Occupy Holiday Parties

I have four holiday parties under my belt, and I thought I’d try to eke out another blog post by reporting on the whole conversation issue that I mentioned in the Scorpio horoscope the other day.  Here’s the deal:  many people dread the holiday party because conversations are so dull and lacking in depth.  We tend to blame the party, but in fact, my people, it’s responsibility of the people populating the parties to make them interesting, right?  If I were the party itself, I would feel so misunderstood. 

I have the theory that if we prepare conversationally with the same care we give to our food and clothing, we’d all be better off.  If everyone behaves as if they’re attending a conversation potluck, we’ll be lifted up.  Yes we will.  So, the rule is to have three topics that meet these simple criteria:

a) Interesting.  This sounds so basic, but how many times have you heard someone start to tell a story, and then get all stuck on some irrelevant detail.  “Last Tuesday…no, I think it was a Wednesday. [turns to husband]  Honey, wasn’t that a Wednesday that we went to the furniture store?  Or could it have been a Monday?  No, couldn’t be that, because I usually make chili on Monday, and I don’t recall that the beans were soaking… ”  Saddest thing ever. When someone kills a perfectly good story for no reason. 

b) Not too complicated.  If you have to develop four characters and explain a whole complex process at your workplace for us to join in, it’s not going to work.  If your topic is one that requires a white board, just skip it. 

c) Not too controversial.  I know, sometimes A and C seem to be in conflict, because interesting topics are often controversial, but keep in mind how awkward it will be if you accidentally insult everyone right off the bat, or, almost as bad, learn stuff that makes you lose faith in humanity.  For example, what if the person standing there, snarfing down the deviled egg is eager to vote for Newt?  So do this not just out of courtesy, although that’s a good reason, but it’s for your own protection too.  You don’t want to be that guy curled up in the fetal position, utterly hopeless.

Okay, the report:

Party #1, if you could call it that, was the year end event at work in which you’re badgered to contribute $5, a few people shop at Costco for stuff that isn’t normally consumed at 8 am like lasagna and Caesar salad, and they give out the “multiples of 5-year” awards, (only they forgot to order the actual paperweights, so we just got the paper itself, which may indeed fly about the office place.).  (I am tempted to segue into a commentary about really?  The only good thing anyone has ever done that’s award-worthy is show up for 5, 10, 15, and I’m not making this up, but 40 years? But in the interest of modeling item B, above, I’ll spare you.) At any rate, I used my three topics, and talked to a few people, and was rather proud.  Example:

Code Writer Man, (and I’m not talking computers):  Hey, Betsy, I think you might be right about 21A.24.045D 4.  It is a little ambiguous.

Me:  Uh, CDM, this is supposed to be a party.  See if we can talk about something else.  What have you got?

CDM:  [awkward silence.]

Me:  CDM, I came with three topics.  Did you?

CDM:  [look of disbelief] Uh. . .

Me:  Okay, then, I’ll start.  How about Pujols? [Note:  I know nothing about this topic myself.]

CDM:  Huh?

Now here’s where it gets a little interesting, because the Great Sandini stepped in from the sidelines, magnetized by the conversation, and contributed this:  “Yeah.  Bad deal for the Angels.  Batting average is 297.”

Anyway, this blog post is getting long and dull, exactly what we’re trying to avoid, so let’s breeze right by the rest of that gathering, during which I trotted out my other topics.  Without doing the blow by blow, I will let you know that after I mentioned the degrees of separation thing – how FaceBook has allowed researchers to confirm that we’re all connected by 4.7 degrees of separation rather than the 6 previously understood, The Great Sandini was able to share that his son went to college with Kevin Bacon’s son.  This went beyond my wildest expectations for conversation.   I’m not sure if you’d consider this success in the conversation game, but it’s the first time ever that the Great Sandini has contributed to a conversation that didn’t involve King County Code or SEPA, so all things considered, I think it went pretty well.

Party #2 was a lunchtime potluck in a cubicle with a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, a small can of mixed nuts, and a gallon of apple juice. Anyway, I asked someone if she had come prepared with topics. 

