The tipping point is the moment from which nothing anyone could say will interest you. I’ve combined the conditional and future tenses intentionally, because I mean nothing in the whole possibility of things to be said (conditional) will be of any interest from this moment on (future). You’re at an event and your social switch has suddenly flipped to the ‘off’ setting; perhaps you’ve have a concentrated mingling period and your sanity demands that you hermit away for a week; or perhaps, like me, you’re uncomfortable with formality and prefer socialising like a twelve year-old, in pairs and threes.
As a fidgety introvert, I like immersive environments that allow me to focus my energy and attention. I’ve enjoyed the following: intense one-on-one discussions; being a bridesmaid in a best friend’s highly choreographed wedding and attending a two-day birthday party with activities and escape nooks as well as boozy chatter. Over the years, I’ve engineered my life so that it includes a fair amount of zany, whimsical dos and a minimum of the formal drinks, barbecues and dinner parties whose lifeblood is appearances and group conversation. What turns me off these events is small talk, constrained spaces and dress codes that usually force me to be colder than I’d like. Moreover, I’m prejudiced that in these situations people are stuck in a muted midpoint between the personal and professional, but reaching the fascination of neither.
My new boyfriend however, takes a different view. He sees formal occasions as an opportunity to wear your nice shoes, catch up with old acquaintances and meet people you otherwise wouldn’t. He’s genuinely interested in what people do, where they’re from and what they think about foreign policy; whereas I gravitate towards their silliness and their soul. I usually arrive and leave in the middle; he jokes that he’s got a reputation for being the first to arrive and the last to leave, and by the way, would I like to go to a party or two with him?
When I see civilised-looking strangers standing around with drinks, talking politely, I’ve already reached my tipping point, though we’ve just arrived. Conversations are hard to follow and words coming from people’s mouths vie for my attention with song lyrics, background chatter, overpowering aftershave, the glare from the sequins on someone’s dress and the slightly off taste of Country White. Someone tells me where they live and I instantly forget; I have no opinions or knowledge of Thailand’s economic policy, or even anything related; I’m bored replying to a question on what I do, and get distracted by a ladybird crawling on a fence. I’m squeezed by the competing sensations that there’s an awful lot to take in and absolutely nothing to do. I begin to long for a book to read or colour. I’m not even joking.
Afterwards, barely having scraped through, with my dubiously stained slip dress and ready death-stare, I think back to the wished for colouring book. I interpret it as the desire to solve this problem creatively. What I need to do, is keep myself interested so I don’t zone out, and simultaneously, stop myself from getting overwhelmed. By this point, the socially-adjusted reader will think that I’m developmentally challenged; other emotionally-motivated socialisers however, might recognise some of my anxieties. This list of mood-altering suggestions is for them:
- Preparation : The Debutante Nap vs Running on Adrenaline If you’re sure that the tricky event will be blessedly short (under three hours) you might consider racing into it from an action-packed day, so you don’t have to think too much. However, if said ordeal is likely to last more than three hours, take a nap if you can, or do your choice of endorphin-boosting activity beforehand.
- Catch the most interesting talk Once you’re there, remember that you’re mobile and not glued to your partner’s side or to the poor sod who insists on a detailed explanation of your third PhD chapter. Find the conversation that most piques your fancy, then pay attention and ask about the things you genuinely want to know. Hopefully they’ll do the same and who knows, you might enjoy yourself. Some people advise playing the ‘relatables’ game, i.e.: no, you don’t have a mortgage, but your best friend says getting one is bloody hard etc… I think this is a slippery slope unless it’s a topic you actually want to talk about. If you’re not interested it will show in the dead goldfish expression on your face.
- Be inspired by a recent Chinese immigrant Neville*, who is only on his second month in this country, set a shining example of how to socialise. Naturally serious and mellow, he was obviously at ease in his own skin. He talked about things that interested him, responded observantly and casually looked at his phone when the conversation turned to British school boards. I noticed how despite Neville’s lapse in concentration, he remained part of the group – his feet were pointed towards us and his body language was relaxed.
- When you meet the worst person in the world Stuart was busy showing off a camera app on his phone that didn’t only let him monitor his son, but his son’s babysitter and even his wife, so that she wouldn’t go out and shop too much. I would have disliked Stuart under any circumstances, but at a party he wears right into my already short social fuse. My death stare won’t actually kill him, or convert him into a reasonable sort of man, but it will make everyone around me feel awkward. What I can do instead, is try to see Stuart for the hilarious specimen that he is. He is clearly compensating for something. I visualise that he has a petite prick and feel better already. If I’m in a gutsier mood, I might challenge him on the finer points of his spying system: does it cover the toilets as well?; is it in any way democratic? Most importantly, I need to keep Stuart in perspective. He is a single blight on humanity. If I leave because of him, then I make him as important as he wants to be. On the other hand, 3 Stuarts and I’m out!
- Drink if you can get away with it and it’s your thing The green fairy (absinthe) and her descendants make everything flow much more smoothly. Some people would put this at number one.
- Find on-site distractions when you need a break from the monotony of constant talk. Not everyone is a conversational marathon-runner. Offer to help with serving or setting things up. Playing with children and animals can also give you a breather, ditto pool tables and card games.
- Take a luxury break When you’ve reached your tipping point prematurely and it’s beyond the first hour, say you have to make a phone-call, yes even on a Sunday (your boss doesn’t know the meaning of a day off) and take a walk. Make this break, all twenty minutes of it, as voluptuous as possible. Go where you’re out of sight and read a chapter of your novel, instagram a few porches or look in the local antique shops. Try not to come back with an entire dining table. You’ll be the re-born phoenix of the party. I reckon you can get away with this twice in a single event.
- And when you’ve really had enough, the party’s moved location three times and the crowd has started thinning, it’s time to go. After all, no-one should overstay their welcome.
*Names have been changed