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Forced Mingling At Social Functions

I’d like to know what EHell thinks about forced mingling.

Years ago, when our kids were small, my husband and I attended a family reunion that was held in a large dining hall. The four of us (me, husband, two little girls) were sitting with his family and chatting happily, waiting for the dinner to be served. Suddenly, the hostess stood up and announced merrily “Don’t get too comfy, folks! We’re going to mix it up a little so that you’re not all talking to the same people you can talk to any other day.” She then proceeded to lay out the “rules”. I don’t remember the specifics, but they involved getting up and moving two chairs to the left, or something.

My husband and I eyed each other in dismay, and I said, “That’s not going to happen. If we suddenly get up and leave our kids, they’ll get scared and start to cry.” So, we stayed put. Along came the hostess and, wagging her finger at us, she said, “Now now, you two! Didn’t you hear the rules? Time to move!” We said, politely, “Sorry, but that won’t be possible. Our daughters will get upset.” Hostess looked very put out, but she didn’t insist, fortunately.

That brings us to today. My department recently moved to a new building, and someone just sent out a lunch invitation. As soon as I read the words, “In order to ensure folks don’t just mingle with the people they already know, there will be two sets of randomized groupings”, my heart sank. I’m an introvert, and even if I weren’t, I absolutely hate someone treating me like a child and saying “Go sit over there and make friends.” 0909-16

In etiquette, it is perfectly acceptable for the host/ess to arrange seating around the table where married couples are separated in order to facilitate conversation.  When attending a dinner party, for example, the host is the conversational gatekeeper introducing guests to each other and getting topics started that may be of mutual interest to newly introduced guests.   I recently hosted a “mystery mixer” organized by my church where guests do not know who the host or other guests are.   I seated couples in such a way around the table where they were opposite their spouse/date but not seated directly next to them.   That way there is no “pocket” of conversation between two people like a husband and wife but rather everyone is encouraged to engage in talking with everyone.   We had a great time!  Lots of laughter!

In my opinion, being an introvert is not a good reason to be excused from the obligations one has as a guest.  When invited to a dinner party, guests do not get a pass to limit their social interactions to only immediate friends or family but should make an effort to introduce oneself and contribute to the discussions.   One of my adult daughters is very introverted and she has developed a strategy for talking with strangers. She realizes that people love to talk about themselves so she asks questions that uses that bit of human nature to her advantage.   “Are you from here?”   “Do you have family nearby?”

{ 153 comments }

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  • abanana September 15, 2016, 8:46 pm

    I slightly disagree with admin on this one. I am very introverted and am beyond uncomfortable when forced to socialize with people I do not know. Uncomfortable as in high anxiety, almost in tears, close to panic attack. Now, in small groups I am ok. But I abhor situations, mainly at work, where there are “games” forcing you to socialize. If I were invited to a party where I either did not know many people attending or knew I would not get to sit next to my husband/friend or talk to at least one person I was comfortable with, I probably would not attend. Now, if it were a gathering where I knew many of the attendees I would have the best time. And I would not mind meeting new people because I would be “in my comfort zone.” I would have those safe people-people I knew and was close to-around me.
    I don’t know, maybe I need psychological help. But I’ve always been this way, my father has always been this way, my brother this way, my grandparents….. I do believe it is a trait. Is it an excuse? Probably. But it is what it is and, while I have gotten better with age, I’m not likely to change completely in this lifetime. And frankly, I’m ok with that. But I am extremely proud and glad my daughter is the exact opposite of me. She will do well in life, and better than me. : )

  • Anon September 15, 2016, 9:27 pm

    I wouldn’t mind if I was told ahead of time and it was a place I REALLY wanted to go.

    But I would be incredibly annoyed if it was at a place I had to go that I wanted to leave and they were forcing me to do a bunch of things I was uncomfortable with.

