1. Coordinate with friends.
Like zebras on the Serengeti, a group of friends at a reunion is difficult to pick apart and devour. Start an email chain with friends to figure out who is making the trip and who’s not. Figure out when everyone plans to arrive. If no one plans to show up until Saturday morning, maybe don’t shell out the money for the Friday night jazz and appetizer shindig. You’ll spend the whole time wandering from acquaintance to acquaintance having the same small-talk conversation with 20 different people. In a pack of friends, you have the option to break away and reconnect with others, but you can also retreat into the shelter of your social cluster.
This is a lot like how street gangs started, assuming the Bloods and the Crips cropped up to protect themselves from hearing about how much their old classmates are making in corporate litigation or how married life is so gratifying. I do not believe those are typical Blood or Crip problems, but I like to imagine a future where they could be.
2. Be prepared to put your best foot forward.
Don’t worry about being outclassed by other peoples’ professional or personal accomplishments. Think about some adventures you’ve been on or accolades you’ve received and be prepared to talk about those. You don’t
have to be job-interview boastful, but it helps to have some talking points. Otherwise you’ll end up anxiously trying to impress people you won’t see for another half of a decade and blurting out secrets or lies like:
“What do I do? I’m a ghost now!”
“Hey, I’m just happy I don’t have herpes. Am I right?”
“I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you.”
“That’s great about your getting engaged. I’m so, so lonely.”
Ask questions. Be interested in what other people have been up to and have to say. This is good etiquette and takes the burden of storytelling off of you. Remember, these are people who either:
a. Already like you and just want to catch up and have fun, or…
b. Don’t remember you, so it doesn’t matter, and…
c. Facebook exists, so… it’s all out there anyway.
Try to be a human person, and enjoy the company of other human people.
3. Have no ego.
It is very likely that you will come across someone whom you remember vividly and who has no idea who you are. Do not get upset by this. Unless the person in question was your academic advisor or childhood best friend or ex-fiancé, it is excusable that they may not recognize your face after the passage of years. This holds true even if that one time you worked on that group project together or totally bonded over your mutual love of Radiohead at that one party.
It’s been a while. Five years may not seem like a long time, but your classmates have settled into careers, moved across the country (or several countries), gotten married (if they’re religious or just motivated), and had kids (if they’re religious or just careless). Graciously excuse them for asking your name. Especially if, at some point over the last five years, you’ve gotten a haircut or a new outfit. Also, don’t be self-conscious about driving an old car. Some things are out of your control or above your pay grade. Do not try to excuse your 1999 Toyota Corolla by obliquely referring to it as “My butler’s conveyance.”
4. Get your life together.
This is general advice more than reunion-specific advice. The easiest way to cut down on anxiety about running into people from your past is to live a life you’re proud of. You don’t have to be an international spy or a Nobel Prize winner. Just pursue your passion. If you’re working 60-hour weeks, make sure you’re in a field that makes you feel fulfilled in addition to exhausted. If you’re underemployed, work on that novel or volunteer at a soup kitchen or learn piano.
Side note: At my five-year high school (and, to a lesser extent, college) reunion a lot of the dudes looked like Fernando Botero paintings of their former selves. So fellas, do some light cardio, maybe? Also guys, go bald young if you can. It’s a little awkward when you’re 19, but it saves you a lot of grief in your 20s and 30s. Show up well-groomed, well-dressed, and well-adjusted (as much as you can), looking and feeling like the best version of yourself. Engage with old friends and new acquaintances who slipped through the cracks when you were in school together. Don’t drink too much. And, if all else fails, you can always quietly check your watch, gasp, “Oh, the helicopter should be here any minute!” and run off into the night.