Mind and Body

The introvert's guide to surviving the holidays: 6 proven strategies

An expert breaks down how to excel at small talk.

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The holiday season often includes a seemingly endless marathon of parties, family meals, and friendly reunions. In turn, this social merry-go-round can be a dreaded, uncomfortable part of this time of year. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be if you follow some expert-backed advice.

Inverse rounded up the six best strategies to communicate effectively, even when your aunt says you’ve put on weight or your high school nemesis asks about your recent breakup. Here’s all you need to float through the holidays like a social butterfly, effortless and happy.

“Assume the burden of other people’s comfort, whether it be at Thanksgiving or in a mingling situation,” Debra Fine, a communication coach and author of The Fine Art of Small Talk tells Inverse.

“If I make you feel comfortable when you’re with me, you’ll feel good about me. It’s really as simple as that.”

Play the conversation game

It’s Thanksgiving evening and the turkey and sweet potato casserole are long gone. The wine has been poured and Uncle Ben wants to spark some conversation.

“I see your candidate lost in the last election, what do you have to say for yourself now?” he remarks across the table. He chuckles and conversation screeches to a halt — it’s your move.

Small talk doesn't exclude controversial topics like politics or religion-- but it's important to stay open minded to different opinions if you bring up such topics.GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

According to Fine, navigating communication landmines like this are hard, but not impossible. Her advice? Handle it with humor, and then toss the conversation ball off to someone else.

Make a harmless joke about the other candidates or how you’ve been distracted by your new dog. Ask neighbors at the table to weigh in on the debate, or change the topic altogether to something lighter, like a book or movie you recently enjoyed.

“I think we’re just going to have to agree to disagree about our candidates,” Fine suggests as a response.

It’s all about what Fine calls “playing the conversation game.” When people make a conversational faux-pas like asking naively about a marriage that has ended or starting a political fight, it’s important to give them the benefit of the doubt, acknowledge the error, then shift the direction of the conversation. Staying engaged throughout these conversations and reading the room is crucial.

And if you’re the instigator of an awkward moment, you can bounce back. Try to be yourself, whoever that is, Fine says.

"I always find my foot in my mouth. I should have gotten an appetizer.”

“Just say, ‘I always find my foot in my mouth. I should have gotten an appetizer,” Fine comments. If you assume the burden for an awkward moment and come up with something else to talk about, you’re in the clear.

Take responsibility for other people’s comfort

This holiday season, you may find yourself as a plus-one at a stranger’s happy hour or going alone to a mutual friend’s party. The best tactic for success in a land of strangers? Hammer out a few conversation topics (travel, sports, movies, for example) or funny anecdotes to keep the conversation rolling. Never presume that someone else will introduce themselves or drive the conversation forward.

"It is up to you to take the risk to walk up to someone.”

“Somebody’s got to make the first move,” Fine says. “Whether you’re an introvert or not, you cannot depend on the rest of the world to take care of you in a social setting. It is up to you to take the risk to walk up to someone.”

Another surefire way to communicate effectively during the holidays? Imbibe *moderately*, especially in an office setting.Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank

Approach strangers with a smile and an icebreaker. There’s no perfect opening line and a million reasons someone might reject you, but you should still try, Fine advises. If you’re especially nervous or out of your depth, ask for help. Ask the host or hostess to introduce you to a few party-goers or loop you into an ongoing conversation.

And once you do start talking, make it easy on others. Fine says “be a good sport” — if someone takes the time to ask you a question, don’t give them a one-word answer. Instead, offer a concise self-disclosure that they might be able to relate to.

These can be simple tidbits that ease tensions and make connections: Everyone can relate to the morning hustle or getting caught in the rain. Ultimately, the key to making yourself comfortable is making others comfortable.

The acquaintance trap

The holidays bring people together, whether they want to or not. We all know the feeling of running into a long-lost childhood friend at the grocery store or local bar when we’re home for the holidays. Acquaintance interactions can be especially thorny because we’re often working with outdated or ill-informed knowledge about the other person.

When you run into someone unexpectedly, Fine suggests saying an enthusiastic hello and sharing your own name: “Emily, so great to see you! It’s Alexandra Pattillo, from high school!”

Give people a bit of context, and for the love of all that’s holy, don’t ask questions you don’t already know the answer to, Fine says.

Think of questions like: Where’s your partner from last year? Did you get into that program? When are you going to have kids?

Now delete them from your brain. All of those questions, Fine explains, are potential conversation killers. A better alternative is: “Catch me up: What’s new with you since the last time I saw you?”

These open-ended questions give others the opportunity to share exactly what they do and don’t want to, and avoid potentially painful or awkward topics like divorce or job loss.

Turn socializing into a project

Surviving holiday madness can be like navigating a blizzard: confusing and overwhelming. One way to keep energy up throughout the season is to break social outings into tasks.

If you’re headed to a party, make a goal of talking to two or three new people, Fine says. Then once you’ve hit your mark, you’re free to kick back with a friend or head home early. That way socializing can feel less overwhelming and more rewarding.

Fine compares it to learning how to run a 5-K: You run a half-mile, then one mile, then build up to five miles. It takes time and practice, and eventually, you’re able to master it.

Don't expect others to make you feel comfortable, Fine says. Take responsibility for making everyone around you feel comfortable.Shutterstock

Another task you complete is thinking about your body language. In a social setting, it’s helpful to think about your physical presence in a room, in addition to the words coming out of your mouth.

“Keep your eyes up and shoulders relaxed,” Fine says. “Find the smile that works for you on your face so you look more approachable and you are more approachable.”

Smiling will make you seem less intimidating and may even boost your mood, research shows.

Starting small, talking big

Small talk is a necessary, sometimes dull component of social life. While some people may be eager to skip over small talk, it turns out informal chatter is a crucial way of building both professional and social relationships.

Research shows informal communication like chit chat can promote closeness and belonging, as well as boost mood.

Small talk in business meetings or first dates, lays the groundwork for more meaningful conversation. You have to think small before going big.

“I think the most important conversations we can have are the bigger ones, the in-depth ones,” Fine says. “And small talk is the appetizer for a real conversation.”

"Small talk is the appetizer for a real conversation.”

And becoming a small talk master has benefits that last long after conversations are over. Fine points out that being around people can make us feel great — but, when it comes down to it, that feeling is driven by how we feel when we communicate with others.

As you prepare for your next big event, consider employing these top tricks and tips. You may become the friendliest person in the room, no matter how shy or nervous you might be inside. Fake it, till you make it, friends.

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