By avoiding conversational landmines and learning how to make small talk effectively, you can be the hit of any social gathering.
Linda Haynes was at a dinner party at the home of friends when another guest at the table seized the conversation.
“He said, ‘I know we’re not supposed to talk about religion or politics with people we don’t know, but I want to talk about religion and politics,’ ” recalled Haynes, an artist from Virden, Ill. “He started with religion and then plunged into politics. It was awkward.”
Welcome to the holiday season — a flurry of cocktail parties, workplace get-togethers, dinners with seldom-seen family members and other social activities guaranteed to pit you face-to-face with people you hardly know.
Small talk is expected, but how do you navigate a conversation without stumbling starts, pregnant pauses and touchy topics?
“Always be prepared,” said Debra Fine, author of “The Fine Art of Small Talk” (Hyperion, 2005). “Whether you’re going to lunch with a colleague, a networking event or a holiday party, I wouldn’t walk into a setting without two or three things to talk about.”
Examples: What do you do for a living? Tell me about your family. What is a typical day like for you? Tell me about a movie you’ve seen more than once. What’s your favorite restaurant and why? What are some of your family’s holiday traditions? What keeps you busy when you’re not working? What would you do if you won a million dollars?
“You don’t want to grill people, so ask an open-ended question. Then the other person can choose the information he wants to reveal,” said Fine, a former civil engineer and now a communications trainer and author who lives in Colorado.
Don’t ask personal questions that could lead to sensitive topics, Fine advises. “How’s your husband?” may touch a nerve in a new divorcee. Better to say: “Bring me up to date on your family.”
Similarly, “What do you do for a living?” presumes the person has a job. Try this: “What is a typical day like for you?”
Renata Buchloh of Springfield, Ill., a former clothing boutique saleswoman and real estate agent, often breaks the ice by noting something special about a new acquaintance.
“I might say, ‘I really like your jacket,’ or ‘Your hair looks gorgeous that way.’ Or sometimes a general question will get the ball rolling, something like, ‘How’s the world treating you?’” Buchloh said.
Michael Plog, a retired state employee from Springfield, looks for common ground.
“I’ll comment about a similar name, or if I hear a Southern accent, I’ll mention that I was born in Tennessee,” Plog said.
Fine doesn’t subscribe to the notion that religious and political topics should be avoided.
“I think they’re OK. But don’t broach a topic unless you’re willing to hear the points of view from other people.”
She does caution, however, about conversation killers. They include: “Are you dating anyone?,” “When are you two getting married?,” “What are your child’s college plans?,” “Are you pregnant?,” “When are you going to have kids?” and “Is that (or those) real?”
And steer away from gossip, personal misfortune, medical problems, the cost of things and stories of questionable taste, Fine said.
Talking the talk
Once a few words have been exchanged, keep the conversation open. Disclose something about yourself and ask another question. If your partner does likewise, you’re in luck. Keep the pattern going, and you’ll be gabbing with the best of them.
Fine has a goal of meeting three new people at each event she attends. She gives herself permission to leave after that is accomplished. Her formula: Make eye contact. Smile. Find an approachable person. Offer your name and use his or hers.
“The worst thing they can do is reject me,” she said.
Fine also is aware of her own body language.
“No one wants to approach someone who looks ill at ease — fidgeting, not smiling, hunched over, looking at the floor. Stand up straight. Put your hands at your sides or hold them behind you. It’s not hard to do if you think about it.”
Haynes said she felt resentful when her fellow dinner guest blatantly discussed religion and politics.
“I try to think about the feelings of other people,” she said. “Sometimes I feel uncomfortable around new people. But then I remember they probably feel the same way around me.”
Kathryn Rem can be reached at 217-788-1520.
10 icebreakers for holiday mingling
1. “What is your connection to the host/hostess or event?”
2. “What do you enjoy most about this time of the year?”
3. “What do you like to eat during the holidays?”
4. “Bring me up to date about your life/work/family since the last time we got together.”
5. “Tell me about your plans for the holidays.”
6. “Describe your favorite holiday tradition.”
7. “What keeps you busy outside of work?” “What keeps you busy beyond taking care of your
8. “Tell me about a special gift you have given or received.”
9. “What is your favorite holiday? Why?”
10. “What have you got going on during the coming year?”
Source: Debra Fine