The Mingle

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I was thinking the other day about the art of mingling. You know what I’m talking about – that brief interaction period that’s not really a conversation, was never intended to be a conversation, and has a strong likelihood of resulting in co-minglers denying they ever met you after it’s over.

I don’t much like the mingling process. I am not good at it. For me, mingling is not a natural act. I tend to overthink “The Mingle”… and then about mid-mingle I feel a general sense of panic that stems from imagining that my part of “The Mingle” seems awkward, rehearsed, canned or irrelevant. As unnerving as that moment can be, the post-mingle phase is by far the worst.  For those of you who are not familiar with the phases of “The Mingle” process, let me explain.

Phase I is the pre-mingle phase. This is when you consider who to mingle with, and it typically takes place while you pretend to admire the host’s draperies or pick a piece of dog hair from your sweater vest.

The actual mingle phase – Phase II – is when you attempt to engage strangers in shallow conversation without any formal invitation. The object of Phase II is to reduce the gap of personal time prior to the opening of the buffet line.

The post-mingle phase – Phase III – is the period of time when you typically sample the host’s seven-layer dip … which is the urgent reason you used for terminating Phase II. Unfortunately, Phase III frequently triggers self-loathing and paranoia once you realize that during Phase II you told three complete strangers that you shave your house cat when the ambient temperature exceeds 84 degrees Fahrenheit.

As with most instances where I feel inferior (the list is long and distinguished), I rarely back down from an opportunity to improve. As such, I aggressively committed myself to improving my mingling skills.

My “Mastering the Mingle” plan involved exposing myself to as many mingling opportunities as possible. This strategy stemmed from a combination of two things: (1) the belief that practice makes perfect, and (2) a passion for seven-layer dip.

Somehow in my passion-fueled obsession, I convinced myself that being exposed to mingling sessions where I know absolutely nothing about the subject matter or its participants would somehow accelerate the development of my desired skill set.

I don’t know why I was convinced that this method would be beneficial. Perhaps it evolved from watching too many survival-type reality shows or the ongoing suspicion that there is a small metal plate in my head. Nevertheless, my first official test-mingle occurred in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel at the Annual West Coast Wormology Convention. Not being familiar with wormology, I felt this convention would be a great opportunity to try out my forced socialization boot camp idea. As I looked around the room in search of a potential control group, I shared my appreciation of the draperies with the maître d’ and then picked a rather long dog hair from my polo vest – so far, so good. I decided on the guy with the pocket protector who was talking to a fellow wearing a nametag that read, “Hello, my name is Norman.”  Determined, I crossed the room with an air of contrived confidence. My strategy was to attempt a light-hearted introduction using wormology-type humor as an ice breaker.  I approached the group and said, “Norman, can you or your friend with the number two pencil collection tell me which session is discussing the effect of large quantities of gummy worms on the average juvenile attention span?”

While I was pretty sure this test-mingle would not be interpreted as rehearsed, canned or irrelevant, I could tell by Norman’s expression that it definitely achieved a designation of awkward. Feeling somewhat outcast among this self-proclaimed group of “worm wizards”, I comforted myself with the seven-layer dip and reflected on the failed combination of personal sarcasm and subject-related humor during Phase II.

At some point during my experiments, I decided that my mingling abilities might shine brighter in situations where there was some element of familiarity. Perhaps this revelation came to me at the local Plumbers’ Union Backflow Prevention Convention or maybe it was the Retired Lumberjacks Winter Jamboree. Regardless, at some point, I changed my strategy and decided to sign up for a forum that showcased area non-profits. This time I opted to forgo the sarcasm and content-related humor. I chose a nametag, grabbed a permanent black sharpie and wrote YMCA in bold letters.

Averting my eyes from the draperies and making a mental note to ignore stray dog hairs on my jacket, I approached the first group of co-minglers in my path. There was a new-found spring in my step as I strode resolutely across the room … I was in full blown mingle mode. Perhaps it was my name badge, but I immediately sensed acceptance from my co-minglers as they welcomed me into their pre-buffet huddle.

“Look … here’s the YMCA … I’m Hospice, to your left is the Boy Scouts and the guy eye-balling the seven-layer dip is Red Cross,”  said the pleasant fellow extending his hand. Whoa … don’t look now, but I think the guy I met at the Annual Ethanol Conversion Council meeting last week just walked in the door. At that moment, I felt a sense of homecoming. It was like Tom Bodett was whispering in my ear that he was, “leaving the light on for me.” At last, I had found the mojo of “The Mingle”. My chest swelled as I leaned in, eager to converse with my new-found peeps. Winking slyly, as if to give the impression of inside information, I said, “I don’t know about you guys, but in this heat, the first thing I do is shave my cat.”