How I learned not to sweat the smalltalk
Dreading party season? For years, ‘closet introvert’ Alice-Azania Jarvis did too. Here she explains how she kissed her shy side goodbye and became the life and soul.
A Thursday night in Mayfair and, in the rosy-hued vault of a chi-chi cocktail bar, members of London’s glitterati swirl, performing their nightly routine of small talk and smiles-for-the-camera. In one corner, an up-and-coming actor bears down on the canapés; in another, three dewy-skinned young models pose for a selfie. A few yards away, a famous chef guffaws as the barman — sorry, mixologist — shakes and strains his drink.
In the middle of it all: me. Fizz in hand, party dress on, eager-beaver grin plastered across my face, I take a deep breath and, as the kitsch chords of Wham!’s Last Christmas slink out over the sound system, bowl up to yet another group of people I don’t know from Adam and merrily introduce myself.
To outside observers I must look like any other festive partygoer. Sure enough, when, out of the corner of one eye, I catch sight of my reflection in a mirror, I appear the picture of confidence. Inside, however, it’s a different story. As I flit from one guest to another, the thoughts running through my brain go as follows: “Don’t be boring”; “They won’t want to speak to you”; and, all-too-often, “IS IT NEARLY HOME TIME?”. When I finally sink into a cab at the end of it all: sweet relief.
Yes, my name is Alice-Azania Jarvis and I’m a closet introvert. Rewind 21 years and I’m standing in the playground of my new school in Johannesburg, South Africa. Having spent the first decade of my life in Richmond — where my friends were the same half dozen I’d known since nursery — I’m now faced with the prospect of building my social circle from scratch. This is proving difficult, since my speech has become slow and clumsy and my stomach is performing the sort of acrobatic routine that wouldn’t be out of place at that year’s Olympics. For the first time, I’m aware of a lurking awkwardness. Shyness was not a quality I knew I possessed and now that I do, I dislike it.
Slowly (very slowly) I do make friends. Still, the self-consciousness follows me around. Too often, parties are dreaded, then followed by cringing post-mortems. Frequently they are skipped altogether. In this I’m not alone. According to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, studies indicate that 33% to 50% of the population are introverts, characterised by a preference for small group interactions and a relishing of solitude.
Among those who have described themselves as introverts are Emma Watson and JK Rowling. This isn’t a bad thing: research indicates such characteristics go hand-in-hand with considered decision-making and the ability to mediate conflict. What they don’t go hand in hand with, however, is Christmas party season.
And yet, to those who know me now, my secret anti-social bent will come as a surprise — not least since I spend a good deal of my time putting myself in the precise situations I used to so painstakingly avoid. Rarely a week goes by without at least three afterwork events.
Come late November, as the festive invitations pile up, you can make that five. Yes, these are part of my job — but that’s not the only reason I go. Internal monologue notwithstanding, I’ve come to enjoy them.
To what do I owe this once unimaginable turn of events? A sudden epiphany? A personality transplant? Nope. The truth is simply that I had no choice. Aged 23 and not long out of university, I began working on The Independent’s diary page, a mischievous mix of political, social and showbiz gossip, which I would later go on to edit. My job, principally, was to go out every night of the week and speak to as many famous and important people as possible in the hope of getting a story.
Initially it was excruciating. I can vividly remember the glamorous jewellery launch where I spent an entire evening working up the courage to speak to Rosamund Pike (when I eventually did, she was the epitome of charm, and her denial of a rumoured film role made the next day’s paper). Neither will the glitzy award ceremony — at which I arrived hopelessly underdressed, having been dispatched to fill in for a colleague — fade quickly from my consciousness.
I spent most of the night hiding in the loo, which proved fortuitous when an of-the-moment celebrity couple burst in having a blazing row, an event that also made it into print.
But over time it got easier. After you’ve experienced the hot humiliation of being told to f*** off by a storied fashion designer or been stared down by the scandal-hit businessman you’ve accosted over canapés, there isn’t much that seems daunting. Party-going, it turns out, is like playing an instrument: the more you do it, the easier it gets. By the time I graduated from my diary days, I’d come to view such gatherings as a kind of entertaining game, and conversations with new people as points to be bagged. In many ways, this is how I still think of them now. The intervening years have brought further revelations. While most people don’t want to talk to gossip columnists, being one does at least give you an excuse for approaching perfect strangers. These days, attending parties as my ‘real self’ necessitates an alternative opening gambit. To this end, I find compliments work wonderfully (“I just had to ask you where your shoes/dress/bag comes from”), as do other forms of flattery. After all, who doesn’t like being told how wonderful they are? Tempting as it is to talk about the weather, by far the most interesting topic, to many people, is themselves.
In particularly tongue-tied moments I assume an interviewer role: where did they grow up, when did they realise what they wanted to do. And actually, this is how I’ve had some of my most interesting conversations, such as the time a bestselling author gave me the scoop on his forthcoming novel, or an award-winning artist told me about the inspiration behind his most recent project.
Another thing I’ve learnt is the transformative effect of clothes. The notion of power dressing may be a cliché, but not without reason.
Dressing boldly makes me feel bold, so I’ve ditched the head-to-toe black for bright colours and sequins.
A particular favourite is a bright-green number by Samantha Cameron’s Cefinn. This has an added advantage: the fact that the wife of the former PM designed it provides a good fall-back topic if chat runs dry. Clothing can be a valuable conversation starter.
An upshot of all this party-going is that I’ve had the opportunity to observe the truly sociable up close. And the thing that unites them? They’re all human, too. The real secret of the party set is that there isn’t one.
No one’s confidence is bulletproof. I’ve seen gobby television presenters wilt in the face of real-life conversation and seasoned socialites apologise for being boring. So while there are still plenty of moments when drumming up conversation is the last thing I feel like doing, I’ve come to realise that absolutely everyone feels like that occasionally. And so what? To get overly hung up on such things now strikes me as rather egotistic.
So, fellow introverts, if the prospect of December’s social merry-go-round fills you with dread, take heart: it needn’t. At any rate, January — that delicious month of staying in with only a book for company — is but a few weeks away. In the meantime, pass the champagne — I’m ready to party.
Party tricks for introverts
● Be yourself — “Authentic statements build intimacy and trust,” says Jenn Granneman, author of The Secret Lives of Introverts and founder of Introvertdear.com . “At a loud party, try, ‘Are you enjoying this? Because I’m an introvert, and this isn’t really my scene’ You may be surprised.”
● Learn from mistakes — think you made a fool of yourself? Look on the bright side. “We need to realise that if one thing doesn’t go so well, we can learn from it,” says personal and executive coach, Dr Sally Ann Law.
● Rest up — if socialising feels like an effort, allow time to recharge between events, says Granneman. “To be ‘on’, I need to go in with a full battery,” she explains.
● Stop worrying — “We’re not as important as we think we are,” says Law. “People mainly don’t stop to think much about how someone else looked or behaved as long as they had a pretty good time.”