Saturday, 12 December 2015

Small Talk for Beginners

This is the festive season, the time when you are invited to lots of gatherings, the office party and the department get-together.  Most of the time it's fun but:  Have you ever sat next to someone at a dinner party and found that  you couldn't strike up a conversation with them?  No matter what you said, they always came back with a syllable or a short sentence and never provided an opening of any sort for the next bit of conversation.  And the person on your other side is so engrossed with his/her neighbour that you can't escape that way!   It goes a bit like this:
 "Isn't this soup delicious?" (OK not a Booker Prize question but you're trying)
Answer from non-small talker:  "Yes, it's good."
"Have you seen that film XYZ, everyone seems to be talking about it?".
Answer:  "No".
And so the whole meal progresses with everybody else - apparently - enjoying scintillating conversation with their neighbour.  In the past I have always felt that I must be boring, dull, a torture to to have to endure my company for a three-course meal.  Not any more, though.  Now I still try to talk to my neighbour at dinner, but if I don't get much of a response, I simply wait and see if they try to be sociable and if not, well the food is usually worth concentrating on!

Do you know people who are able to engage with total strangers?  They are worth their weight in diamonds, rubies and gold!  They hold forth about anything and nothing - usually some story from their day, some little contretemps which has everyone laughing as they tell it. And everyone feels included.  These are the people you gravitate towards at parties where everyone else has formed into little groups of those who know each other and you are left holding onto your wine glass as if it would save you from drowning.

Small talk is an art, there is no doubt about that.  Small talk means having a ready store of little anecdotes which make people smile.  Not everyone has the knack.  There are those who think it is being superficial.  I reckon it is being a life-saver.  But making conversation with the person sitting next to you is a necessary part of a dinner party, however shy you are and however hard it is to break the ice.  It requires practice, of course.  But a good tip is to watch those who slip easily into conversation with strangers.  Yes, it means a bit of hard work to be entertaining but as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it "good manners are made up of small sacrifices".

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