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10 Social Skills Everyone Can Master

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We’ve all watched them, in wonder: the happy-go-skippy social butterflies who are on everyone's must-invite guest list. They love the world and the world loves them back. What's their terrible secret?

First, it's no secret. Making personal connections (including fun and breezy, whenever, wherever, undemanding relationships) is about regularly putting your good intentions into action and knowing that enthusiasm trumps experience, hands down. Just master a few social tricks and get out there and use them. Here are my top 10. Pick a couple to test drive, and as your confidence grows, tackle the rest!

Bust a Mood

To have fun, you've got to be fun. Sure, sometimes we are just not "in the mood" to be social, but I know you know how to fake it. And here's the weird part: Scientific research proves that putting a smile on your face will actually conjure the desire to feel like smiling. (And we know that smiling, like yawning, is contagious, so do it.)

So if an impending event is filling your stomach with unsocial butterflies, just interrupt the broadcast with some happy thoughts—your wedding day, one of your epic childhood events or your own children's epic events. Your GREatest golf shot, some fantastic trick the dog did that proves his human intelligence and your favorite flavor of ice cream all made into a parfait of pure, unapologetic joy. Even something like, you know, how GREat your backside looks in your favorite jeans (or your favorite someone else's backside). Hold and concentrate!

If your mind wanders back into negative territory, redirect it back to Happytown. Oh, and remember to wear something colorful that helps pick up the mood and is better than a frowny-neutral gray, black or brown.

Create a Memory

Do you have "blank canvas" jitters when walking into a party? So hide behind a camera. Taking snapshots is one of the quickest icebreakers in a social situation. Also, the mad flashbulb frenzy makes everyone feel like an instant celebrity. And the cool part is distributing your catch later. Photos are the most cherished heirlooms, and with digital photography, you've got a billion chances to get the most amazing shot. The key is to avoid being a nudge, constantly telling everyone to "get together." Just hold the camera above the crowd and snap wildly, randomly, intensely—the fun is seeing what you get when you upload the shots.

Might sound like a total yawn, but spending some quality time with your camera manual is your best bet for getting the best images. Features like "portrait mode" and "continuous shot" make kids and animals easier targets. Adjusting the shutter speed allows you to capture movement minus blur. Use your auto-focus to get all the faces in the frame.

Back at the ranch, play around with visual variations, like the black-and-white mode, or enhance your shots with brightness and contrast features (as we like to say, "fix it in post"). But most importantly, spread your photos around, ASAP, using your favorite photo-sharing site, like Flickr, Picasa or Shutterfly.

Rock Your Specialty

Claim ownership of a "specialty" you love to whip up and keep the inGREdients on hand. Whether it's after the kids' baseball game or the place for the late-late, after-after party, make your address the crew's place to be (last-minute guests always welcome).

Consider a meal that rocks around the clock—for example, a well-made omelet is delicious morning, noon and night. Keep eggs, butter, salt and pepper stocked, along with your an eight-inch nonstick pan. Whatever you have on hand that day makes the plat-du-jour—cheese, herbs, ham, onions, even crème fraîche, smoked salmon and caviar! The Web is loaded with advice, recipes and obscure techniques for styling your specialty—even desserts!

Extend the concept, if you like, to a house cocktail that swings all ways as well. The classic Bellini is simple and inexpensive. Or you can jazz it up with Pomegranate and Cranberry. In any case, you should always have something sparkling within reach!

Introduce Yourself

A sudden attack of shyness when you don't know a soul in the joint is quite possibly the most universal human experience. But walk through the door expecting to have a GREat time, and you will. Prep yourself for every situation by reminding yourself that something new and surprising and amazing can always happen—like falling madly in like at first sight with a new friend or simpatico business partner or finding that missing clue to some mystery of the world that you're trying to solve.

Ease into the situation by relying on tried-and-true ice-breaking methods that date back centuries: Walk up to someone, thrust out your hand, smile and say, "Hello, I'm _____ , how are you?" Etiquette was not designed as torture; it's a ritual that helps you and everyone else survive these awful, awkward, terrifying social encounters.

A few conversation sparkers will help you cruise the room; but understand that enthusiasm for life is the magnetic force that attracts others, not your résumé, your expensive new possessions or your encyclopedic knowledge about an obscure topic. No one is impressed by a been-there, done-that, know-it-all, hate-it-all or have-it-all. Just know a few things about a few things and keep them at the ready in your pocket.

Share intriguing observations as a start: "I just went to a baseball game last week, and I'm wondering why the viewing area is called the stands when you actually sit in them." Even better, issue a question: "I'm taking a straw poll. Was learning cursive in school really necessary?"

Last, always remember you're not the only mingle-phobe in the room. At your next get-together, make yourself useful by swooping in and giving aid and comfort to the other guests who are having blatantly rocky starts.

Know How to Play

As in, play a social game for fun, leave obligations behind and have a ball! When I was a kid, my parents told me to pick an instrument and pick a sport. It wasn't about learning how to win or lose or building college application activities, it was about getting me involved in the world, involved with people, building social experiences, building relationships.

A little friendly competition is a wonderful way to cement friendships. So whether it's Texas Hold 'Em, mah-jongg, bunco, Scrabble, darts, bocce or golf, find or start a pick-up game and make it a regular thing. If you've been itching to play music, start a little skiffle band. You don't have to rock a stadium to get satisfaction; playing with friends for friends is where it's at. (Actually, it would be nice if could rock your local old folks' home.)

Short on conventional musicianship? The digital world came to your rescue with the Guitar Hero and Rock Band video games. Short on the game box setup? Low-tech is just as much fun. Obtain a Led Zeppelin record and host an air guitar shred-off. Recruit an air drummer and an air bass player. In short, get the band back together!

