Being effective in social situations depends
far more on your purpose and attitude than on skill and talent
Complete the following
sentence: "I wish that when I was in law school they had taught us about
Presumably, your answer
is not "the elements of a contract," "ethics," "personal hygiene" or "reusing a
syringe." However, there’s a chance that, given the stack of invitations to
parties, receptions, meetings, etc., billowing out of your in-basket, you
selected "how to tolerate going to parties where I don’t know a soul."
It’s a shame if that
applies to you, because as an attorney you probably get invited to more cocktail
parties, receptions, fund-raisers and dinners than the average Joe, and thus you
have more chances than most to demonstrate your social prowess.
Since you’re an
attorney, people often expect you to be pretty sharp, savoir faire-wise,
but when they find out you’re no wittier or more fascinating than they (or, for
that matter, a 7-Eleven cashier), they may judge you more harshly than they
would some garden-variety dud.
More harmful than what
others might think of you, though, is the utter agony of going to a party,
believing that you won’t find anyone to talk to; that everyone there will be
fast friends with everyone else there but you; that you’re doomed to spend the
evening alone, repeatedly checking the time and eating little ears of corn in
utter solitude; and that if you do happen to find a friendly face it will be
that of an insurance agent or some other lost soul for whom obnoxia and personal
rejection are their raisons d’être.
arrive with a defeatist attitude – not realizing that just about everyone around
you shares your fears – and emotionally unequipped to seize the many potential
opportunities that social functions hold for you and your practice.
There’s hope. Given a
little training, just about anyone with enough brainwave activity to pass the
bar exam can become comfortable in social settings. No matter how awkward you
feel among strangers, unless you suffer from a serious personality disorder or
do a lot of bond work, the following advice should help straighten you out.
There are at least
three elements of social preparedness:
This gives you a purpose for showing up, and it should dictate how you will
conduct yourself while you’re there. If your objective is to meet and make a
good impression on at least five people, or to spend quality time with a
prospective client or referral source, you should take that into account as
you approach the bar. Few things can undermine effective social interplay
more decisively than trying to carry on a serious conversation after you’ve
had so much to drink that you can no longer say certain diphthongs or are
rendered speechless by a giggling jag. On a related topic, avoid eating and
standing at the same time. Few can simultaneously balance a glass, shake
hands, talk, eat, and hold a plate full of food without looking like a slob.
The right attitude.
The "right attitude" allows you to shift your emphasis from making sure
you have a good time to making sure other people have a good
time. This includes acting as a surrogate host, welcoming new arrivals, and
rescuing grateful loners. The right attitude also includes making consistent
eye contact, smiling, laughing, slapping people on the back, punching people
(preferably male people) in the arm and not waiting to be introduced. Don’t
get carried away with your Goodtime Charlie persona, however. Unbreakable
eye contact can be a little disconcerting (if not downright eerie), as can a
permanent smile, especially when the setting or discussion calls for a more
somber mien. The same is true, only more so, if you laugh constantly. Other
"don’ts" include giving high fives, screaming, and heaving your cocktail
glass against the wall.
Making small talk isn’t a problem
for some people, especially those in the sales, auction and hair care
fields. But for many, their perceived incapacity for idle chitchat is enough
to make them stay in the corner – or, for that matter, in the car – alone
for the entire evening.
"Small Talk" Demon
A good opening line is
crucial, and after years of trial-and-error I've found the following to be
generally effective: "Hi" (or its close
cousins, "Hello," "How's it goin'?" and "How you doin'?" but not "T'sup").
successfully executed this slick come-on, and assuming the other party responds
more or less in kind, extend your hand and say: "I'm (say your
So far, so good. But
what do you say next? Try this: Find something about them that warrants a
"Boy, that's a
good-looking tie you have on there." (This line is a personal favorite
but is of declining applicability in an era when, alas, even at a nice
social function one is more likely to encounter someone wearing a baseball
cap backwards than sporting proper neckwear.)
If a compliment isn't
forthcoming, formulate some standard questions that might get another person to
talk about him- or herself and, thus, virtually guarantee that he or she will
come away marveling at what a greater conversationalist you are. You have a lot
of leeway in your questions, but avoid being too trite ("Hot enough for ya?"),
personal ("Don’t you ever see a dentist?") or negative ("What do you think
tastes worse: that Swedish meatball or a road apple?"). Also, steer clear of
such words and phrases as "multicultural," "proactive," "education funding"
(unless that's what you're gathered to discuss), "anything-challenged" or
"been there, done that." And, of course, be ever vigilant against the excessive
or inappropriate use of the words "totally" and "actually."
Try to find common
ground between the two of you:
"How long have you
been involved with the Painful Rectal Itch Foundation (or whatever
organization is sponsoring the event)?"
"How do you know
the host / the guest of honor / my wife?"
"What do you do for
That last question is
key, and so is your reaction to the answer. Regardless of his or her line of
work, nod approvingly and murmur something that suggests that you are mightily
impressed. Then ask some more questions. (Avoid asking, "Are you joking?", "Is
there any money in that?" or "Is that legal?")
At some point, the
other person should grow weary of your questions and ask what you do. That’s
your opening; don’t blow it.
There are right and
wrong ways to describe your work. Wrong ways include:
"Oh ... I’m a
lawyer." (This meek response suggests the unspoken footnote: "Please
don't strike me.")
"I’m a commercial litigator."
