The Psychology of House Parties

House parties – love ‘em, hate ‘em, or just don’t care about ‘em, you’ve been invited to one at some point. But have you ever stopped to ask why?

I find house parties fascinating because there is something inexplicably primordial about them that I could never put my finger on until now. As a student of psychology, I’ve always taken them as an opportunity to observe and to analyze the complicated social interactions we take for granted everyday, rooted in our genetic makeup and inherent to our survival instincts. House parties might very well be as old as human history itself, as they echo our distant hunter-gatherer ancestors who would congregate with disparate communities to exchange valuable resources and further build (or strengthen) alliances. Modern gatherings are less of a matter of life and death, wherein one or more of their participants are intent on “blowing off steam” to liberate themselves, albeit quite transiently, from the hassles of school, work, and other pressing responsibilities that chip away at one’s optimism.

“I thought house parties were as simple as meeting up, cracking open a few cold ones with the boys, and hanging out. But you’re saying that there is more to them than meets the eye? How does that work, exactly?”

Well as you’ve no doubt guessed, house parties not only reinforce existing social bonds, but create an environment that promotes the development of a large number of new ones — and both within a relatively confined physical space where human-to-human interaction is imminent.

I liken the practice of partying to something along the lines of a central processing unit: Two transistors relaying electricity between each other do not accomplish much on their own, but multiplied into the hundreds of thousands, millions, and even billions? They create a functional network of transistors that gives rise to an ordinary computer capable of completing complex tasks.

Likewise, speaking to only one person at a densely populated party won’t do much to expand your network of friends, evidenced by your propensity for shyness. Speaking to a dozen more people, however, and you could become quite popular, thereby maximizing your chances of reproductive success and the attainment of valuable social alliances that may one day assist you in injury, death, or disease. A drawback to this, of course, is trying to get a word in edgewise when everyone else, even your good friends whom you gravitate towards to ameliorate your social anxiety, are already preoccupied with their own conversations, leaving you to feel ignored or worse, ostracized. This can be profoundly stressful for someone limited in his or her capacity to initiate an encounter that could, in theory, be the seed that grows into a long-term relationship.   

None of this is to say that you cannot gain a marked conversational advantage over the more extroverted attendees, but you have to fight for the right to be heard. If I’m trying to coordinate a conversation between three or more people and you come out of nowhere to arbitrarily insert yourself into it without understanding, much less discerning, its context, then I’m going to be less inclined to give you the time of day.

By now, you can see where the challenge lies in navigating the muddied social waters characterizing house parties, for you must first pick and choose which conversations among the dozens to partake in through evaluating their subject matter and determining whether they are tailored to your interests. Then, you must intuitively pick up on their contextual backgrounds so that you may contribute, meaningfully, to them. And you have to do this a number of times throughout the night or else risk being that weird person who plays with the host’s dog. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.   

So what if you finally manage to reserve yourself a respectable role in the conversation but cannot tell if the other person is annoyed and wants out of it? Luckily, the human mind comes equipped with a remarkable capacity to unconsciously extract meaning from key nonverbal cues like eye contact, personal space, nose rubs, and facial expressions, and thus if their words are diplomatic but their body language says otherwise, it might be high time to move on and find a different conversational partner lest you further embarrass yourself. But in the event that you do, there is this handy-dandy tool called “alcohol.”

Alcohol is what many regard as a social lubricant of sorts, taking the edge off the extreme self-consciousness you feel upon the realization that everyone is watching you despite that they couldn’t care less, and are most concerned with themselves and how they perform in social settings. For that reason, alcoholic beverages are accessible at almost every adult house party, because they allow people to break out of their shells and gain the confidence that they are sorely lacking when sober. Unfortunately, when too much alcohol is consumed at a house party within a short span of time, one of its attendees might flock to the bathroom, dry heaving and hunched over the toilet for the remainder of the evening. Furthermore, when alcohol is used as a crutch at house parties, your social skills will not transfer to situations in which the consumption of alcohol is prohibited, like a job interview.

The main takeaway from all of this? House parties are lawful in the same way that gravity is lawful. What goes up must come down. And where there is a party, there is music to be danced to, drinks to be drank, conversations to be had, and interpersonal connections to be cultivated — perhaps the most delicious fruits of our existence.   

Categories: Ideas

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