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No politics and more compliments: How to fake your way through small talk at a Christmas party

We’re all back to being small talk novices again but, as Nobody Panic podcast hosts Stevie Martin and Tessa Coates reveal, there are simple tricks to pep up your festive season chat

Thursday 11 November 2021 10:06

Well, it’s here. The festive season is bearing down upon us and the invites to the Christmas parties are already piling up in our inboxes. Mince pies! Mulled wine! Mariah Carey on repeat! And with it that most feared of all yuletide traditions: small talk.

With so long out of practice, we’ve all forgotten how to socialise. We can barely make coherent conversation with our best friends, let alone with acquaintances we see once a year. Can you imagine trying to make idle small talk with a stranger!

But, Nobody Panic! As the creators of the podcast, Nobody Panic, and fresh from our UK book tour for our brand new book Nobody Panic: How to be a functioning adult without screaming - (think of it like a grown up Bart Simpson’s guide to life) - we’re here to dispense a crash course to get us all small talk match fit, just in time for the holiday season.

So. If entering a room full of people sends your festive social anxiety through the roof, here’s a helpful acronym to remember, let’s go to the BAR.

B is for Boat. And we’re all in the same one

It’s important to remember that, at this point in proceedings, everyone has gone completely mad. 100 per cent crazy. Certifiably insane. Totally out to lunch. Absolutely bonko.

We’ve all been through the ringer and no one has made it through the storm with their sanity intact. Cut yourself a break and don’t judge your new weird party behaviour too harshly, and don’t judge anyone else too harshly either. Yeah, you said some weird things, but no one’s thinking about it, they’re too busy thinking about the weird thing they said. Everyone’s weird right now. Lean into it.

We threw ourselves a book launch party and we were convinced no one would come and it would just be us alone in a room together trying to drink the minimum spend on the bar (listen, we’ve had worse nights). Then at 8pm on the dot, about 17 people, none of whom knew each other, came charging through the door shouting, “SORRY I FORGOT ABOUT BEING FASHIONABLY LATE, I DON’T REMEMBER HOW TO GO TO A PARTY, I FEEL MAD!” (They all stayed til 3:30 in the morning).

Remember that everyone feels just as crazy as you. Take a deep breath and say your truth out loud. Then everyone else can say, “oh god me too” and we can all move on.

Tessa Coates and Stevie Martin host the Nobody Panic podcast

A is for Ask Questions

That’s all small talk is. Don’t open with “What’s your biggest regret?” but ease yourself in with “how do you know the host” or “that’s a fantastic jacket, where’s that from?” (Remember: compliment + question = conversation).

Don’t bother asking “How are you?” because the answer is “completely mad, thank you for asking” or “How was your lockdown?” because the answer is “completely awful, thank you for asking”. Or worse, they’ll say “actually it was the most fruitful and creatively exciting time of my life and I found spiritual reconnection and love with my family as we romped through our large woodland estate” and you’ll have to throw your drink at them.

Try “how are you today?” if you really want to ask how they are. And if you must ask about their lockdown, go for “what was the best and worst TV show you watched?” or “what was the weirdest thing you bought online?” (Tessa got into an eBay bidding war for some Soviet Union wooden clothes pegs (turned out to be normal clothes pegs) and Stevie bought a basketball court for her tortoise).

If you’re ready to up your game and get straight to more fruitful territory, try “What extinct animal would you most like to see reintroduced into the wild?” or “If forced to fight a thousand geese in hand to hand combat, how long do you think you could last?” or “Who do you hate most at this party?”

Do ask about their outfit. No one remembers how to dress anymore.

Tessa Coates and Stevie Martin

Just keep passing the conversational ball back over the net to them. Not with an endless round of disparate quiz questions, but just by following up whatever information they’ve thrown across into your court. Oh, they’d like to see pterodactyls introduced into the ecosystem would they, please, tell me more. Oh, they hate Jonathon the most at this party, please, go on. Oh, they have their own follow up questions and want to know if the geese are one after another or all at once. Great question, you don’t know either.

Do ask about their outfit. No one remembers how to dress anymore, so chances are they’re wearing something outrageous that you can enquire about.

Don’t ask about politics. Not because it might cause a disagreement and ruin the party, but because at this point, everyone agrees, everyone’s furious and we’re all one well-made political point away from turning this Christmas party into a rally.

Yes, obviously our Prime Minister should have been wearing a mask sat next to 95-year-old national treasure David Attenborough. Yes, obviously MPs shouldn’t be taking bribes. Yes, obviously pouring human shit directly into our rivers is “not ideal”. Unless anything is actually going to get solved at this party, we’re all cross enough as it is, everyone already agrees with your point, let’s take the night off.

R is for Relax

Fake it, fake it, fake it. Bring those shoulders down, stand up tall, make eye contact, keep your body language open and do your best impression of someone having a relaxed time at a party. And take your coat off for heaven’s sake. Remember that you’re a grown up, and you can French Exit your way out of this anytime you need. But challenge yourself to have at least one conversation before you go. Who knows! Could turn into the highlight of the night. That small talk opener might lead to the most fantastic big talk of all time. Or it might not. Nice to try though isn’t it?

So there you have it, B.A.R - and what does that spell? Exactly. Let’s head to the bar. The bar, or the kitchen, or the drinks area, is the demilitarized safe zone in the Christmas party minefield. If you need a break from someone, or you run out of people to talk to, come back to the bar for a little breather. If you get chatting to people at the bar, offer to help them carry their drinks and now, look at you go, you’re talking to a whole new group of people.

We’ll leave you with our favourite tip - always take two drinks. (This is assuming the bar is free. And if not, frankly, what kind of Christmas party is this?) Take two drinks and then you’ve got something to do with both hands so you don’t feel like so much of a lemon. If you get talking to someone and you like them, say “this was for my friend but I can’t find them, do you want it?”. If you get talking to someone and they’re awful, say “lovely to meet you but I’ve just got to give this to my friend” and then disappear into the crowd. And at the very least, if all else fails, now you’ve got two drinks! Merry Christmas, everyone.

Nobody Panic: How to be a functioning adult without screaming by Tessa Coates and Stevie Martin is out now (Hodder Studio, £16.99). Buy it here.

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