25: The Life of the Party

25: The Life of the Party

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Reboot Your Life

The Life of the Party

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

~Franklin D. Roosevelt

I used to be the wallflower who camped out by the dried-out veggie platter at social and business events. You know, the jittery one who needed to be rescued from her isolation by others with enough guts to initiate a conversation.

I panicked just thinking about saying “Hello, what do you do?” to a stranger.

My inability to socialize resulted in a slew of unfair, hurtful labels: conceited, cold, aloof.

It wasn’t true. I wanted to be friendly, but something in me refused to cooperate. The problem surfaced after being bullied in school by a classic mean girl and her cadre of friends. They used to stop me in the hallway on my way to the bus. “Where do you think you’re going?” they’d say. Or they’d invite me over to their table in the cafeteria to eat lunch and then throw mashed potatoes in my face.

To overcome my shyness, I took a class called “How To Make Small Talk.” The instructor told a room of frightened introverts to break off into groups and practice his suggested icebreakers. We eyed each other with apprehension as we dragged our chairs into circles and asked: “Who do you admire?” “What have you been up to?” and “What’s your favorite book?” He also suggested we talk to ourselves in the mirror each morning.

And so I began each day conversing with my reflection, concocting sassy, witty lines. “Isn’t this party just wild and wooly?” I laughed while tossing back my long, wavy hair. “Aren’t you digging it?”

Unfortunately, once I left the safety of my bathroom I lost all confidence. I could not start a conversation with a stranger. This became financially debilitating a decade later when I opened my own graphic design business. I had to learn to schmooze if I wanted to put food on the table.

Not long after I founded my graphic design company, a friend invited me to a political fundraiser. My first thought was that I could make some serious business contacts. My second thought was there was no way I was subjecting myself to an uncomfortable party with strangers. I envisioned myself cowering in the corner with the baby carrots while everyone around me socialized with ease.

“No,” I said.

A few days later, she asked me again. I wanted to be a good friend, so I bit the bullet and agreed to go.

But I gave myself one scary task: “You must speak to everyone in the room.”

The day of the event, I regretted my decision. I drove into the event parking lot and sat there for fifteen minutes, unable to get out of the car. I finally summoned up enough courage to look into the rearview mirror and say to myself, “Giulietta, get out of the car and go face your fear.”

I entered the meeting room and instinctively headed toward the ranch dip. When I saw my first victim, an intimidating male wearing a grey power suit, I extended my hand and faked confidence. “Hi, I’m Giulietta. Where do you live?”

He responded with a big smile. “I live in Holliston. And you?” We chatted easily about our adjacent towns before bidding adieu to meet others. I continued scoping out new folks to engage, some more talkative than others. Surprisingly, the more I reached out to converse, the easier it got. I learned to ask questions that engaged the other person’s interest or revealed common ground.

Later that evening, I met a man, who like me, had an Italian last name, so I queried, “Have you been to Italy?” We talked about his visit to Milan to see “The Last Supper,” my visit to Rome to see the Trevi Fountain. Not long after, I found myself running around the large, rectangular room introducing folks standing alone to other folks in need of company. They seemed relieved. I felt useful in my new role as social matchmaker.

The night was going really well until I ran into a man I’d spoken to briefly at a party a year earlier, when a mutual acquaintance insisted on introducing us. “Hi, remember me?” I said, recalling the promise I made to myself to speak to each person in the room. “I’m the one who knew the capital of every African country.”

“Oh, yes,” he nodded without cracking a smile. “Quick, what’s the capital of Angola?”

“Luanda,” I answered proudly. “It’s also the name of a maximum-security prison in Louisiana.” Pumped up by my newfound courage, I continued to run with the prison theme until I unexpectedly blurted, “I love prisons.” I knew within seconds I’d made a fatal conversational error. He grimaced. “You are a very strange person,” he said.

Watching him back away shaking his head, I felt rejected, ashamed and embarrassed. What compelled me to say I loved prisons when it wasn’t even true? I began beating myself up for not clarifying that I loved prison movies with gutsy main characters like The Shawshank Redemption and Cool Hand Luke and for not apologizing when I offended him. I wanted to disappear and began inching towards the exit.

I stopped. It didn’t matter if he liked me. It mattered if I liked me. I brushed myself off emotionally and stood tall. He was the judgmental one. So what if he didn’t approve of something I said. It’s not the end of the world to say something stupid.

I continued to relationship-build around the room with positive results, no longer imprisoned by my fear. At the end of the evening, I felt powerful, connected and free.

In the months that followed, I sought out weekly opportunities to start conversations. They existed all around me: I spoke to wait staff, employees at my town hall, and small business owners. It resulted in a kinder, warmer, and happier place to live. Occasionally, I still struggled to make the first social move, but that too disappeared with time and practice.

Now five years later, I can walk up to anyone at any kind of event and start a conversation with ease. Giving myself permission to be friendly has allowed me to grow my business, start a creativity group that benefited my community, and make more friends than I thought possible.

Recently, a business acquaintance introduced me to others at a local networking group as “the woman who everyone knows in town.” I’d become that fun person across the room who I always wanted to meet but didn’t have the courage to approach.

~Giulietta Nardone

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