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Good party guests

Get ready for the holiday hostess handoff.

The party organizer slaved for days over the food, the drinks and the decor. But once the doorbell rings, the workload shifts to you, the guest. It's your turn to do the heavy lifting -- you have to carry the conversation.

Whether you find yourself seated next to a complete stranger or standing next to your best friend, you have to talk. But about what?

Here are some conversation-starters that will make you the life of the holiday party:

The October storm. Everybody has a story -- either they lost power for 10 days or they didn't lose power and had 10 houseguests for a week.

The storm stories are interesting, but for many people, the current topic is what will happen next. Is it time to break down and buy that generator? What will become of the trees wearing the ominous black painted X or bright tape?

For city gardeners, it's even more specific: "The major topic of the storm right now is, 'How are we going to correct our gardens next year for the Garden Walk?' " says Martin Kemp, owner of Martin Kemp Designs @ 68, on Allen Street. His North Pearl Street garden last year included a fantasy table set with moss under an onion-dome canvas pavilion, which was lost in the storm.

Holiday-related travel. Ask a stranger or acquaintance, "Are you traveling anywhere for the holidays?" and you'll likely hear about relatives and friends who are coming here, and their planned trips to see others. This topic can always segue into the ever-increasing ordeal of air travel and how paying $2.49 a gallon for gas now seems like a bargain.

Atlanta, where Kemp lived for years, "empties out over the holidays," he says, "everybody travels home. Now, when people ask us if we're traveling, we say, 'We're staying here, because everybody we know is traveling back to Buffalo, to Rochester, to Syracuse.' We actually live in a city people are traveling to."

A related topic is holiday shopping traffic. Just say "Elmwood Avenue," "Main Street in Williamsville," "Transit Road," or "Niagara Falls Boulevard," and the groans will begin. You'll hear tales of gridlock, road rage and taking 20 minutes to travel a mile.

A caveat here: If you find yourself talking to someone who's lived in another area, prepare to hear them scoff. "When I hear complaints about traffic, I think, 'You've got to be joking,' " says Kemp. "What about eight lanes on the Georgia 400 for five hours?"

Sharon Schwartz, an attorney with Harris Beach, agrees. Originally from Long Island, she is underwhelmed by volumes of traffic that would make a Buffalonian stumble into the nearest bar for a pick-me-up.

"The traffic here, really, is not a topic for me," she says.

Where do you fit in? If Williamsville psychologist Tedd Habberfield is at a party where he doesn't know anybody, he says, "I often start by offering, 'I'm here because . . . ' and then I ask, 'How did you get invited to this party?' When my wife started teaching again, I would go to a lot of faculty parties, so I'd say, 'I'm Betsy Habberfield's husband. How are you connected with this group?' I did that again and again."

Family life or the life outside the family. Schwartz, who has a 9-month-old daughter, says, "Most people like to talk about themselves, so I ask if they have kids, how their kids are doing." But if someone doesn't have children, Schwartz eagerly brings up two of her favorite things that she doesn't get to experience much anymore -- new restaurants and movies.

"I do live vicariously now," she says, laughing. "I always ask people without kids, 'Have you heard about any new restaurants? Have you been to any? What movies have you seen?' I love to talk about those things."

How are you coping? "If you want to be sensitive to the fact that not everybody has a great time during the holidays, you could ask, 'What's your plan for surviving the holidays?' " says Habberfield. "People who have good plans don't seem to have any problem answering the question anyhow, and for other people, it tells them that they don't have to make up some wonderful plans that aren't really going to happen."

Decor, at this or any other party. Kemp and his partner, Terry Williams, provide an immediate ice-breaker at their annual open house, which drew more than 100 guests last Friday. They decked the dining room with 500 feet of gold lame and 5,000 feathers. "We called it our Drag Queen Dining Room," says Kemp, laughing. "When people walk in, they're like, 'Oh my God!' and that immediately gets everybody talking. Even if they don't know each other, they turn to each other and say, 'Can you believe this?' "

If you haven't been to a party lately where the host dropped bunting from the third-floor window and used it to skirt the entire front garden, as Kemp and Williams did, you can always take note of the antique china Santa or interesting menorah. And if all else fails, mention your neighbor's house that has so many lights that it can be seen from the space shuttle.

And finally, one surefire conversation-killer you want to avoid: Don't interrupt your significant other to correct a detail while he or she is telling a story.

Sure, he's saying it happened in San Francisco when you know darned well it was in San Diego. But don't interrupt, don't correct. The other guests don't know or care.

Why can't couples resist this so-awkward, so-enraging habit? "This can be a long-term issue in the relationship, with one person not being accurate or even not being honest, so it becomes a real issue for that couple," says Habberfield. "But they don't distinguish between a social situation and a more critical discussion of facts."

If you happen to be a witness to one of these mood-wrecking moments, let a moment pass, then say brightly, "Did your trees make it through the October storm?"


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