Her:  Why yes!  Here I go.  So, I hear it’s snowing at the pass!  That’s good.  I was thinking about skiing this year.  Do you ski?  I’m considering learning to ski, what with all the snow.

Me:  Wait, this doesn’t even sound true.  For one thing, it hasn’t really snowed much in weeks.  For another, really?  Are you planning to take up skiing?

Her:  No, but it’s just a really good conversation topic. 

Okay, let’s just stop right there and say that these topics should actually be true.  The plan isn’t to just make stuff up.  Because I'm operating on the theory that we all like people and want to actually talk to them with the possibility of genuinely connecting, right?

I refreshed my topics and went to Party #3, which was lovely and populated with fun and kind people. R. asked about it the next day.  “How’d your topics work out?”

“Well, actually, they all happened to be about chickens, and it’s sort of hard to segue from idle chit chat to interesting items about poultry without coming out and just saying, hey, would anyone like me to drop some interesting items about chicken awkwardly into the conversation?  Luckily, there was a chicken coop outside, so if we were near the window, I could use that as a prop.”

“Yeah, I can see that.  So what’s your plan for tonight’s party?”

“I dunno.    What have you got?”

“Well, maybe you should stick with that degrees of separation thing. Anytime someone mentions Facebook, you can yell out ‘4.7!’ Or if chicken is on the menu, you could use that to your advantage.”

“Hmm, that might work,” I said, but I was a little skeptical.  I’m a little awkward, but I’m pretty sure just shouting out random associations isn’t the way to move the conversation along.  It’s not like a jeopardy party or anything.

Party #4 was a meal at a nice restaurant, me attending as the date of the coworker of the other attendees.  It went along pretty well until the person next to me asked about my job.  “Oh, my husband is a developer!  Maybe he knows you through work!”

“Yeah,” I say, chuckling uncomfortably, “this is where the party usually gets really awkward.”

“Ha ha,” said the others at the table, thinking I was being funny.

She turns to her husband, “Well, she works for the County!  Maybe you know her?”

He asks what I do, and I describe it a little vaguely and he comes back with, “So, what’s your title?”

That’s not normal, right?  Like, are we all going to go around the room and say our titles, or just me? I've never heard of that before at a party.  In fact, that's usually the question I hear directly before, “Give me your supervisor’s phone number.”  But I’m so obedient that when I could have just laughed and said, ‘no, ha ha, I was just kidding, I’m actually a nurse, I mean, a  teacher!  Yes, I’m a teacher.’ Instead, I told him my title, and he did that “Oh.” Where the tone says everything.

In the awkward silence that followed, I said, “Hey, I have some topics about chickens.  Is anyone interested in talking about chickens?”  But they didn’t get it, and who could blame them?  To explain it all would be a violation of Item B, above, so it truly wasn’t their fault, but it did give me permission to quietly shout out, “4.7!” when FB was mentioned a bit later.

I’m not sure what the take home in this post is, but if you figure it out, or more importantly, if you have any tips for me, let me know.


  1. Small talk is aptly named.

  2. No wonder I hate parties. I have not been doing my homework and attending with prepared subject matter. The Facebook factoid is very interesting and I intend to use that, with attribution, of course. And I loved the canned ham comment.

  3. I have more of an interview style, which I developed during my years as a bartender. My interview questions have improved over the years. My #1 favorite to ask is "what the worst meal your mother made?" Sometimes you have to narrow the question - no, not a one-time disaster; something she sincerely put on the plate and called food. One reason why I like this is because it always becomes a contest, and I always win. Also most people have at least one funny and personal story about their mom's cooking.

    People love to talk about themselves, mostly, and this approach means you don't have to be informed or even very chatty. They will do all of the work.

  4. Well, since I wasn't invited to any holiday parties at all, I will save your advice in case a future social situation presents itself.


  5. Tap the rhythm of a tune on the table using your spoon, and challenge anyone to name the tune. I know, it sounds infantile, but it's actually kind of fun, and often leads to singing a few bars of the song. At the very least, you get to talk about something other than the weather or your latest illness. Christmas carols work really well at this time of year.


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