I attended my (gasp!) 40th high school reunion -- and lived to tell the tale.
In the months leading up to the reunion, I'd searched without success for a primer for people in dread of such a milestone event. Sure, there were bloggers with advice on ways to re-kindle a high school romance, but I am definitely not looking for love. And social gurus shared instructional videos about hiding mature hips, camouflaging saggy necks, and otherwise dressing to impress (skip these -- everyone knows why you're wearing that scarf). But where were the top tips for chatting with people you hadn't seen in decades when, like me, you're hopeless at small talk and don't use alcohol as a social lubricant?
Since I didn't find what I was looking for, and had to wing it, I thought I'd share a few coping mechanisms that worked for me, transforming a fright night into a pleasant party (if you're a social butterfly or an accomplished salesperson, these suggestions probably seem like second nature to you).
The best icebreaker is geographic: everyone attending lives somewhere, making it a sure-fire starter. "Are you still local or did you move away?" If you knew their family, also ask whether they stayed in the area or relocated (just be prepared to hear that parents and perhaps siblings have passed -- I need not coax you on genuine sorrow, except to prepare you for the occasional tear).
Listen to your classmate's response for hints of a significant other and/or kids. Everybody's happy to regale you with updates and show you photos if they are happily partnered and proud of their children (maybe there are grandchildren, too). If they are not in a good place, watch for the facial expression that tells you that it's time to switch to talking about the good times you had in 10th grade.
Speaking of the old days, if you can't remember someone or some event that seems so significant to your fellow graduate, use the failings of an aging brain as your excuse, and then praise his or her keen recall. Find me a person who won't think you're a charming companion once you've applauded their acuity!
Career chatter didn't work for me. Admittedly, that may have been because I was jealous of those whose occupation was "retired," but it's hard to make patter that matters after an alumnus admits to having been downsized, excised, or otherwise shown the workplace door. I found that "What do you enjoy for recreation?" keeps you on solid social ground, even if you have to nod as if you understand the awesome attraction of collecting antique thimbles (it actually did sound a bit interesting).
The only failure of the evening? Thinking that a person who looked down on others in the 1970s would be different in 2014. Gravity may drag, bellies may expand, and hair might disappear, but pretentiousness persists. So laugh off the blow off and be grateful that you won't have to see Mr. or Ms. Snobby for another 10 years!