Making Conversation

There is nothing small about small talk. Just ask those who dread situations in which they must employ it, mainly because they think of it as uncomfortable, unnecessary, and trivial. Just ask those who know how truly valuable it can be and have learned to use it to their advantage.

You can overcome an aversion to small talk and learn to use and even enjoy it. Anybody can. It's what the experts call "learned behavior," which means a silver-tongued genius will be better at it than most, but anybody can be good at it.

First Impressions

It takes only about four seconds for somebody to size you up and make a preliminary judgment. Research shows that Americans expect three things when they meet someone for the first time—a smile, eye contact, and a handshake. So look directly at the person you are meeting. Smile sincerely. Shake hands firmly, but don't crunch.

Mind Your P's and Q's

Some people feel uncomfortable looking directly into someone else's eyes. If you have this problem, try the third-eye trick: Focus on the space above the nose and between the eyes.

Opening a Conversation

First, introduce yourself, and listen carefully to the other person's name, repeating it early in the conversation to lock it into your memory. If the person attaches any other information to the name, it may give you a conversational path to follow: "I'm with the volunteers from Aston," or "This is my first meeting with …."

Don't worry about using cliches. You can find out a lot about a person with a topic as seemingly banal as the weather. For example, you can start by sharing something of yourself to learn something about the other person:

    "I don't know about you, but I sure don't thrive in this heat. Some people do.
    Are you one of them? Did you grow up in a hot climate?"

    "Not really. I'm not a heat lover. I grew up in Ohio."

    "Oh. What was it like growing up in the Midwest?"

    "It was pleasant. I felt really safe there. People were friendly, things were a little slower paced."

    "What brought you to the East Coast?"

    "I came to New York to be an actress."

    "Are you an actress now?"

    "No. I'm a corporate trainer."

Thus, simply by asking about the weather, you have learned that the other person:

  • Hates heat
  • Is from the Midwest
  • Lives on the East Coast
  • Wanted to be an actress
  • Is a corporate career person

More important, from nonverbal cues such as tone of voice and gestures, you probably have an idea as to whether you will want to know this person better and/or do business with him or her.

Don't be afraid to say that you're shy: "Big parties like this intimidate me" or "I like meeting new people, once I get over being a little shy." Nothing encourages people to open up like a desire to get other people to open up.

Keeping It Going

Listen. When people say, "He's a good conversationalist," they usually mean that he is a good listener. Don't lie in wait for one of those natural conversation breaks so you can jump in with your next prepared statement or question. Interrupting is the most common and among the most irritating errors people make in conversation.

Let people know that you're listening through eye contact, but don't stare fixedly at them.

Also, ask open-ended questions such as "Why did you decide to volunteer?" or "How did you become involved with our group?" Questions that result in yes or no answers stop the flow of conversation.

People like to be asked their opinions and impressions concerning major news events: "I heard this morning that the mayor resigned. Makes you wonder what's behind that, doesn't it?"

Every topic has its own natural life span, and if someone is going on endlessly about one thing, it is a good idea to cut in as tactfully as possible. If, for example, the back and forth about the mayor is lively and quick, settle down and enjoy it. If it begins to sag under its own weight, try changing the topic. The easiest way is switching to a related subject. "Speaking of politicians (or speaking of retiring or public figures or our city) …."

When you're engaged in a conversation, keep in mind the following don'ts:

  • Don't perform. Performing happens when you are concentrating too hard on the impression you want to make on the other person.
  • Don't speed-talk. Sometimes people who are anxious to make a point try to spit it all out quickly, as if they're afraid they won't be permitted to finish the thought.
  • Don't slow-talk. A sure sign that you're dragging things out is when other people finish a sentence for you or nod to indicate they understand even before you have reached the point of your remarks.
  • Don't let your mind wander. Try not to watch other people moving around in the room while someone is talking to you.
  • Don't hold a drink in your right hand. Doing so leads to damp, cold handshakes. If your palm is sweaty, it's okay to give it a quick swipe on the side of your trousers or skirt before extending it for a handshake.
  • Don't broach touchy subjects. Avoid discussions about your health, the cost of things these days, mean gossip, off-color jokes, or controversial issues— particularly when you don't know where the other person stands on the subject.

On the other hand, it is okay to disagree. Wait until the other person has spoken and then introduce your point of view without being judgmental. Don't say, "That's completely off base," or "You couldn't be more wrong about that." Instead, say something like "I disagree because …" or "Well, another way of looking at it is …."

More on: Manners

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Etiquette © 2004 by Mary Mitchell. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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