Minding Our Manners in Social Settings

Minding Our Manners in Social Settings

How to make people feel
welcome at holiday parties.

By Lana Swearingen

I’ve known about Toastmasters for years, thought about joining many times and am happy to say I finally did. The group I joined extended a warm welcome, as well as any assistance I might need to learn the ropes. The members are courteous, friendly and encouraging.

Therefore, I was surprised by what happened when I attended a recent Toastmasters event with about 60 people, including district dignitaries and members of several clubs. During the social hour prior to the meeting, I was very eager to meet everyone – and not being a shy person, I approached small groups of people who were chatting. I knew people in only some of the groups. Regardless, practically no one welcomed me into any of the small circles. Those who knew me did not introduce me to the others. And when I did not know anyone, I stood on the periphery of a circle, waiting for my chance to say, “Hello, I’m Lana.”

In all cases, they kept their conversations going, never pausing to allow me to introduce myself. I felt somewhat awkward and was very surprised that outside the rigors of Toastmasters protocol, the members could act with such disregard for common courtesy.

I do not believe these social gaffes were deliberate, but rather stemmed from a general movement away from the exercise of social graces in our fast-paced, high-tech society. However, Toastmasters need to show sensitivity when it comes to such issues. We’re a communication and leadership organization that fosters personal growth and a positive, welcoming attitude. In the short time I’ve been a member, I have been amazed at some of the stories I’ve heard of personal improvement and growth shared by other members. Yet while we become proficient in speaking to an audience, we sometimes forget social graces when speaking to an individual or a small group in a social setting. As a result, that event was ruined for me. I would have felt differently about it if I had been treated more courteously. 

Hone Your Skills at Holiday Time
With the holiday season upon us, many social events and office parties will take place in the coming weeks. These are ideal settings to practice your social graces and small-group communication. Here’s how you can fine-tune your skills and make people at such festivities feel welcome and included.

If you’re chatting in a small group and see someone approaching to join in, you have a number of options. Rather than interrupt a speaker mid-sentence, you could simply touch the newcomer on the arm, as a gesture to draw that person into the conversation. If you know the newcomer, wait for a break in the conversation, and then make introductions. The “rock star” mentality should be avoided. That is, do not assume that when someone is introduced to you, that person should already know who you are, and therefore, you have no need to introduce yourself to them.

If you don’t know the person approaching to join your small circle, it’s still acceptable to pull the person in with a light touch. If a conversation is ongoing, the speakers should make eye contact with the newcomer, as a way of including the person in what is being said. It doesn’t matter that the topic may not be immediately apparent to someone just stepping in. The gesture is the welcoming factor, not the subject matter. As soon as possible, the speakers should take a break in their conversation to introduce themselves and ask a question or two of the new person. They should avoid plunging back into their own discussion.

Body language can also encourage or discourage someone from joining a small circle of people. If someone approaches a group you’re in, step back or move to one side to make room. Under no circumstances should you turn your back. Try nodding in a welcoming gesture – it’s a great way to acknowledge that person, even while the conversation continues. 

More to Consider
Exceptions to these suggestions exist, of course. If the conversation is private, you have a couple of options. Rather than shun a newcomer, you could say something to indicate the private nature of the conversation. You might say, “We’re right in the middle of an urgent business discussion. As soon as we’re done, we’d love for you to join us.” In turn, the newcomer should respect that and step away.

Another option is to simply stop the conversation and ask the others if it’s okay to finish the discussion later. Then turn and greet the newcomer. The person may realize the conversation was private and leave on her own. If not, simply make it a point to meet later and pick up where you left off.

People’s comfort levels vary, which makes each individual react differently to the same situation. I remember my high school days, when being in a “clique” felt safe. It gave one status. To allow someone to penetrate the circle was somewhat threatening. However, as we mature, we learn that everyone wants to be accepted and welcomed, which is why we need to show sensitivity in social settings.

Remember, many people join Toastmasters to battle shyness. Some members are too shy even to approach a small group. If they’re ignored, it just reinforces any feelings they might have that they don’t belong. You have the power to change that; it doesn’t take much to express acceptance – a gesture, an introduction, a kind word.

I am pleased to be a part of the Toastmasters organization and have already learned a great deal about interacting with people in a public-speaking environment. I also look forward to attending more social events. So when you see me hanging around your inner circle, please invite me in. 

Lana Swearingen is a member of the Gilbert Toastmasters club in Gilbert, Arizona. Reach her at LSwearingen1@cox.net.