    I’m an introvert too, but part of the problem is I hardly ever meet anyone with the same interests as me and I get really bored when I hear the same questions being asked, asking the same myself, etc. And these are relatives!

    I don’t mind the table randomizing, but people have to realize that it is extremely hard to go and enter conversations randomly, even if you are listening in. I mean do those people who are talking want random person (me for example) joining in? Most of the time I believe not.

    • Pat September 20, 2016, 1:37 pm

      You might just find it interesting to talk to someone who has different interests than you do. You might just learn something new. Also, it should be standard practice to include people who are seated with you in conversations at a social gathering even if you don’t know them. If a person sees that someone is being left out and doesn’t make some effort to include them or rebuffs their effort to join the conversation, then that is rude in my book.

  • Rebecca September 15, 2016, 11:33 pm

    I think it’s quite rude to attend an event like this and then only be willing to hang out with your small clique of people you know well. If mingling makes you uncomfortable, think how uncomfortable it is for the person who shows up alone or with one other person and finds nobody there is willing to break out of their clique and talk to them. Disclaimer: I’m an introvert, and can be shy too. But it’s good to break out of your comfort zone sometimes, and if you don’t want to take part in the party, don’t go.

    • Tracy W September 18, 2016, 2:54 pm

      Agreed. People often throw big get togethers because they want to bring people together. It’s rude to go to a party and neglect your host’s interests and feelings.

    • fixitgirl September 20, 2016, 7:08 am

      Another introvert here. I totally agree! And this was a family reunion! The whole point of an event like this is to meet other people (unlike attending a wedding or bar mitzvah where you are there to observe and celebrate a ceremonial event). If they had two young children with them, there was nothing stopping them from moving with their kids are letting them sit with their grandparents– that was a lame excuse.

      It is not as easy for introverts but it’s like exercise: sometimes you just need to suck it up and get out there. Just make sure you carve out whatever relief you need in terms of alone time to recharge. For my husband and I, that means returning home to our quiet house after a party and relaxing with a good book and silence.

  • InTheEther September 16, 2016, 12:18 am

    Not even touching the introvert bit. Personally, I HATE being told what to do. Being given a task at work or an event I’ve volunteered for, happily. Needing to follow a process, fine. Helpful advice, I appreciate it. But once people start telling me what personal decisions I should be making, like who I should be speaking with, the fun is done for me. Double down on that if I’m being talked down to. There’s just that little voice in the back of my head reminding me that I’m being forced, even if it’s something I would have been doing anyway.

    In the first example, that was poorly handled by the host. Yes, OP was seated with her in-laws, but what about cousin Jimmy who was reconnecting with aunt Pam who he hadn’t seen in eight years? And now they are being jerked apart because the host is treating everyone like preschoolers. The host basically outright announced “I know all of you won’t do this reunion right, so do as I say.”

    In the second instance, any time corporate tries to do team bonding it’s eyerolling. You don’t need to be “friends” with co-workers to work with them. Actually, it may be preferable to keep some distance. There have been actual studies done that prove that corporate bonding exercises are a joke. One large factor of which is that you could be doing something productive, or at least enjoyable, but now you’re stuck going through the paces because some overpaid idiot you’ll never meet listened to another overpaid idiot who used words like synergy in a pseudo psychological speech.

    Setting things up to encourage mingling organically like the Admin suggested is one thing. But for me there is nothing more boring than just going through everyone and repeating “My name’s X, I do X, I am/am not married, I have X kids, I live X” ad nauseum.

