Know what to say in a social situation―and when and how to say it:
Anyone whoâ€˜s been caught at a wedding reception or a cocktail party discussing recent precipitation knows that making small talk isnâ€˜t as easy as it sounds. On the contrary, conversing with strangers can be awkward, stilted, even painful. But there is an art to it, and it can be mastered. â€œA golden rule is that you donâ€˜t have to be brilliant―just nice,â€ says Bernardo J. Carducci, Ph.D., director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, in New Albany, Indiana. â€œIf you start with simple, even obvious comments, that makes it easier for others.â€ Here are 10 rules―gleaned from communication specialists and women whose jobs require extensive networking and party-going―for navigating sticky small-talk situations with style and grace.
1. Do a Little Homework
If your conversational skills are more reminiscent of Oscar the Grouch than Oscar Wilde, a bit of preparation is in order. â€œAs I drive to a party, I try to come up with two or three things to talk about in case the conversation runs dry,â€ says Debra Fine, lecturer and author of The Fine Art of Small Talk ($17, amazon.com). â€œIf I've met the host before, I try to remember things about her, like her passion for skiing or a charity we're both involved in.â€ Anne-Marie Fowler, a San Francisco investment adviser and president of the fund-raising group San Francisco Ballet Encore!, attends business and social functions as often as seven nights a week. She says, â€œI think about the key guests and what I can say to bring them into their element.â€ For instance, when Fowler attended the party of a recently retired CFO, she remembered that he loves modern art and asked him about his collection. To keep your conversation timely and lively, Carducci suggests scanning newspaper headlines and movie and book reviews. â€œAnd I listen to a lot of NPR,â€ he says.
2. Greet People Appropriately
To kiss or not to kiss? The question is so universal (and, for some, vexing) that Hamlet might have asked it. Generally, a firm handshake is a safe, neutral bet. In social situations where faces are more familiar, the rules soften. â€œIf someoneâ€™s a good friend, I kiss, and if someone makes that overture to me, Iâ€™ll respond accordingly,â€ says Barbara Roberts, a board member of the Saint Louis Art Museum who chaired a recent fund-raising gala. Cindy Cawley, an active fund-raiser and volunteer in Omaha, Nebraska, adds, â€œIf youâ€™ve kissed someone before, remember to do it again, or they may feel shunned. And if youâ€™re greeting a husband and wife, peck both, or it will look like youâ€™re picking a favorite.â€
3. Remember Names
Introductions tend to pass in a blur, with both parties quickly blurting out names and then taking sips of wine. As a result, no one remembers who anyone is. The solution: Slow down and stay present. â€œI always repeat a name once or twice after Iâ€™ve heard it,â€ says Cathy Filippini, a governing member of the Chicago Symphony and a sustaining fellow at the Art Institute of Chicago. If someone has an unusual name, take time to learn it, advises Fine. â€œDonâ€™t just move on,â€ she says. â€œSay, â€˜Iâ€™m sorry. Let me try that. Did I get it right?â€™ â€ Similarly, if someone mumbles, says Fowler, â€œsay, â€™Would you kindly repeat your name?â€™ And when you speak your own name, do so clearly.â€
If you forget a name, discreetly ask a third party for help, or listen for it in conversation. If all else fails, come clean. â€œDonâ€™t panic, and don't feel awful,â€ says etiquette guru Peggy Post. â€œJust say, â€˜I canâ€™t believe it. Iâ€™ve just drawn a blank.â€™ Itâ€™s such a normal, widespread, human happening that most people will understand.â€
4. Donâ€™t Hold Back
Begin the conversation by giving the other person something to work with. But donâ€™t put her to work. For example, if asked what you do for a living, donâ€™t give the short answer, thereby forcing the other person to scramble for more questions. â€œEmbellish your response,â€ says Carducci. â€œSay, â€˜Iâ€™m an accountant, but I donâ€™t cook the books.â€™ â€ If someone asks what youâ€™ve been up to, â€œsay, â€˜We took the kids to Italy this year,â€™ â€ suggests Fine. â€œNow they know that you have kids and have been to Italy.â€
5. Draw the Other Person Out
â€œPeople love to talk about themselves, so be a great listener,â€ says Cawley. Roberts concurs: â€œIf weâ€™re at an exhibition, I ask what their favorite painting was. If Iâ€™ve never met them before, I ask what they do professionally and what they enjoy recreationally.â€ Filippini says, â€œIâ€™ll ask if theyâ€™ve seen a particular exhibit or play.â€ The questions donâ€™t have to be that specific, adds Fine: â€œYou can simply say, â€˜Bring me up to date.â€™ â€ Questions can also be utterly superficial―to begin with. â€œI always ask about someoneâ€™s shoes or jewelry,â€ says Fowler. â€œBoth make statements about a person. I often ask what meaning a piece of jewelry has to its wearer, and that opens up a lot of other topics.â€
6. When in Doubt, Discuss the Setting
It sounds like a cop-out, but it works. â€œItâ€™s something you share,â€ says Carducci. â€œIf you comment on the good music or the interesting floral arrangements or how long a line for food is, and the other person agrees, that means theyâ€™re willing to talk to you.â€ Another fail-safe, setting-specific question is â€œHow do you know the host?â€
