Rest up. The same way an athlete stretches her muscles, we must prepare our faculties for partygoing. Some may prefer a dark room with no external stimuli, or a sunny quiet field. Others, a secluded shower stall where nobody can hear you crying. Others, a drink or three. I used up all my drink tickets by the time I turned 22, so I’ve had to develop other skills. Find the psychic home of your introversion and spend some time rejuvenating there. Practice your facial expressions—I like to have at least two choices for “pleasant,” one for “listening,” one for “omg I’m about to laugh,” and as many as you can manage to mask antisocial emotional states like boredom or claustrophobia.
Set shields to full. Innocent-sounding small-talk is an unavoidable ingredient in many otherwise level-headed people’s ideal evening. An extrovert’s conversation feels not so much like an exchange as a barrage, seeking the weakness that will reveal who I secretly know I really am–nervous, not-very-well-traveled, and slightly unhinged. So be prepared–review any and all recent activities that may offer up enough anecdotal matter to satiate a new acquaintance. Stave off the inevitable drain of social stamina as long as possible with conversational amuse-bouches like “Oh wow, I’ve never been there, but I did recently finish a documentary about how insatiably violent and blood-thirsty Galapagos turtles really are.”
Plan to arrive on the early side. People will remember seeing you around, but by the time you are beginning to make soft beeping sounds (12 to 48 minutes), enough of a crowd will’ve assembled that your departure will not be disruptive or remarkable. As a bonus, extroverts tend to pride themselves on being fashionably late so you will avoid the worst of them. Learn from my mistakes and do not be so early that your host has not quite finished sweeping dirt onto the things they are hiding behind their bookcases. Bring a food you know how to eat so you don’t embarrass yourself by plunging one or both hands into the ironic aspic parfait they’ve made.
Suppress all your instincts. Try to repress the natural urge to flee or strike someone sharply across the face, and plaster on one of your pleasant expressions. This is a party. Normal people are here to have fun. You are here to give a facsimile performance of fun (on like a 100% day) or normalcy (when you’re in the 90th percentile) or not-that-weird (>70%) Like a surgeon or the guys who stoke the boilers under the Titanic, use the tools at your disposal, don’t just dive in there with your bare hands.
Know Your Audience. Since you have cultivated your material and avoided sharing any of it with friends online to preserve its freshness, now is the time to dispense it judiciously. Try to avoid thematic concentrations not suited to your audience (i.e. taxidermy) or leading with the same story in every new interaction (i.e. “Did I mention my brother is a taxidermist?”). It gives away your rehearsal process and may attract curious or mocking attention from other guests. And then you’ll just have to tell them things.
Be Moderate When Consuming Attention. Imagine somehow you have managed to successfully retell a humorous anecdote or dramatic event from your life. Do not allow the heady rush of social validation to lead you to grandstand or hold court. Under no circumstances dash out to your car to retrieve the Galapagos turtle your brother taxidermied for you last Christmas. Delicately hand off the crowd’s attention to a nearby acquaintance, requesting that they (the acquaintance) also participate in the social contract of sharing information for group bonding purposes. Choosing an extrovert will guarantee their acceptance of the floor. Congrats. You may have just passed for a civilian, depending on your level of flop-sweat saturation.
Before one can successfully retreat from a social engagement that has caused one to slur speech, hear a faint ringing sound, or smell burning toast, one must often resort to a feat of conversational finesse to effect a segue from what one has done to what one is about to do. What I mean is, you need an exit strategy. Since we have ruled out leaping through a front window like the Kool-Aid Man as party-acceptable behavior, consider employing one of the following methods of social extraction.
The Mingling Imperative. After you and your party colleague have caught up on how you are, what you’ve been doing, where you spent the recently concluded seasonal vacation period, and you have lied about your plans for the next one, you smile and say with wistfulness, “Well, I guess I’d better keep circulating.” This opens the door for your conversational companion to express how splendid the last five minutes have been, how much they look forward to the next installment, and if they’re feeling particularly playful, a teasing admonition not to cause trouble. Don’t tense up—this is a generic comment. What happens in the medicine cabinet, stays in the medicine cabinet.
The Party Guest Redirect. If you have done the preparatory work to know whom in the present company is single, you are in a prime position to make use of this tactic. Take your companion by the elbow, attract the attention of the nearest single person of the appropriate sexual orientation, and introduce them. Personal details may be helpful, though you may be able to get away with some basic adjectives as a conversation starter. Once they have begun talking to one another, you can retreat to the background, but beware of other party guests who may enlist you in this very maneuver. Be suspicious of people who attempt to lure you into a three-way conversation with something like “have you met so-and-so? She’s…left-handed”
The Relocation Gambit. Rarely, but once in a great while, you may actually encounter another person whom you wish to know better before you begin dodging their calls and avoiding eye contact because it’s all too intense. Try to evaluate whether they are having a good time or are equally miserable before you lead with “care to go someplace that’s not here?” Also figure out whether they’re the host’s roommate because almost nothing makes someone less likely to leave than actually living in the place you’re trying to escape.
The “Destiny Calls” approach. Commonly signaled with “Oh no, something suddenly came up,” this is a firm statement of impending departure you deliver to your host with maximum sincerity. Engage in some status-boosting backdoor bragging that will not only raise you in your host’s estimation but elevate the status of the party itself, since the only thing that could induce you to leave a party like this would be that darned mayoral commission on the regulation of taxidermy societies in urban environs. Resist the temptation to break the news to your host that you may have accidentally desecrated some decorative feature of their home or to offer a reciprocal invitation that they should come visit you next time.
The Inarticulate Emergency: Walk quickly up to your host and, underneath the volume of the party’s celebratory hum, explain urgently that you’ve been called away unexpectedly to deal with something mumble-muttered and unintelligible. If they press you to speak more clearly, burst out with “no time!” and hurry away.
After you deploy this one, the conversation in your wake should look something like this:
Guest A: “Where did she say she was going?”
Guest B: “To deal with a flashmob cashflow issue?’
Guest C: “I thought she said ‘hashtag hairbow”
Guest A: “All I know is it sounded pretty drastic.”
Guest C: “How sad – I heard she was demonstrating a very natural ability to participate in conversational exchanges!”
I forgot to mention you should plant a fellow introvert (Guest C) in the throng to cover you before fleeing. Do not forget to phone in a fake emergency for Guest C.
Best of luck to you.
Miranda K. Pennington has completed a book about her lifelong habit of over-identifying with the Brontës and is represented by the Julia Lord Literary Agency. She teaches academic and creative writing at various adjunct-employing institutions, including Columbia University, where she obtained her MFA. Her writing has appeared on the Ploughshares Blog, The American Scholar Online, and The Catapult podcast.