"My mission in life
is to keep the divorce rate on the rise, and I love it! Especially when I
prevent fathers from visiting their children."
This is your chance to
strike a blow for the legal profession and, more important, your practice. Just
complete this sentence: "I help (fill in the blank)."
"I help people
protect their money from the IRS."
"I help landowners
make the best use of their property."
"I help business
owners settle disputes with other companies."
"I help injured
people put their lives back together again." (Delivering this line so as not
to induce gagging by either party to the conversation may require practice.)
You’re in a helping
profession, and you should project that to everyone who will listen to you. A
little thought can mean the difference between people assuming you’re a vicious
bloodsucker and believing you’re the second coming of Gandhi.
Another good response:
"I practice law with someone you really should get to know." This removes you
from the equation (in case you're a little edgy about making yourself the focus
of the conversation) and, in case you've found out enough about the other person
to know what kind of attorney they made need sometime soon, it gives you a
chance to edify one of your colleagues.
If you're bent on
telling people what you are instead of what you do, don't just say
"I'm a lawyer" (unless that really works well for you or you happen to believe
that the other person will be OK with it). At least say, "I'm a (type of law)
lawyer" or "I'm a lawyer with (firm name)" or, if you want to go all
in, "I'm a (type of law) lawyer with (firm name)."
If you want to meet
lots of people, you need to be where the people are. At most parties, there are
three such places: the entrance, the buffet table and the bar. (Actually,
there’s a fourth, but if you lurk there, people will suspect that you have a
perversion or dysentery, and either way they will seek to avoid shaking your
If you station yourself
about ten feet inside the entrance, far enough from the door that people won’t
hand you their coats, you can greet them while they’re still dazed and trying to
get their bearings. You can play the role of host, making them feel welcome and
looking like a big shot.
There are minor
drawbacks to the other high traffic areas. If you stand near the bar all night,
people may assume you have a drinking problem. If you stand near the buffet,
people who want to shake your hand can’t unless they balance their plate of
chicken wings on top of their cocktail glass. That makes for brief conversations
and frequent trips to the bathroom to wash the ranch dressing and grease off of
Print your first and last name legibly in large letters. Put the nametag on the
right side of your chest; this makes it easy for people to read your name while
they’re shaking your hand.
Take enough to get you through the night, but not so many that they cause your
pocket to bulge or sag. If you strike up a conversation with someone to whom you
want to give your card, ask for theirs first, then give them yours. After the
party, write down the date and event on the back of their card; that information
will come in handy in making follow-up contact.
Working the room.
There is no ideal number of people to meet at a function. Spend enough time with
someone to get acquainted and make a good impression, then move on.
Occasionally you will meet some waif who has decided that you are going to be
his or her new best friend. If pawning them off on – I mean, introducing them to
– someone else doesn't work, and if they don't fall for the old "I have to use
the restroom" or "I'm going to freshen my drink" lines, getting away from such
people can be difficult and may require guile and deceit.
For example, you might
glance over their shoulder at an imaginary acquaintance, smile brightly, raise
your glass in salute, and the next time your captor takes a breath, say,
"There’s a person over there who I’ve been trading phone calls with for a week,
and I’d better go say hello. It’s been a pleasure meeting you." Shake hands, and
then take off. There’s a fair possibility that they will try to tag along. In
this case, I recommend that you get about a three-step lead on them, stop
abruptly, wheel around, point sternly at the spot on the floor where they’re
standing, and say, in a sharp voice, "Stay!" If you have a rolled-up newspaper,
use it. I have never seen this fail.
If you ask a lot of questions, listen to the answers. They are stepping stones
to more questions, which are essential to getting other people to talk about
themselves and, in the process, convincing themselves that you are a great
American. Remember, I said "stepping stones," not "opportunities to one-up the
other person." If they inform you that they drive a '95 Neon, it's far better to
respond with "I've heard good things about those cars" than "I just got a new
Remembering someone’s name in the short run requires no magic. It does require
concentration. When they say their name, make sure you understand it before you
go any further. If you don’t catch it the first time, ask them to repeat it. It
doesn’t hurt to say it out loud. After you’ve gotten their name, use it. Call
them by name. Introduce them to other people (a great way to get rid of them).
And if you forget it, ask them again.
Mind Your Manners
Etiquette, like grammar
and appropriate attire, just ain’t what it used to be, and savvy socialites know
that some of the rules have changed:
When introducing people to each other, mention the more important person’s name
first, e.g., "Mr. President, I’d like you to meet my cable TV installer, Eldon
Fuchs." Gender and age are no longer the primary factors in who gets mentioned
Standing vs. sitting.
My sixth grade Sunday school teacher used the following mnemonic device to teach
us etiquette: "What is it that a man does while standing, a woman does while
sitting, and a dog does on three legs?" The answer, of course, is, "Shake
hands." This still holds true to a degree. All able-bodied men must be on their
feet when being introduced. Women, on the other hand, now have the option. In a
business setting, though, it’s probably better for members of either sex to
In the old days, a man was supposed to shake a woman’s hand only when she
offered it to him. Today, the sexes are on more or less equal footing,
handshaking-wise, and if a man doesn’t extend his hand to a woman when they are
introduced, she’ll likely remember that when she becomes his boss.
everything. After you meet someone with client or referral source potential,
keep in touch. Drop them a note. Add them to your newsletter mailing list.
Invite them to lunch. Whatever works. That’s the payoff that makes going to a
social event more worthwhile than channel surfing.