7. Revive a Dying Conversation.
Donâ€™t panic when thereâ€™s a lull in the conversation. â€œSilences arenâ€™t as long as you think they are,â€ says Carducci. â€œRemember that if you say something, the other person may need to process it. Think of silence as a transition.â€ Roberts adds, â€œSometimes silence is appropriate. You donâ€™t want to seem like a babbling idiot.â€ If you sense that the other person is dying to get away, give him the opportunity to do so. Otherwise, take the conversation in a new direction using one of the above tactics. â€œThrow something out there,â€ says Carducci, â€œand donâ€™t worry about making the transition smooth.â€
8. Make Proper Introductions
The true hallmark of a skilled and gracious small-talker is the ability to introduce people with ease. In addition to announcing names, offer a piece of information about each person, or a shared interest, thereby facilitating a conversation. â€œI try to be genuine and sincere and convey that each person is important, and I try to say both names slowly,â€ says Roberts, who gives the following example: â€œKate, this is Jane. Jane and her husband just moved here from Cincinnati. Jane is interested in painting and is an artist herself. Jane, this is Kate. Kate is the museumâ€™s director of communications.â€
Things get tricky when you forget one of the names. In that instance, â€œmention one personâ€™s name and gesture to the other one,â€ says Post. â€œThat person will usually sense youâ€™re at a loss and volunteer their name.â€ Cawley cleverly passes the buck: â€œI say the name of the person I do know and then say to her, â€˜Iâ€™ll put you in charge of the introduction.â€™ â€
9. Defuse Unpleasant Situations
For every group of lovely people you meet at a party, thereâ€™s bound to be a lemon. Type 1 is the person who has met you on several occasions but acts as if heâ€™s never seen you before in his life. â€œI donâ€™t like to play games, so I acknowledge that weâ€™ve met right away,â€ says Cawley. â€œIâ€™ll say, â€˜You may not recall, but I remember meeting you at a fund-raiser two years ago.â€™ â€
Type 2 invades your personal space. â€œI donâ€™t say anything; I just move back,â€ says Filippini. â€œIf they get me against a wall, I maneuver around them.â€ Cawley also steps back, and â€œif they follow me, I extend whichever hand is holding my cocktail, so theyâ€™re an armâ€™s length away,â€ she says.
Type 3 wonâ€™t stop talking about himself and hasnâ€™t asked you a single question. â€œIf someone is that self-centered, exit the conversation gracefully,â€ says Carducci. Which leads us to:
10. Make a Clean Getaway
â€œUse the phrase â€˜I need,â€™â€ advises Fine. â€œI need to get some food; I havenâ€™t eaten all day. I need to talk to a client over there. I need to meet the speaker.â€ Freshening your drink, using the restroom, chatting with a friend who has just arrived, and checking in with your spouse are also valid needs.
â€œIf you can mention something from the conversation that meant something to you,â€ says Roberts, â€œit shows that youâ€™re not running off because youâ€™re bored. I say, â€˜Iâ€™ve enjoyed talking to you about your volunteer work, and I hope to talk to you again.â€™ â€
For extreme situations, Fowler recommends establishing â€œrescue meâ€ signals with a partner or a friend to let her know when you need help bailing out of a conversation. Cawley has paged herself to escape a dull party. â€œMy favorite is to ask someone else nearby―a spouse or a good friend―to dance,â€ says Fowler, provided thereâ€™s music and others are dancing, of course.