Illustration: Dan Woodger

This story is part of How to Talk to Anyone, Forge’s guide to moving past the chitchat and truly connecting.

TThere’s something uniquely comforting about stepping into someone else’s warm home, full of familiar faces and delicious smells, and sitting down to a bountiful meal with the kind of friends and family you don’t think twice about unbuttoning the top of your pants in front of.

Which is why it can be such a drag to approach the Instagram-perfect table, dinner plate shot-put heavy in one hand, hot brandy eggnog warming the other, to find you’re seated (by decree of cutesy placard or dumb luck) next to the one and only person there you don’t know. That person who, come to think of it, no one else really seems to know, either. After all, holidays are for catching up with our nearest and dearest, not making elevator talk with strangers.

The rando is not part of the Rockwellian tableau. And yet, the rando is always there. They might be the distant cousin from way out of town, someone’s recently separated co-worker, or the loner neighbor who looks like a police sketch made flesh. They might even be me.

That’s right: I’m a holiday rando.

The rando is not part of the Rockwellian tableau.

As a bachelor dog-dad whose closest family is on the opposite coast, I am frequently the odd man out during the holidays. I’m versed in the awkwardness of attending a close-knit event where you know only the host (whose brief surprised look at the door, before they recomport themselves and welcome you in, makes you second-guess their pity invite).

Unlike weddings, with all those potential meet-cutes on the dance floor, there’s nothing fun or sexy about rolling solo for the holidays. But in most cases, the only thing worse than going stag to a family-filled, couples-heavy holiday dinner is staying home alone to scarf deli meats and binge-watch parades.

The worst-case scenario

I remember my first Thanksgiving in Los Angeles, the year I moved across the country. I showed up at the front door of my new co-worker’s apartment with a 12-pack and a Trader Joe’s pie. He was too busy sniping with his girlfriend in the kitchen to give any proper introductions, and I spent the predinner hour sweatily studying book spines, coughing through my cat allergy, and downing most of my own beers.

At dinner, the scarf-wearing real estate agent seated next to me gave me one suspicious look before pivoting to talk to the woman on his other side, never to interact with me again besides an occasional slap with his scarf. For the next couple hours, I kept my mouth jammed with food to cover for my lack of conversation.

That night, I left the party feeling itchy, stuffed, and very homesick.

Don’t be the real estate agent with the unwieldy scarf. If you’re sitting next to a random guest, recognize that they’re probably already feeling out of their comfort zone. Be the person you would want to be sitting next to if you were the party rando.

Be the host of your corner

Do this even if it isn’t your party. In fact, assume the host is too busy with other hosting duties to be the rando ambassador, and deputize yourself as the de facto host of your little corner of the dining table or whatever nook you’ve posted up at with your buffet plates. Take the lead on the conversational heavy lifting. Ask engaging questions, but let them set the tone in terms of how personal to get. Read their tone and body language to know when a line of conversation is warming them up and when it’s making them tense.

Avoid any topics that may cause someone to feel uncomfortable about their life choices or spiral down a rabbit hole of regret. Conversational baby steps are the best way to get to know your new friend without triggering any emotional land mines. If your dining buddy buries their face in a dirty napkin to weep over an ex, for example, you’ve failed your mission.

Approach your rando with care

You get extra credit if you don’t just talk to the person seated next to you but actually approach someone who is standing nervously alone in the corner before everyone sits down. Break the ice by asking a question that neither of you has the answer to. This should be something that takes the focus off them. (So, not “What’s your deal?”)

One way to do this: Create a shared mystery. Stage a situation where you’re looking at the same thing. “Where do you think they got that?” you might ask, gesturing vaguely at your host’s most bizarre knickknack. Nothing brings strangers together like a bronze “Life Laugh Love” sculpture.

And please, stay upbeat. If it sounds like they’re companionless for the remainder of the holiday season, forgo the sad face for good-humored envy at how footloose and fancy-free they’ll be. (“So you can just lie in bed and Postmates Chinese food on Christmas morning? You’re my golden god!”)

Draw out the shy ones

Don’t be put off if you’re struggling at first to find common ground. Lone dinner guests didn’t get that way by being the life of the party. One Christmas, I was seated next to a shy Brazilian priest who was new to my dad’s church. (Yes, I too have had a rando.) Barring a launch into my first confession in decades, I was at a loss.

But we waded through enough small talk for me to eventually learn that he was something of an amateur magician back home. After I begged him to do a few tricks, he turned our end of the table into a small Vegas show and was shy no more.

It’s important to be the conduit between the rando and the rest of the dinner party they may not have met yet. (“You know who else is obsessed with murder podcasts? Aunt Carol over here!”) By the time you’re ready for seconds, your adjacent rando should be able to throw out conversational lifelines to a few other people at the table. If all goes well, they’ll be exchanging social media handles by dessert.

You don’t have to be talk-show-host-level outgoing to perform this small act of service. You just have to be interested and generous. And remember: Anyone can bring a great bottle of wine or help wash dishes, but bringing the stray at the table out of their shell and ensuring they have a nice time is a true holiday good deed.

Duncan is writer/producer on tv shows including Maron and Blunt Talk and his short films have played Sundance and various film festivals. @duncanbirm on Twitter

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