During the holiday season, one event sometimes crops up that's potentially even more stressful than a long dinner with your extended family. I refer to the high-school reunion. And whether you'll be attending this year or sometime in the years to come, we have tips for you.
This advice comes courtesy of Dr. Jane Bluestein, coauthor of High School's Not Forever, who told me, "people who go back [to their reunions] to settle a score or to show somebody up, that's a recipe for a miserable experience." Of course, a lot of people carry grudges from high school, and the temptation to show your bully that you're now cooler than him is common — and natural. But showing people up can be a lot more fun in your imagination than in reality, and if that's your main goal, you might want to pass on the actual reunion and just have your own in your brain. Bluestein says that for the best experience at a real-life reunion, you'll want to go in open and willing to talk to people: "if you go back to see people and ask questions, you learn a lot about who these people are." And you may be pleasantly surprised. Jezebel founder Anna Holmes wrote in a Washington Post column earlier this year,
Here's the fantasy of what my 20th reunion will be like: Dozens and dozens of the most privileged, popular kids — the ones for whom high school was an apogee, not a nadir — milling about and enjoying beers as they subtly brag about their six-figure incomes, their ranch houses, their new luxury automobiles. (I can get enough of that in any Upper East Side hair salon, thank you very much.) Here's the probable reality: A few hundred of my contemporaries, all grown up and genuinely eager to see one another and make new — and old — friends.
Bluestein points out that Facebook makes it easier than ever to a) see who's going to your reunion and b) make sure a couple people you like will be there. If you haven't kept in touch with a lot of people from high school, she recommends that you reach out to at least one person beforehand that you know you can stand, and make sure that he or she is going. You don't have to cling to this person the entire night, but at least you know you'll have someone to talk with, and someone to flee to if you get stuck in an awkward conversation with that guy who always creeped you out in chemistry class.
Jeanne Martinet, author of The Art of Mingling: Proven Techniques for Mastering Any Room, recommends a slightly different technique: just imagine you have a friend with you. Picture your best friend standing next to you, accompanying you through each conversation and, if you like, making snarky comments about your fellow guests. Martinet says this will calm you and make you feel more comfortable — but she cautions that you should avoid speaking to your imaginary friend out loud.
Just like you may want to show everyone how awesome you are now that you don't have braces anymore, you may be tempted to confront that one girl who told everyone you stuffed your bra with toilet paper. But no good can come of this. Bluestein suggests that instead, you simply treat high school meanies politely, as you would a stranger. Martinet concurs — she says if someone was truly awful to you, feel free to avoid them. But for more garden-variety jerkfaces, just talk to them politely and ignore that time when you tripped over your shoelaces and they laughed. Odds are they've become less of a butthead over time. If it turns out they haven't, and they try to start shit with you, just walk away. You're unlikely to get the kind of resolution you want from airing your grievances with your former bully at the reunion. Says Bluestein, "save that for your therapist."
Martinet points out that going into a reunion is a little like going into a party where you don't know anyone — except that you did know almost everyone, a long time ago, and that makes it even weirder. Compensate for the weirdness by exercising some expert mingling skills. Martinet suggests that you start out with observations, not questions, because this is a way to establish fun common ground before you start probing into the details of someone's life (which could be totally boring). Good topics to observe upon: the food, the temperature of the room, the hostess and how pretty she looks (if there is a hostess), the crowd or lack thereof, the music. Bad topics to observe upon include which women from your graduating class have started to look like Boy George.
Opinions differ on what you should do when someone is all, "oh my god how are you remember how much fun we had in French class???" and you have zero idea who she is or what she is talking about. Bluestein says you should go ahead and admit it. Martinet, however, cautions that this could make your alleged onetime friend feel bad. Instead, she has a couple of tips. You could wait until a third person comes up and hope this person utters the mystery lady's name. Or you could excuse yourself for a moment and ask an actual friend to supply you with the necessary info. Bluestein offers a final idea — praise your mystery buddy's memory. That gives you a generic response that doesn't require to exactly admit that you don't remember French class, much less her.
Bluestein has an important reminder for all reunion attendees: you're not in high school anymore. This means that you shouldn't get caught up in old high school rivalries and drama, but it also means you don't have to be there. No truant officer will arrest you if you just decide to leave. Just knowing this — and having an escape already planned, whether it's by driving yourself or having the number of a taxi company already in your phone — can make the experience a lot easier.
Martinet says that nearly everyone she knows who ended up going to a high school reunion enjoyed it. And it's true that overcoming your dread can lead to a fun evening and an opportunity to reconnect with people. But that doesn't mean you need to go to every reunion. Bluestein says if you're really worried, just wait for your fortieth — she says that by the time hers rolled around, "no one cared what size you were, what you were wearing, or how much money you had, they were just happy to see you." Which is how a reunion should be.