Q. In theory, I think cocktail parties are a good idea. The opportunity for meeting lots of people is better than at someone's house for dinner because there are more people and you have a certain amount of choice about who you spend time with.

The reason I said "in theory," is that I'm not very good at cocktail parties. You've heard people complain that they always get stuck with bores? Well, I think they're talking about me.

The funny thing is that people always like me when they meet me at dinners. I'm not a knockout, but I have lots of interests, and one of them is other people, so I have things to say and also enjoy listening.

At cocktail and similar type parties, though, I am tongue-tied. People ask me what I do (I am a computer programmer), and then move off when I try to start a general conversation.

Other times I can see them dying to get away from me, but I don't know how to let them know that it's okay, they don't need an excuse from their doctor. On the other hand, is there a way I can tell if someone genuinely wants to get to know me?

What are the rules? How can I let them know that if they would just put some time into finding out, they might like me? And if that's not possible, how can I move around a cocktail party without scaring people into feeling they'll be stuck with me?

Or should I resign myself to being social poison and just stay home?

A. If it is any comfort, Miss Manners' idea of social poison is someone who thrives under the conversational restrictions of cocktail parties, but cannot survive the more sustained test of the dinner party.

The mechanics of these social events are quite different, you see, and it does not reflect on your general charm if you cannot master the technique of convincing strangers in three sentences that you are worth knowing. Cocktail-party desirability consists of having instantly recognizable credentials, such as beauty, an impressive name or job title, or a personal connection with an event of current interest.

And while many people understandably resent being judged by such standards, there really are no others for sizing up utter strangers.

You may try to qualify by developing some kind of instant, clever line to throw at people. Low-key quizzing ("Do you live around here?") or conventional remarks ("How lovely the roses are this year") do not convey brilliance, but they are less likely to be offensive and might just get something going.

The one advantage of such a party is that one can, indeed, move around. If you want to get away from other guests, either because they are boring you or you feel you are boring them, you need only flash them a smile, say, "Would you excuse me a moment?" and dash off so that they cannot tell whether you have a destination or not. Most people mumble specific excuses, however, and remarks about wanting drinks, food, tours of the house or whatever should be taken as parting statements.

The only serious offer of extended conversation made at a cocktail party is "Let's get out of here and go get a drink some place."