    • bern821 September 16, 2016, 12:47 pm

      InTheEther – I LOVE your description of corporate ‘team building’! I hate that nonsense too, and always chuckle over the massive waste of time and money. ‘Synergy’ my eye – I’m not doing a ‘trust fall’! 🙂
      Funny story related to that: My boss announced ‘off-site team building exercises’ and I was the most eye-rollingly vocal about how dumb I thought it was. The day comes and much to my embarrassment and everyone else’s delight, it was a ruse – I was in fact attending my off-site bridal shower attended by all my awesome co-workers! I felt like an idiot and everyone else got to laugh at my expense (good naturedly of course!). My manager couldn’t WAIT to rub it in my face! 🙂

      • Just Call Me J September 17, 2016, 3:29 am

        I got dropped during a trust-fall at summer camp when I was a kid. On purpose or because they under-estimated just how heavy I’d be I’ll never know… but I absolutely REFUSE to do them now.

        I don’t think they’re commonly done as “team building” these days due to the potential for lawsuits.

    • Rebecca September 16, 2016, 6:53 pm

      Agree with you about the team-building exercises – NOTHING instills a bad attitude in me more than those. Everyone with forced smiles pretending it’s fun – it’s not. And I don’t see how it remotely helps work relationships. You either work well with your coworkers, or you don’t, and no amount of silly tricks in groups of 5 are going to change that. And yes, please, abolish the word “synergy” from the English language unless you are working in the biological sciences; in business the term is like nails on a chalkboard.

      • JenM September 18, 2016, 11:17 am

        Or you’re talking about the 80’s show “Jem”. Her computer was named Synergy. 😛

  • Charliesmum September 16, 2016, 6:29 am

    Personally I think if you are hosting a party or a reunion or whatever, and you want people to mingle, then don’t have a sit-down meal. Have cocktails and nibbles, and set up the room so people are standing and moving. In my experience, if you have a party and plunk out a chair per person, then people sit in those chairs and don’t move.

  • cocacola35 September 16, 2016, 7:34 am

    I am very introverted, but enjoy going to large parties for a little while as long as I can move about and talk to new people at my own pace. I do have my “stock questions” and conversation starters, but sometimes when those run out that is the end of the conversation and I can make a polite exit before the dreaded awkwardness and silence creeps in. As long as I can retreat to my comfort zone periodically (my husband or people I already know) I do well. That said I would absolutely hate assigned seating at a sit-down meal where I cannot move about and would consider not attending if this was the case. First off, it reminds me of not too pleasant childhood memories at school where I had to sit in assigned seats at lunch time away from friends and often with people I did not like for the whole year. As an adult, I never want to be told who I will eat with again. The people I’m assigned to sit with may be perfectly nice, but if I run out of stock questions and the conversation stops I start to panic and cannot politely excuse myself to retreat back to someone I know to recenter myself. The conversation with the stranger feels like it has to be forced because we are stuck sitting with each other for a period of time. It makes me feel very awkward and anxious which is not a good time for me or the other person if we are sitting in silence for stretches of time.

  • Karen G September 16, 2016, 7:43 am

    Last year my sister and I were going on a bus tour of Ireland. I was going to meet her in a hub and then fly to Ireland together. Unfortunately, a storm kept me grounded in my city. I told my extremely introvert sister to go ahead and get to Ireland and I’d get there when I got there. My cousin’s husband was going to be on the tour, so I asked him to make sure she didn’t hole up in the room until I got there. She ended up going on a walking tour of Dublin with six or seven complete strangers and had a WONDERFUL time. So, sometimes, getting out of your comfort zone can be a good thing.

