups. It can turn ordinary people into murderous mobs, panicky crowds, or selfless martyrs. Warlike cultures traditionally utilize this tendency to excite fighters so much that they’ll happily march into mortal danger. The warriors wear special clothing, paint their faces, and indulge in what anthropologists call the four D’s: drinking, drugging, dancing, and drumming. All these activities help put people in that hazy psychological territory where pure action rules and thought becomes irrelevant. My favorite term for this condition comes from ancient Ireland, where soldiers aspired to a condition called a warp spasm. This was a sort of Incredible Hulk experience in which warriors were literally transformed into wild, fearless, invincible heroes.
If this description doesn’t remind you of a holiday party, you don’t have much social anxiety. We party-phobes know exactly how it feels to don the armor of a little black dress, slather on our best war paint, and throw ourselves into the four D’s, hoping desperately for a warp spasm to grab us and carry us beyond our fear. The phobic person’s party rituals aren’t expressions of joy. Every act, from choosing clothes to making small talk, is a fear-based defense against criticism: What will people think of my shoes, my hair, my conversation? Celebrations loom like battles, crowded with opponents who can’t wait to skewer us on the blades of disdain and rejection. Fortunately, there is hope for the party-impaired.
Acknowledge The Facts
Most of us social-phobes try to cheer ourselves up with vague positive thinking, hoping that something will happen so that this shindig won’t be as excruciating as the last. It’s wiser to simply admit that we feel like we’re headed to our own execution, except that we won’t get to be dead afterward.
But we also have to realize that our social anxiety is telling us lies, primarily a ridiculous fiction that everyone is scrutinizing us for flaws. It helps me to remember the 20-40-60 rule, which I learned from a friend: “When you’re 20, you’re obsessed with what everyone is thinking about you; when you’re 40, you stop caring what people are thinking about you; and when you’re 60, you realize that no one was ever thinking about you.” Mentally repeating this adage might help moderate your unease as you near the front.
Anxiety tells you that the enemies you’ll encounter at a celebration are your fellow partygoers. This is another lie. The truth is that you’re always fighting on the same side as everyone else, because the real enemies are shame, fear, and cruel judgment, which hurt us all.
Unfortunately, most of us social-phobes guard ourselves against other people, rather than cruelty itself. This promptly creates what we fear. In social situations, people unconsciously observe very subtle signals to determine who is or is not approachable. When we’re fearful, we send “go away” messages with our voices, bodies, and facial expressions: Being scared makes us scary. One of my favorite silly jokes is about a half-blind man who buys a wooden eye because he can’t afford a glass one. He self-consciously enters a nightclub, breathing a sigh of relief when he notices a pretty woman with a false leg, sitting by herself. The man drums up just enough courage to ask her, “Would you like to dance?” She joyfully exclaims, “Would I! Would I!” But of course, what the man hears is “Wood eye! Wood eye!” Hurt to the core, he shouts, “Peg leg! Peg leg!” Both he and the woman flee homeward, to live out their lives in bitter solitude.
This is the dynamic of fear; it makes us overreact to imagined slights and forget to treat other people with simple kindness. If people do reject us, it’s very often because they feel we’ve already rejected them.
Use The Right Strategy
I used to think that I needed a whole armory full of impressive weapons to survive a party—things like cleverness, thin thighs, social connections, and wealth, none of which I happened to possess. Now that I am older and…well, older, I’ve come to believe that only two strategies are necessary in any festive situation: reciprocity and honesty. Both are easy to grasp and readily available.
“The norm of reciprocity” is the sociological term for people’s near-ineluctable tendency to treat others as others treat them. It isn’t a moral principle, like the Golden Rule, but a compelling feature of our innate psychology. The “wood eye” story illustrates how reciprocity can make two vulnerable people treat each other abominably. The same dynamic can create powerful positive interactions. If you walk into a party brooding, They’ll think I look terrible, you’re guaranteed to trigger other people’s social phobias. If you walk in thinking, Don’t they all look marvelous!, your behavior will elicit kind judgments rather than cruel ones.
At a gathering, it helps to use a first-strike capacity. Be aggressively nonjudgmental. Notice impressive traits about other people, and mention them. Genuine admiration is incredibly powerful ammunition. Statements like “I love your haircut” and “Wow, you have a great voice” disarm other people’s social anxiety. The norm of reciprocity makes them judge you positively. Boom! Your mutual enemy is slain at the outset of battle.
If you encounter someone who really is judgmental, remember this: Harsh critics are always people who fear criticism. At worst, kindness will confuse them; at best utterly disarm them.
Social-phobes dread party talk. We’re petrified of saying something stupid, something that will reveal us as the jackasses we are, rather than the social maestros we wish we were. We overlook the fact that the conversational skill most effective at breaching social barriers is not eloquence but honesty. When you’re at a loss for the right party words, I recommend the unconventional strategy of telling the truth.
I’ve learned to do this, for example, in matters relating to alcohol. When someone asks me to choose a wine for dinner, I sing out the embarrassing truth. “Sorry,” I say, “I was raised Mormon. The only party beverage I ever saw anyone drink was Robitussin straight from the bottle. Help!” People seem to just love this. It makes them feel smart and special, which indeed they are.
Once you start telling the truth in festive settings, you may end up leaking the Big Secret: the fact that you have social anxiety. I recently—reluctantly—attended a party where you couldn’t wave a spoon without hitting a rich, famous person in the eye. At one point, I found myself rubbing elbows with a person so rich and famous I nearly screamed.
“Having fun?” said the rich and famous person.
“Hell, no,” I heard myself say. “I’m scared to death.”
“So am I!” she beamed, and the two of us began an unexpectedly comfortable conversation.
After a while, our unbelievably rich, famous host came by. “Hey,” he said, “you two aren’t working the room. You should hobnob.”
My new friend replied calmly, “Dude, I have hobbed my last nob.” Our host looked shocked, then enormously relieved. Suddenly, instead of a blithering idiot and two rich, famous people, we were just three ordinary humans enjoying one another’s company.
In his classic treatise The Art of War, the Chinese general Sun Tzu commented that the best way to win a conflict is to stop it before it arises. Once you have learned how to target your real enemies of shame and fear and fight them with effective weapons, the terrors of this party season may begin dissolving before they form. Holiday celebrations just might become what everyone tells you they should be: delightful occasions that warm, connect, and help us feel the goodwill that was present for us all along.
Advice for Enjoying the Festivities
1. You don’t have to accept every invitation, so choose gatherings that make you most comfortable: Wild and woolly bashes with masses of guests??Holiday open houses? Small dinners with friends?
2. Promise yourself that you can leave after 30 minutes if you’re truly miserable. Just knowing you have an out eases the stress of schmoozing—and you’ll probably end up staying longer than half an hour.
3. Instead of going to a party alone, contact a friend who’s also been invited and arrange to meet for a drink before. It’s easier to face a crowd with a partner, and you’ll have someone to compare notes with.
4. Collect a few icebreakers: When you find yourself standing at the bar or reaching a dead end in a conversation, news of a sighting of Bessie, the Lake Erie monster, or some other tidbit that caught your attention will make it that much easier to mingle.
5. When all else fails, take a break from small talk and spend a few minutes with the host’s children, dog, hamster, Lava lamp, etc.