A Little More Conversation
By Steve Greenlee
WEEKEND / POP! Anyone who’s ever panicked at a party over the prospect of talking to people they don’t know would do well to read Debra Fine’s new book, “The Fine Art of Small Talk.” Fine, 50, was quiet and shy in her younger years but now is warm, funny, and outgoing, and she teaches employees of Fortune 500 companies how to talk to one another. We reached her at her home in Colorado.
Q. Hi Debra. It’s Steve Greenlee from The Boston Globe. How are you?
A. Good. How’s Boston today?
Q. Beautiful. It’s 11 degrees. Doesn’t your book say don’t start a conversation by asking about the weather?
A. I wouldn’t say don’t do it. I wouldn’t recommend it. I was interested, actually. I have a son at Tufts.
Q. So, uh, what’s your sign?
A. You don’t really wanna know. What’s yours? I could guess. I don’t even know what my kids’ signs are. Do you know what your kids’ signs are? I know you have kids. Do you know how I know that? I Googled you. You have twin boys.
Q. Now you’re scaring me. Did you MapQuest my house too?
A. No, I wanted to prepare for the interview. The point is that I prepared so that we’d have something to talk about.
Q. I guess you should be asking me the questions.
A. No, you’re in control. That’s probably why you’re a journalist. Should we analyze you?
Q. No thanks. If you could be any kind of tree, what kind of tree would you be?
A. Oh my God. You and Barbara Walters. Do you have issues we should talk about? An olive tree. Peace. No one’s ever asked me that question before. An olive tree. I like olives. Do you like olives?
Q. Yeah, I like olives. I’m trying to see if I can kill the conversation, and you won’t let me.
A. That’s the key: Assume the burden of other people’s comfort. If you’re shy, you’d never assume that.
Q. So, do you talk to everyone? The clerks at the grocery store? What about the old guy who welcomes you to Wal-Mart?
A. It depends. You shouldn’t feel obligated on elevators or at Wal-Mart to stop and chat with people. But I do it at church or synagogue, and sometimes in line at Target. I make myself talk to three new people every week.
Q. Does anyone ever go overboard with the small talk, in your estimation? You ever want to just tell someone to shut up?
A. Yeah, there are a couple of kinds of people. There’s the FBI agent, who won’t stop asking questions; some people do it because they just won’t shut up, and some people do it because they’re shy and they heard you’re supposed to ask a lot of questions. Then there’s people who are nervous Nellies, and they just babble. I’ve heard myself do this.
Q. What topics are off-limits?
A. The biggest problem we have is we make statements about politics or religion, and we become proselytizers. We could do that in Boston about the Red Sox: “They were lucky. That won’t happen again, winning the World Series.” When people make statements about any topic and forget to ask their conversational partner what their opinion is . . . People do it with the weather: “Global warming that’s why we’re getting the hurricanes.”
Q. Speaking of the weather, is it cold enough for you?
A. You know why that’s a good opening line?
Q. That’s a good opening line?
A. It can be. If you walk up to me and say, “Deb, is it cold enough for you?” it’s allowed me to break the ice for you. Any ice breaker works as long as it’s not offensive.
Q. What’s the worst small-talk conversation you’ve ever had, aside from this one?
A. This one’s good. Are you kidding me?
Q. How do you end a really bad conversation ?
A. You can ask for a “referral,” or give them a warning, by saying something like, “I have a meeting in five minutes,” or “I need to talk to someone here with small children. Do you know anyone here with small children?”
Q. Before I let you go, let me ask you one more question.
A. That was very good.
All content herein is © Globe Newspaper Company and may not be republished without permission.