  • julie September 16, 2016, 9:49 am

    In the cases mentioned, the point of each gathering is for people to get to know people they don’t already know. A reunion presumably reunites distant family members. No purpose is served if you only meet immediate family members you see all the time. A mixer is to mix. A mandatory lunch meeting at work intended to allow people from different parts of a workplace to get to know each other will presumably have some structure to facilitate that. Being able to interact politely with others in the workplace is a rather basic expectation. If you’re an introvert who doesn’t want to interact with people at work, it’s reasonable to take a job that doesn’t require much of that. You don’t want to be in sales or politics. But it is reasonable in a professional setting that employers expect employees to talk with other employees, at least occasionally. For the purely social engagements, if you don’t want to reunite, don’t go to the reunion; if you don’t want to mix, don’t go to the mixer. But unless you have a disability for which not attending a work function would be a reasonable accommodation, being forced to chat with coworkers once in a blue moon does not seem unreasonable to me.
    With the reunion game the LW mentioned, I think demurring to move on the basis of not being able to leave your children unattended was fine. But it sounds like you attended with the idea of not having to talk to anyone but your husband and his parents. As a fellow introvert, I can understand the reluctance, but perhaps it would work to plan coping strategies, ways to take breaks, walks, nap times for the children, etc., or simply have your spouse and children attend without you. In the situation (it sounds like your two children have two parents) you could have each taken one to move around the room. I agree it all sounds awkward and I wouldn’t like this game either. However it all sounds like normal social or work expectations and coping strategies might be a better approach than feeling like you are a victim of over the top expectations.
    Re-reading the letter before posting I see the work lunch described as a “invitation.” It’s not clear if it’s social, which you could decline, or a mandatory work event. Are you getting paid to attend? If not, just say you have to wash your hair (obviously insert more modern euphemism) and decline. Can you ask around to clarify? It would probably be better for work relationships not to go than to go and not participate.

  • Val September 16, 2016, 1:18 pm

    I’m of two minds. I get that the host can decide how they want to seat their guests, and if they want everyone to play along with their games its their prerogative. I would be more concerned with wanting my guests to feel as comfortable as possible, but some people would rather shake things up and thats ok too. What I absolutely disagree with, however, is a host trying to seperate parents from their children in the name of mingling. Small children don’t need to mingle with virtual strangers, related or not. Going out with children isn’t a simple undertaking; making sure that they’re fed and suitably entertained, and not two steps away from a meltdown. For a host to act like its more important to make small talk than to make sure their kids are safe and well cared for is incredibly tone deaf.

    • Pat September 20, 2016, 10:33 am

      I think OP went a little overboard with the flat refusal to move. Each parent could have taken a child with him/her and made some effort to mingle. I also don’t accept the “I’m an introvert” excuse. We all have to be pleasant and make small talk when we don’t feel like it. You’ll never learn how to do it if you don’t give it some practice. As far as extreme anxiety, perhaps some professional counseling would be helpful.

      • Sarah September 21, 2016, 2:03 pm

        I wholeheartedly disagree. When you have children, meal times especially those away from home, can be a challenge, food needs to be cut, they may need help eating, getting cleaned up etc. These functions are always easier when parents can work as a team. I’m sure there was plenty of time for socializing after the meal was eaten. It certainly did not need to be enforced at that very moment. If the host was so hellbent of mixing everyone up they could have assigned seats as done at a wedding and grouped family units at tables with other family units/couples. I agree with previous posters who said the host comes off somewhat tone deaf, perhaps a little out of touch with their guests comfort. Plus, nothing shuts people down to trying new things faster than telling them they don’t have a choice.

  • BMS September 16, 2016, 4:11 pm

    On the one hand I understand wanting to be a good hostess and making sure people meet each other. But I also hate enforced socializing. I think that if the hostess asks once and there are no small children involved, it is probably polite for the guest to cooperate a bit. But if your guest really doesn’t want to rearrange themselves, leave them be and don’t nag them.

  • Fifthmarch September 17, 2016, 1:44 am

    “She’ll cry if I leave her!” was the go-to excuse for my sociophobic Mom for a long time, till I was 10. Every wedding, every gathering, she kept me away from the crowd, in a corner. Then it changed to “She doesn’t like to mingle, so I’m staying with her.” because that was true – she had instilled severe social anxiety into me by then. It took me a lot of effort to break out of that conditioning.

    OP – it’s one thing to tell the hostess – “No, I do not want to.” – that’s your prerogative, no excuses required. Putting the blame squarely on your children’s shoulders, especially when you each could have taken one of your daughters with you – really not done.

