The T&C Guide to Small Talk
Holiday season is in full swing, which means many of us will find ourselves making the rounds at cocktail parties and corporate mixers—in short, in rooms full of strangers (or worse, people we've known for years but never bothered talking to), making small talk as if it were our job.
If the prospect of striking up a conversation with someone you just met fills you with as much dread as standing buck naked in Macy's window, you are not alone. Many years ago, at a very fancy pre-Oscar party attended by Hollywood heavyweights, I overheard the beautifully dressed, attractive 50-something woman ahead of me say to her companion as we entered, "I'm making a beeline for the bar to get my Dutch courage up."
I recognized her as the head of one of the top P.R. agencies in town. Everyone in the room either owed her a favor or wanted one from her. And yet, she was quaking in her stilettos (this was so long ago, dear reader, that Manolos weren't yet the rage.)
It's okay to ask "What do you do?" but not right away. A little conversational foreplay makes the other person feel you are interested in them as a human being and aren't trying to rank their importance in the world.
In that moment I had an epiphany: When entering a room full of strangers, there is nothing to fear but fear itself because even the most important person in the room is terrified of rejection. The key to being "interesting" is to show interest, putting others at ease and giving them the opportunity to shine.
So where do I begin?
Don't waste precious time.
Start socializing in the elevator. Don't stand stock still and glassy eyed, like a figure from Madame Tussaud's wax museum, staring straight ahead and refusing to make eye contact. Turn around and say," We must all be going to the same place." Introduce yourself. Even if the conversation ends as soon as you arrive at your floor, no matter. One or several down. You have ninety nine other potentially fascinating guests to meet. Onto the next, take a deep breath, square your shoulders and enter beaming. It's a party, not a referendum on your value as a human being. You have nothing to lose and new friends to gain.
Know what questions to avoid.
Let's start with "What brings you here?" That always makes me want to say, "Free liquor." Isn't it obvious? It's the holidays and I was invited. Another clunker is: "How do you know the so and sos?" Special emphasis on the you seems to imply that you are shocked at the acquaintance and don't think the person belongs at the function at all. This is no way to endear yourself and at the end of the day, unless you're speaking to the host's hot new lover, do you really care how they met?
The ultimate conversational don't is "What's your connection here?" or its variant, "How do you fit in?" Someone asked that of a date of mine once as we were exiting a black tie dinner and he answered "I don't. I'm leaving."
Pay them a compliment.
You want to pose questions that give the person a chance to open up, and will help you find common ground. Most people respond well to a kind word. Don't be afraid to offer a compliment on the person's bracelet or cufflinks, the pattern of their shirt or tie. This gives them the opportunity to share something about themselves, their tastes, their travels.
Don't ask for a resume.
It's okay to ask "What do you do?" but not right away. A little conversational foreplay makes the other person feel you are interested in them as a human being and aren't trying to rank their importance in the world. You don't want to make the person feel as if you're resume hunting and that you'll be off in search of bigger prey if their job isn't important enough.
Rather than delve into politics, ask about holiday plans. This will give you a sense of the person's family situation or particular hobbies like skiing. It's that time of year, s ask them about their New Year's resolutions (mine is to eat more chocolate), the gifts they hope to give or receive, their favorite cocktail.
Once the conversation warms up, it's often fun, particularly if in a group, to ask a philosophical question. For example: In love and work, which is more important, comfort or passion? Or If you could only have one quality beauty or intelligence, which would you choose? Or an old standby, What can you absolutely not live without?
These are open ended ways to have them reveal themselves without you firing off questions, Gatling-gun style. You want to make people feel they've been "courted," not subjected to a police interrogation under fluorescent lights.
Though work is a fine topic at an office party.
You are there to network so feel free to lead with your title and then ask them what they do. Just don't launch into a conversation about office politics or the latest project you're troubleshooting. This is a party, so this conversation shouldn't feel like yet another conference call.
Dear reader, you are a guest at a cocktail party, not the lead in a production of 'No Exit.' If, after several valiant attempts, you find the conversation is getting nowhere, you may politely excuse yourself and refresh your drink.
Focus on common ground.
In these days of heightened sensitivity, making conversation in "mixed company" can prove an intimidating minefield. People are terrified of offending, so they prefer to avoid those not from their "kinship group," whatever that may be—whites, Christians, Democrats, designer bag enthusiasts. This is a sad way to go through life. As a rule, avoid immediately putting the spotlight on the other person's difference. Instead, figure out the thing you have in common: Do you both hate winter? Do you secretly loathe Christmas music? Did you both find Westworld a little high-minded for a show with so much gratuitous nudity?
Try very hard not to make any assumptions about the other person. In fact, let us make it our New Year's resolution not to make assumptions about one another. If we let go of preconceptions, we might discover that dark-haired beauty in the killer Louboutins is an expert on Jane Austen and (and not Keeping up with the Kardashians), or that the WASP in the whale-embroidered corduroys is an avid collector of art from the West African kingdom of Benin. When we don't pigeonhole people, we give them a chance to reveal the many worlds they contain.
What if they just keep answering in monosyllables—do I have to keep trying?
No, dear reader, you are a guest at a cocktail party, not the lead in a production of No Exit. If, after several valiant attempts, you find the conversation is getting nowhere, smile and politely say, "It's been lovely meeting you. Will you excuse me while I go refresh my drink?" And go find yourself a more forthcoming companion!
Susan Fales-Hill is an author, arts advocate, and host of the New York Public Radio podcast "Icons and Innovators." A member of the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame, she lives in Manhattan with her husband, her teenage daughter, and a labrador/pit bull rescue who has had the grace never to demolish a pair of her shoes. Now that's manners.
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.