For a long time, parties were terrifying. There were people. And people talking to each other. Unless I arrived unfashionably early, I was going to need to promptly join some group of people talking to each other, or make like wallpaper and stand alone. Figuring out how to do this took a very very long time, and is something I’ve only gotten comfortable with in the last year (and only regularly comfortable with in the last six months).
Here’s what I’ve been doing.
(This is Part One of…several. It deals only with entering conversations of two people. Future parts will handle joining larger and larger groups.)
Being the third person joining a conversation of two people can be intimidating! You probably don’t want to be the Dreaded Third Wheel, interrupt a personal conversation, or take ten minutes to discover that in fact the other two are waiting until you leave to resume their private conversation.
Simultaneously, smaller group conversations can feel way less overwhelming. There are fewer people to pay attention to, it’s usually easier to get a word in edgewise, and there’s some social pressure for everyone in the conversation to make sure everyone else is getting to participate.
First, you want to figure out if they’re having a conversation that’s meant for two-and-no-more-than-two people. Asking is one way to figure it out, but some people will feel so put on the spot (or will feel as though they need to pretend all is well) or may feel as though “no, sorry, you can’t sit with us” is so deeply inappropriate that they won’t say it.
What cues can you look for?
-Are one or both of the people occasionally looking at other things happening outside the bubble of their conversation. Do they wave at people or acknowledge others walking by? These are signs that you could probably interrupt and join.
-Are they mostly making eye-contact with each other? Are they standing closer-than-normal to each other? How much touching? People who are doing sustained contact (hand squeezes, lingering hand on shoulder or upper arm) are usually have intense or private conversations.
Okay, so you have some idea that you might be able to join the conversation! Cool, let’s do it.
Generally inadvisable: standing near them and anticipating that they notice + reach out to you + include you. This can feel like being watched or eavesdropped upon. Further, it’s really hard to tell people to go away when they haven’t made overt attempts to join. In short, most of the time this technique makes everyone uncomfortable, and is probably only a good idea if you’re just waiting to get a word in edgewise. (More on that next)
Generally useful: In approximately this order, you want the two people already having the conversation to:
Acknowledge that you are there.
Let you join the conversation.
If at all possible, give you some idea of what’s going on in the conversation so that you can participate as if you were already in it.
Some options for making this occur:
1. Pick something they’ve mentioned that is either of interest to you or particularly unusual.
“I heard ‘psychology’ over here…?”
“Sorry, did you just say duck penises?”
(If this doesn’t give you a sense of what sort of parties I attend…)
Usually I pair this with conspicuous noticing, while in view of one of the conversational participants. Quickly turning towards their conversation, eyebrow raising (or single eyebrow-raise + confusion, in the case of duck penises) or displaying sudden interest or alertness all seem to work.
2. Say something about the way the conversation is happening.
“You guys look like you’re having the most fun in the room—mind if I join?”
You want to convey joviality and cheer with this. Upbeat tone and smiling will be helpful here. You don’t want to imply that the rest of the room is awful, or that you’re having no fun and they’re you’re life preserver…that’s a lot of responsibility to be saddling a conversation with!
3. If you know the person or have reason to believe it’s welcome, some amount of (platonic) touch.
For instance, if you know Sarah, walking up to her while she’s chatting with Jane, touching her on the shoulder to get her attention and saying “Hey, Sarah! It’s wonderful to see you—mind if I join in?” (If you don’t know Jane, you likely want to apologize for interrupting and introduce yourself. This doesn’t mean you have to leave. It’s just a way of acknowledging that now Jane has to share and you’ve noticed that.)
Signs to look for:
People who freeze for a second and then smile and especially people who immediately shift to accommodate you in the physical space of the conversation are interested in having you join the conversation. That last part—the body language of giving you an equal share of discussion—is probably the biggest hint.
People who freeze, half-open their mouths, or have a wincing or painful or uncomfortable expression like this or this (eyes slightly squinted, corners of mouth drawn back but not smiling, wrinkly brow) are likely expressing discomfort with you trying to join their conversation. No worries, everyone mis-guesses! This is not failure, and you can tactfully withdraw.
Options for a graceful exit:
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t realize I was interrupting. See you all later!” (Smile, if they apologize or agree in response, awesome, you picked the thing they wanted! If they say you aren’t interrupting, you want to say something like “you sure?” and then join in if they respond in the affirmative)
“Oh, no worries, I see [person] over there!” (Alternately, beverage or snack of your choice.)
“Ah, sorry, didn’t mean to butt into a private conversation”
They don’t have to be effusive apologies. In fact, everyone wants to go back to what they were doing, so short and sweet is optimal.
And….that’s it! Practice will make this less of a safari-with-a-long-checklist and feel more natural, but it took me about a year (maybe…ten parties?) to go from having an idea of what the hell to do to not feeling awkward while doing it.