Sometimes Be an Ear, Not a Mouth

I know, we love the sound of our own voices, but once in a while, one of our friends will really need us just to listen. Sometimes the conversation might be a lot of give and take, advice and speculation, soul-searching and puzzle-solving, but sometimes you just need to be a giant ear for an hour. My husband says he can tell when I need to get my words out; he just lets me talk and talk and talk, while he inserts the occasional "Wow" and "Oh, I didn't know that" and "Really?" I've had conversations where I barely said two words and then received a thank-you the next day ("We had a GREat time together!"). Huh?

Experts in the human condition call this "active listening." You'll be most helpful if you can remain nonjudgmental (i.e., don't visualize your friend's troubles through your own—perhaps clogged—filters). Think of it as a little respite from our duty to pay a lot of attention to ourselves. Be supportive! The time will definitely come when you need it. Again and again.

Share the Wealth

No, not things that cost a ton of dough. I mean, give the things that cost you very little but are of massive value to others. Starting with compliments, all the way up to giving your time to your community. You'll feel like part of something bigger, something wonderfully social.

Certain occasions do call for a gorgeously wrapped little gift, and I am always, always, always looking for a few clever ideas to keep under my hat, the kind of gifts that work in multiple situations—birthday, get well, et al. For example, I love the book The Proust Questionnaire. It's based on a century-old fad, made famous by the classic French writer Marcel Proust. Modern journalists often use the list of questions as a model for interviews; you may have seen it in action on the back page of Vanity Fair and on Bravo's Inside the Actor's Studio.

The book's a GREat gift for hostesses, friends and family. There are blank questionnaires in the back of the book as well. For quick infusion of sugar, grab a silver whistle and attach a note to the gift that reads: "I super-like you, I hope I don't blow it!"

Join the (Digital) Mainstream

Some of us are addicted to Twit-book, and we know who we are. For those on the opposite side of the aisle, those who live in perpetual fear and suspicion of socializing on the interwebs, I'm here to say: Relax. Once upon a time, it may have been cool to resist the three-times-a-day invitations to join. Facebook and other social media won't replace actual, live, in-flesh human interaction. In fact, they can enhance your offline social life because nowadays that's how a lot of people are sharing important information. It's not just status: single, but "Mom's having surgery on Thursday, send flowers to County Hospital, Room 606." If you're shunning Facebook because you think it will kill your social life, you may be killing your social life.

Want to keep up with your closest friends and family on Facebook but don't want to expose yourself to people you didn't even talk to in high school but now want to friend you as part of a relentless campaign to get armies of friends? Make a Facebook page for your pet dog, your pet canary, your imaginary friend from childhood—so only people who really know you will be able to find you. (And don't forget to flip on all the appropriate privacy settings—ask a teenager for help, even if you think you don't need it.)

It's an easy way to just check in on old friends, and see what's going on in the world. On that note, Twitter is becoming a GREat way to check in with the latest news because so many news organizations and companies are issuing insta-messages through Twitter.

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Get Acquainted with a Classic

If you learn how to make one cocktail in this lifetime, make it a martini. It's required knowledge for a passing grade in western Civ 101, up there in the canon-lands, along with the little black dress, a single strand of pearls and the original icons of elegant style, the Ladies Hepburn (Katharine and Audrey).

Whether dry or dirty, the evolution of the drink has left some forgetting that the classic is made with gin, not vodka. Purists claim that stirring is the correct method, so Mr. Bond's preference for a shaken concoction, well, what he's really ordering is a Vesper, a cocktail that he himself named after the double agent who won his heart in Casino Royale.

Once you've mastered the classic recipe, customize it with your own signature blend of fabulousness.

2 1/2 ounces gin
1/2 ounce dry vermouth
1 GREen olive
1 lemon twist
Cocktail pitcher or mixing glass
Cocktail spoon
Cocktail strainer
Chilled martini glass
Ice

Pour inGREdients into an ice filled mixing glass. Stir for about 30 seconds with a long mixing spoon. Pour into the chilled martini glass. Garnish with an olive or lemon.

One classic deserves another: Concoct a gin and juice cocktail for guests who might not feel like tackling the more formidable martini. Keep juice (like peach or pear) and a bottle of ginger ale in your pantry. Pour 2 ounces gin over an ice-filled glass, top with juice and a splash of ginger ale, then garnish with fruit or herbs you might have on hand (skip it if you don't, because it's not worth running out for).

Remember to Say Thank You

Strap in, I'm going to write something extremely controversial here: Yes, you can thank someone with an email or a phone call. We all know traditional thank-you etiquette calls for a handwritten, snail-mail note, but I've seen it happen all too often: You keep meaning to find a nice thank-you card or choose some pretty stationery. But something comes up: a crisis, some project at work, football season. And time passes, as it does. Before long, it's too late. And then a chance encounter with the would-be, should-have-been recipient of the phantom note sends you slinking into the shadows, quivering in breathless social shame.

Yes, write thank-you notes! It's a little social confection everyone loves to receive. But if more than a few days go by and you haven't mailed it, then for goodness' sake, send an email or make a heartfelt call. It's a million and 12 times better than doing nothing at all. The rule of thumb is if you thank someone digitally, the email should include more personal thoughts to help make up for the absence of the personal touch your handwriting evokes.

Recount a funny moment from the event, ask for the dessert recipe if you loved it and comment on how amazing your host looked. Attaching a photo is always good for bonus points, but what you want the recipient to feel is the love. You know how exhausted you feel after hosting an event—cleaning up the house, busting your buns in the hot kitchen, serving dinner or tea or whatever, making sure everyone has a raucous good time and then cleaning up again afterward and dragging the trash to the curb. So break out the gracious words, and thank 'em any way you can!
 

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