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If All Else Fails at a Party, Throw Yourself on the Mercy of the Crowd

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: If mixing with people at parties leaves you at a loss for words, writer Jeanne Martinet offers some help in an updated edition of her popular book "The Art of Mingling."

RS: "Give us some tips -- what works?"

JEANNE MARTINET: "Well, what doesn't work is that you should never walk up to somebody and ask them right away what they do for a living. It's not only sort of rude, and it's sort of like 'who are you, are you worth my time?' But it's also bringing up a conversation that you don't know what you're bringing up.

"There's an opening technique that I call the 'flattery entrée,' which works very well if that person has an unusual pair of earrings or tie on. You can walk up to somebody and say 'Hey, I really like that pair of earrings' and you get into it that way. I think the mistake that people make is they think that the only way to talk to people is to ask them questions. And while that's good to do within a conversation, it's actually less threatening to open with something that's more of an observation.

"One of the reasons that people, I think, are afraid to approach strangers at parties is they're really afraid of what happens if something bad does, you know, occur. And if you know that you can escape from anyone, it actually makes you much less afraid to talk to people in the first place.

"So, you know, you'll try and talk to someone and it doesn't work very well, and maybe you get the idea they really would rather go back to the conversation they were having or something, in which case you can do one of many escape techniques that can help you save face -- or even get you away from someone that you discover that you don't want to talk to."

AA: "For example?"

JEANNE MARTINET: "Like, you know, the 'buffet bye-bye' -- what my cute name for 'well, I've really got to get a drink' or 'I'm starving -- that thing you're eating is making me even more hungry. I'll be back.' You can even say 'I'll be back' and never come back. At a party you're allowed to do that."

AA: "Now let me ask you about -- I know in every culture certain subjects are maybe off-limits or you really shouldn't [talk about them] unless you know a person well. So, thinking about in American culture, three that come to mind are money, religion and politics -- "


AA: "What do you think about that."

JEANNE MARTINET: "The two safe subjects used to be your health and the weather. Well, the weather now leads you to topics of global warming -- at least it does [for] me -- and your health, you can easily start talking about health insurance, and before you know it you are in the areas of politics. So I outline in the book ways to test for people who might be fanatics in certain areas, so you can really stay away, and also 'defuse' and 'escape' lines."

RS: "What would be some of those -- you talked a little bit about escape lines, but you're in an argument or you find yourself close to an argument, how do you get out of it?"

JEANNE MARTINET: "Well, most of them are sort of cute lines which are just tension-defusing lines like 'well, I guess we can't solve the world's problems in one day.' Or you say, if it's really gotten heated and you feel up to this particular kind of humor, you can say, 'Well, you know, if we talk about this anymore, we're going to have to step outside.'"

RS: "All right, let's put a context here. We have a student, a foreign student, in the United States or elsewhere [who is] with a group of Americans and wants to mingle. What kind of advice would you give to this person [about] how to start and how to go through his day?"

JEANNE MARTINET: "If you're talking about mingling at a gathering of a lot of people, I've often used this when I'm feeling particularly out of my element and I don't know anybody, I will go up to someone or a group of people and say: 'Hi, my name is Jeanne Martinet and I don't know a single soul at this party.'

"That is really -- really, basically to throw yourself in a little bit asking for help from other people, is usually not a bad idea because it kind of endears you to the people and it usually gives you a warm response. People who are really shy can try using what I call the 'fade-in,' which is where you go up to the periphery of a group of people and listen carefully to what's being said, and then just adding in your two cents when it's appropriate.

RS: "Jeanne, this takes courage."

JEANNE MARTINET: "It doesn't; it takes practice. It's funny, because once you do it a couple of times, like if somebody who just listening to me saying this, would just use that approach that I said, where they walked up to somebody and said 'you know, I don't know a single person at this party,' when they get this response that they will get, -- nine times out of ten it will be a wonderful like 'oh, this is so-and-so and please let us show -- I'll introduce you to Joe over here.' And when that happens, and that happens a couple of times, you will start to lose your fear.

"Everybody is just as afraid as they are. That's the other one of my mingling survival rules is that nobody is thinking about you, they're only thinking about themselves. So it's sort of helpful to remember this to become less self-conscious."

AA: But Jeanne Martinet, the author of "The Art of Mingling," says you should also remember not to monopolize people at parties, or you could be seen as a "barnacle." In general, she says, spend five to fifteen minutes chatting, then move on.

RS: And that's Wordmaster for this week. You can find lots more advice about communicating in our archives at And our e-mail address is With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.