If you're shy, a dinner party can feel like a trip to the dentist, but it doesn't have to. Socializing easily with strangers, like any other skill, can be learned with practice and patience.
No lawyer would go into the courtroom without preparing her remarks, and no student who wanted to succeed in his classes would neglect to study. Social situations are exactly the same; a little preparation goes a long way.
Having topics of conversation, especially those you feel comfortable talking about, ready in your mind is a great way to deal with your jitters. You could, for example, ask yourself what you've read, seen or experienced that you found thought provoking. Other good potential topics include your hobbies, the lighter aspects of your profession, or any new challenges you're setting for yourself.
Choose the Right People
Some people are easier to talk to than others. Choosing the right people to approach at a dinner party can help you get comfortable with learning how to make small talk. A simple method is to simply look for someone who looks friendly and open. It can also help to look for someone who looks uncomfortable as yourself. Odds are you aren't the only shy person there, and by striking up a conversation without someone to talk to, you might find a new friend.
Even if you aren't able to choose your seat for the meal, you usually can move around during the appetizers or after dinner and find someone you'll feel most comfortable speaking with.
Mind Your Body Language
Communication experts report that 90% of all communication is non-verbal. By maintaining the right demeanor, you show that you're open and friendly, which makes others feel more comfortable around you. That, in turn, can influence them to treat you with greater friendliness, which increases your own comfort level.
Good social body language includes making eye contact without staring, smiling (a universal symbol of friendliness and good-will) and avoiding a closed posture. Try to avoid crossing your arms across your chest or staring at the wall or the floor, both of which communicate disinterest or boredom. If you tend to tense up in social situations, doing some gentle stretches before getting ready can help too.
How to Break the Ice: Start with the Weather
The weather is almost always a safe topic of initial conversation, and it doesn't have to be dry in boring. A mention of local weather conditions can help open other avenues of conversation. If, for example, you say "it sure was cold today," the other person might say something like "yeah, I miss riding my bike to work" or "I've been so busy studying I didn't notice." This gives you a lead-in to more interesting topics, such as the person's job, her enjoyment of fitness, or his area of study. Consider remarks on the weather as clues to what your conversation partner wants to discuss.
Keep It Light
Just as it's important to know what to talk about, it's also crucial to know what not to talk about. It's best to avoid talking about anything intensely personal, negative, or controversial when you're just getting to know someone.
For example, avoid discussing sexuality, family issues, medical problems, or financial struggles. It's also best to avoid divorce, death, highly controversial topics like abortion, welfare, or capital punishment. Also avoid the old taboo topics of politics and religion, which are among the most emotionally charged in the entire human experience.
Admit Your Nerves
Finally, remember that nerves are nothing to be ashamed of. If you accidentally say something you wish you hadn't, say something like "I'm so sorry, I'm really nervous about being here." Almost everyone has felt uncomfortable in social situations, and rare is the person who won't forgive you for making a nerves-related blunder.
You might even found out that others are as uncomfortable as you, and end up making a few new friends.