  • AnaMaria September 17, 2016, 9:38 am

    I can see the admin’s points but I have to respectfully disagree. There’s a difference between a meet-and-greet event or a networking event where you are expecting to be meeting new people, and a dinner party where I’m expecting to catch up with friends. If a new person or couple shows up, I’d much rather invite them to come join my friends then be forced to mingle with the hostess and make awkward small talk (if this is a social gathering with teenagers, that’s a different story- but even introverted teens need a break!).

    As far as splitting up married couples- unless you are doing his and her activities, why?! When I was single, I would have felt horribly uncomfortable meeting a married man without his wife present and being told to “get to know him,” and I had no problem meeting a couple together. Now, when my boyfriend and I go to social gatherings, we might naturally split off for a bit but we seek out people to socialize with together. If a married couple is so anti-social that they come to a gathering and only want to talk to each other (to the point where they snub other guests who try to mingle with them), frankly, i’d rather leave them to themselves than try to make small talk when my company was unwanted.

    On a final note, social anxiety cannot be “cured” by forced mixers at a party. It is cruel to expect someone to jump into such a situation when it probably took everything in them just to walk in to the party.

    • Tracy W September 19, 2016, 6:32 am

      Social anxiety is not that uncommon. If it’s hard for you to mingle with new people, please consider that it might well be hard for the new people to join a bunch of people who all already know each other.

      (Also, out of interest, where do you live that you’d feel anxious meeting a married man in a public room at a party without his spouse? Or is that just a personal idiosyncracy?)

      If someone is suffering from social anxiety but wants to take baby steps to overcome it, I think the obligation on them is to recognise that social anxiety is probably not unique to their own selves, and to take steps to assuage other people’s own social anxiety: it can be hard for a socially anxious person to tell the difference between someone avoiding them from fear and someone deliberately snobbing them (and who isn’t socially anxious?) If walking into a party is extremely tough on you, but you still want to try, check beforehand with the host that it’s okay for you to use their party as a test run, and realise they have the right to say no.

  • Cheezecake September 17, 2016, 6:20 pm

    Why is it so important I talk to people I don’t want to talk to?

    Went to a wedding recently where my siblings and I were seated with the groom’s friends, and it was miserable. We had nothing in common with them, yet we were forced to all sit and stare at each other for three painful hours while the people we actually wanted to talk to, relatives we hadn’t seen in years, were seated on the far side of the room. But we weren’t allowed to go mingle with them, because it was “good to get to know new people.” In the end my entire family fled the wedding as soon as politely possible because it was just so… painful.

    Is it so awful I have preferences of who I talk to?

    • Tracy W September 19, 2016, 6:03 am

      You had something in common with them: the bride and the groom. The groom is joining your family, wouldn’t you want to meet his connections?

      (Not to mention: you have nothing in common with someone? Wow, they must be living a fascinatingly different life.)

      • Anon September 19, 2016, 9:04 am

        Groom’s friends are not really people that Cheezecake would have seen a whole ton, if at all. Heck, they didn’t even say how they were related to the bride and groom. It could have been an out-of-town wedding even!

        And also Tracy W, you are being a complete jerk. You can absolutely have nothing in common with other people. I have tons of relatives I have nothing in common with.

        None of the same hobbies
        I’m not married
        I don’t have kids
        Cats aren’t popular in my family
        no none of us went to the same high school
        no, our jobs really have nothing in common
        Hows not living in the same place?
        etc.

        I mean some of them the only common thing is we’re somehow related.

        • Anon September 19, 2016, 9:20 am

          Also before you say it yes, this is after I’ve talked to them a bit etc. and asked all of the usual questions.

          I have 17 cousins and not one of them I am at all close to because I’m quite different from all of them, including the 3+ year age gaps.

        • Tracy W September 23, 2016, 3:46 pm

          Yes, one of the purposes of a big wedding is to meet the family and connections of the new spouse. Yes, even at an out-of-town wedding.

