The situation:

You’re at some loose social gathering– a party, a church potluck, a national conference during the “networking” hour– any large room with lots of people standing around. You walk in the room, and everyone seems to be in small clusters of various sizes. How do you politely join any of these groups?

Step One: Look for a group that seems more open. Some signs of this are people spaced loosely, people talking at a normal tone of voice or louder, people looking around and smiling. (If they’re whispering, or standing shoulder-to-shoulder, or not looking at anything outside their group, they’re more likely to be having a private conversation, and won’t want anyone else to join them.)

Step Two: Move close enough to the group so that you can hear their topic of conversation. This is tricky, because if you spend too long doing this, you’ll be hovering and eavesdropping, and that makes people nervous.

Step Three: Wait for a slight pause in the conversation, then quickly add a short, on-topic comment.

Step Four: If there are any strangers in the group, immediately after making your comment, briefly introduce yourself. This can consist of your name, and one other appropriate detail about yourself (usually something like where you’re from or what company you’re with). Hopefully, the others in the group will also introduce themselves to you.

Step Five: Continue to play a role in the conversation. Most of the time you should be listening to what others say, but you should occasionally offer your own comments, especially when you can affirm and build on what someone else has to say.

Here’s a way this could play out:

Your job has sent you to attend a national conference that trains people who do extraditions. After a formal dinner, there’s a social hour on the hotel’s deck. When you walk out there, you see lots of clusters containing 3-7 people. You stop at the table and get a soda, then start walking among the groups on the deck. You hear people in one of the groups talking about how long they had to travel to get there. You turn to them, wait for the person who’s speaking to finish their sentence, and then you say, “I was lucky, my flight was only ninety-minutes.” Someone says, “That’s nice. Jan over here is from Washington, and she had two connections to get here.” You say, “Oh, that’s awful. I’m Fred, by the way, from Kansas.” The others say their names and where they’re from. Then someone says something about one of the presentations today, and you give the others a chance to comment, and then say something about it, too.