social skills

Take the “temperature” of the room for better social interactions

Have you ever come back from an event, happy that it went well and looking forward to the next one…only to have the next one go badly? It may have been at a different venue, or slightly larger or smaller than the last one, or with or without alcohol or food the second time. But it didn’t move your social life forward the way the first one did, and it’s hard to say why.

party1-300x224It’s often impossible to isolate what’s different between a night that goes well and an “off night”. Often there is no explanation. Sometimes our attitude or the way we approach others may be subtly but proundly different. Or there may be factors in the immediate environment which make it harder to socialize. But I think the most common reason shy people fail to connect at social events is a failure to distinguish between what I call hot, cold, and warm rooms. What “worked” at an earlier event may not produce the same result the second time. The effect can be frustrating and confusing.

Shy people encounter endless variations as they move through their social lives and push their social edge. Every social situation is a little different, which is why it pays to go to many different types of events. Still, as you select events and gradually raise your comfort level, it might be useful to keep these distinctions in mind. These are not sharply-defined categories but ways of thinking about various types of events.

A hot room is usually loud, informal, and crowded. There are almost always multiple conversations going on at once. Examples of hot rooms can include:

  • a large wedding, charitable event, or frat party
  • bachelor(ette) parties
  • a bar or nightclub late on a weekend night
  • any smaller event where people are drinking heavily

Cold rooms are usually more subdued, formal, and can be less crowded. If they’re very small — say, fewer than twelve people — there’s usually only one conversation going on at once. Examples of cold rooms can include:

  • a dinner party or potluck with everyone seated around a table
  • a neighborhood bar early in the evening
  • a small gallery opening or reception

Warm rooms are usually a mix of both the above qualities. You’ll find groups of both hot and cold attendees at these events. Warm rooms are often medium-sized social events and can include:

  • singles or speed-dating events
  • specialty events such as foreign-language practice happy hours or industry networking meetups
  • small product launches or trade shows

Keep in mind that these categories are guidelines only. A room with a small number of people can be hot if it’s a celebration with many energetic people. On the other hand, a funeral or viewing will always be a cold room, no matter how many people are there. And rooms of any temperature can be made “hotter” with the addition of large amounts of alcohol.

The defining factor here is the level of expressed emotion and spontaneity among the participants. Hot rooms are usually (though not always) loud.  Participants often need to shout above music.  Alcohol is flowing freely, and barriers between what occurs in people’s minds and what they actually say are low.  In general in hot rooms, you should:

  • Speak the language of emotions, rather than facts
  • Avoid “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” questions
  • Interruptions may be inevitable. Prepare for multiple conversations and keep stories short.
  • If it’s crowded, use social touch sparingly, except with close friends

Cold rooms can be somewhat easier for shy people to navigate. Conversation is subdued; there is usually one conversation, or multiple conversations happening quietly in separate corners of the room, and participants don’t usually have to shout above loud music. Keep in mind the following guidelines:

  • It’s OK to structure the flow of conversation around information.
  • “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” are usually OK.
  • Interruptions and intrusions are much rarer.

Warm rooms present special challenges for many shy people, because participants need to adjust to the temperature, not of the room, but of each particular group of people within the room. In this as in all things social, the most important thing is to just have fun and not worry too much about adapting to every single situation. However, you may find yourself having more fun if you take the following steps:

  1. Gauge your own temperature.  Are you in a hot or cold mood?  What kind of energy are you looking to contribute to a conversation?  Avoid looking for a group to “raise your spirits” or “calm you down” — remember, you’re seeking to offer value to others, not to take it.
  2. Look for groups in a mood similar to yours.  If you’re in a hot mood, that means people who are loud, telling stories, and who are being spontaneous.  If you’re in a cold mood, look for more subdued conversation.
  3. Once you choose a group, be prepared to match its energy.
  4. Don’t be afraid to discover the temperature of the group after you’re already in it.  If it’s not a match, find a reason to exit the group, and politely excuse yourself.

Social events can be difficult to navigate when you don’t know anyone or when there are many things going on at once.  Often the amount of sensory input can be overwhelming, especially at a hot event.  But adjusting to the temperature of each room will gradually, with practice, become second nature, and you’ll be able to move between rooms of different temperatures with ease.

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