          And, if you truly have nothing in common with someone then you can look on that as a great opportunity to learn how someone very different to you lives.

    • Library Diva September 19, 2016, 11:56 am

      What method did they use to prevent you from going to talk to your family members? At every wedding I’ve ever attended, people are up and mingling once dinner ends.

  • koolchicken September 18, 2016, 12:34 am

    When a person is a child, they’re often plopped into a new setting and told “go make friends”. As a result, making friends as a child isn’t that hard. Well, it can be hard if you struggle in social settings, but it’s not hard from a “where do I find people to befriend” standpoint.

    I am constantly hearing adults say they struggle to make friends. That they long for the childhood days of “these five kids came to the park today so I guess they’re you’re new friends”. Seems like you’re lucky enough to find yourself in these “forced friendship” situations, and instead of feeling grateful, you’d rather complain? Why? So many people would be pleased at the opportunity to meet new people and maybe hit it off with a few. The expectation that you’re there to make friends, it just takes so much pressure off of you (and the other people). Sounds great.

  • iwadasn September 19, 2016, 8:06 pm

    If you go to a social gathering, expect to engage in social behavior. If you want to just talk to your immediate family, then just stay home with them.

  • chechina September 22, 2016, 8:40 am

    I am an introvert as well, and I agree with the Admin that if you are invited to an event, you have an obligation to be a good guest. That includes making an effort to talk to the other people at the event. I realize that this will sound condescending in a post, but it might help to remind yourself that the party was not thrown in your honour, and the other people there also have social fears.

    I agree that these forced-socialization activities can be a bit awkwardly done (see: family reunion host), but they happen because people are not doing it themselves. Why don’t you try to find another shy person sitting in the corner and say hello? Why don’t you find something to compliment about a stranger? Give yourself some small goals and work up to it.

    (As a caveat, I am not talking about social anxiety as a medical condition. I think that would confuse the issue in this case.)

  • MPW1971 September 24, 2016, 12:41 pm

    Being able to communicate with strangers in social or semi-social situations – is a necessary thing in the modern world. We have to deal and interact with people we don’t know all the time. Having travelled for many years, I’ve learned how to read a person’s mood and body language to avoid forcing them into discomfort. When I fly I always choose a window seat, never get up, rarely eat, and sleep through the flight about 9 times out of 10. I don’t force conversation on the other person, but I hope that my appearance and mood aren’t so terrifying that people growl or recoil at being greeted. I’m not expecting anything more than courtesy, and while I am sensitive to introverts and those who have anxiety because I have those characteristics myself, I really think that people need to learn how to manage their situation so as to be polite. Turning one’s back is not an acceptable response to me asking “Would you like me to close window shade?”. That’s about as non-threatening of a conversation item as can be.
    I’m not always an extrovert – I have flashbacks to being a child or teenager, being fat, clumsy, oddly dressed, poor, and without that “gift” for being popular – not wearing the latest and greatest fashions was a necessity for being cool and popular, and those who weren’t were often relegated to the role of “silent support”, if not the subject of ridicule. I don’t like groups who assume a certain tone of privilege or snobbishness, thinking that everyone at the gathering must be of like mind and background. For that reason I dread certain events with “forced mixing”, but I can at least maintain civility.
    My point is that it is necessary to put on a certain face for certain situations – to act interested and supportive and to be polite, especially in social situations for work. It reflects badly on one’s character, and one’s employer, to go to a training course and only grumble about the food, the uncomfortable chairs, and the poor presentation skills of the hosts. It is necessary to act that way – call it a lie if you will – but there is a time and place for complaints and that’s not it.

  • Jessica September 26, 2016, 10:26 pm

    I totally disagree with Admin here, I am an introvert, to the point I would probably have an anxiety attack if I was put in this situation. Fair enough if they let the guests know the situation beforehand and I could decline the invite but to spring it on someone is horrific.