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Special Entertaining Issue

Moving to a Party's Rhythms

Keep Circulating, Be Discreet and Stay Out of the Kitchen

November 09, 2003|Benedict Carey | Benedict Carey is a Times staff writer.

Anyone who understands the fundamental obligation of the party invitee--bring a world of good cheer and nothing less--also knows the sudden chill of being marooned in a sea of strangers, stranded between conversations, with a boatload of joviality and no place to dock it.

Loneliness is a crowded room, sometimes. Almost any big party has a few stray souls communing with their cell phones to kill time; one or two others feigning absorbed interest in some glass bowl or wooden trinket; and a desperate type staring out the window as if longing to leap through and race to freedom. They're stuck, as immobile, as conspicuously alone, and often as cold and clammy as any ice sculpture.

Ah, those chilly cherubs and angels. If only they could talk about the social behavior they observe. They might explain that, unconsciously, and to varying degrees, most of us do sense the currents, tidal pools and prevailing windbags in any large party. Our brains map out potential hazards and attractions the instant we enter. We quickly size up the character and content of the social cliques around us. And we all come equipped with a social radar sensitive enough to pick up meaningful (and sometimes sensual) nonverbal signals. Humans are wired to work a room, whether they know it or not.

"You can even hear the rhythm of a party, if you listen for it," says Calvin Morrill, a UC Irvine sociologist and co-editor of a book titled "Together Alone," a compendium of new research on how people behave in public settings, including bars and parties, that's due out next year. "It's like a wave breaking on the beach: The noise comes to a crescendo, then quiets, as if everyone is collectively catching their breath."

In the decades since the passing of sociologist Erving Goffman, who founded the study of self-presentation, a handful of researchers have made a career of observing how people behave in social gatherings. At the most basic level, they've found that it takes as little as one-hundredth of a second for the brain to notice friendly and unfriendly faces in a crowd. This snapshot is crucial to social function. In one experiment, psychologists showed that people with severe social anxiety tended to focus on the cold expressions, at the expense of the warm ones, heightening their anxiety. Most others tend to flag the attractive, friendly faces and instantly plot some advance, usually indirect, says Teresa Rose, a Kansas City psychologist who studies group behavior. "This is all happening before conscious awareness," she says, "so you're moving before you really know where you're going."

Admittedly, the direction you go is partly a function of conscious goals. Those who've come to the party to find a partner or a date will "map" the place differently than those who've come in search of good conversation or a business connection; each person's social agenda can override subconscious signaling, social psychologists say. Still, the same principles of attraction, rejection and social navigation apply. Flirtation timing and context are crucial, whether you're romancing an attractive stranger or a potential client.

Either way, a common first destination is the host or hostess, of course; but a bartender, a child, even a pregnant woman may be the first stop. These are what Goffman called "open persons," because at a party they're considered approachable without introduction, making them typically the center of a fluid cluster of people, some of whom will strike up a conversation independently. At a large gathering of mostly strangers, informal groups tend to form around particularly charismatic individuals, too, or around a shared identity--banker types here, bike-messenger demographic over there. These groups are more stable than the scrum around open persons and tend to include no more than five to seven people, Morrill says. "More than that and it turns into a performer and an audience, and people suddenly become self-conscious," he says.

As the party catches its breath, these groups tend to subtract and add members--and the attentive solo sailor can find a berth.

That is, if the group allows access. In a recent observational study, to be published in Morrill's collection, researchers at the University of Arizona compared the permeability of cliques in six popular straight bars to those in six well-known gay bars. Compared to gays, heterosexual men were significantly less likely to welcome an outsider into an informal three- to five-person group. Sociologists say that when friends arrive together at a party as a tight group, the boundaries are tighter still: The clique may form an exclusive party within the party, closed even to affable types who make a tactful approach.

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