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Singles: How to make cocktail conversation

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 13 (JTA) — You go out. You talk to a lot of people you don’t know. Maybe you gossip a little. Maybe you flirt. Maybe you try too hard and end up acting just a bit like someone else.

You wake up the next day with the uneasy feeling that you’ve just gotten drunk and had a one-night stand. But you haven’t. You just have what I think of as a mild “shameover,” that uneasy feeling that you’ve woken up with a stranger — and that stranger is you.

Maybe this has never happened to you because you have the uncanny ability to be yourself in every social situation, no matter how discomforting it may be.

I have not been blessed with this sort of social gift. I get nervous and blab things about other people or just share overly personal stories about myself in some desperate attempt to connect. I start acting either overly flamboyant or overly cynical. Sometimes I just clam up in the vain hope that my silence will be perceived as depth or some deep, quiet self-confidence. It is the rare social occasion that finds me hitting my personal groove, witty quips and bon mots flying from my mouth in just the right amount.

I recently found myself thinking about one of the many platitudes I’ve never understood: “Just be yourself!”

That’s one of those pieces of advice that’s deceptively simple, like “Just do your best” or “Just have a good time.” One’s self is an exquisitely complex, elusive, multi-faceted, ever-changing organism. I barely have a hold of “my self” at my most peaceful moments — throw in a cocktail party full of strangers, the prospect of forced banter with my boss, an ill-fitting garment not worn since the last festive occasion and various other anxiety-producing elements and I’m lost.

Most people who know me are shocked to hear this. Despite all the mishugas going on inside, I’ve managed to construct a social persona that generally comes across as self-assured. I’ve done this in much the same way a British actor approaches a role, from the outside in. My Hamlet isn’t about passionate emotions, he’s all about a fancy accent and a period costume.

In the most technical way, I’ve borrowed mannerisms from the socially adept.

The way I sit, for example, elbow slung across the back of my chair, was stolen from a girl whose name I don’t remember in a college class I don’t remember. My best trick is stolen from an ex-boyfriend of mine whom everyone loved. Like him, I latch on to some aspect of a person’s job or hobby and inquire with what must read as true curiosity, as in “Tell me more about how you got into plumbing” or “How does the temperament of beagles differ from that of other breeds?”

This is the only way I have of simulating what seems like acceptable human behavior. Without such techniques firmly in place, I end up saying things like “What’s in this green dip? Algae? Should I put it on a cracker or just go lick a mossy rock?” It’s like my own special strain of cocktail conversation Tourrette’s Syndrome, and it can strike me anytime. One minute I’m sipping Chardonnay, the next I’m inexplicably asking my co-worker if he’s always had walleye.

Not good. Unless you’re prepared for a stiff shameover.

There’s an old Yiddish saying, “Even in paradise, it’s not good to be alone.” It’s for that reason, and for the few stolen moments of social grace and nourishing human contact that I manage to eke out, that I persist, when my deepest impulse is often to just stay home.

When I was a teen-ager, my mother told me I should always go to every party to which I was invited. “You never know who you might meet,” she’d say. Which is true. She also told me that everyone feels this way, which may also be true to a certain extent.

I just hope that with age and practice, when I take that deep inhale before the door opens and the social onslaught hits me, I’ll know more what I mean when I say in my head, “Just be yourself.”

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