The Kansas City Star, – December 5, 2005
Patter Matters – Small Talk Breaks Ice and Can Build Friendships – By EDWARD M. EVELD
Copyright 2005 The Kansas City Star
What a party!
The guests are no good at small talk. They’re getting migraines trying to come up with something to say, except for the ones too shy even to try.
The really good small-talkers are feeling the full burden of conversation maintenance. They wrongly concluded that the timid, bad small-talkers are stuck up.
The there are the ones who see little value in small talk. unless someone is willing to discuss something weighty, they won’t make the effort.
It’s holiday get-together season, a bonanza for those who can easily converse with people they don’t know very well. For others, the prospect brings reactions ranging from yawns to nausea.
It would do everyone some good to remember the reason for small talk in the first place, said Victoria Kandt, an exectuive and performance coach in Kansas City. Light conversations has real social and cultural purpose.
“Small talk is really about searching for things you have in common, ” Kandt said. “Most of our conversations, deep or otherwise, start with small talk.”
Some people come by it naturally. Others can get better.
Brian Sandels of Shawnee is like a lot of people, friendly enough but not the kind who strikes up a conversation with every stranger. While he knows people who can do that, he figures it’ not in his genes.
“On the other hand, you don’t just want to sit in the corner looking like you don’t want to be there,” he said.
Which is sort of what Debra Fine used to do. She’s a self-described dork, or former dork, and author of a new book, The Fine Art of Small Talk (Hyperion, $16.95)
Fine knew she was an unengaged guest at parties – and unengaging. She knew she was awkward and overweight. An engineer, she told herself she had the typical engineer’s personality.
But tired of making excuses for herself, she got curious: How did some people do so well at casual conversation? Surely cocktails weren’t the whole answer. After researching her book, she concluded that while not everyone can become charismatic, they can improve.
One person told Fine that getting better at small talk not only helped him socially but also made his job as a surgical prep technician – he shaved patients for surgery – more comfortable and, finally, rewarding. Conversation helped relax nervous patients.
“It’s not about an agenda” he said, “but is simply a way to acknowledge a person as being very real and very there.”
Like her, Fine said, a lot of bad small-talkers could use an attitude change. To get motivated, shy or unengaging guests should confront their selfishness, she said. Apparently they care more about their own comfort than that of others. By assuming none of the responsibility of conversation, they aren’t investing in other guests and they’re not contributing to the event.
Fine said that, like Sandels, she will never be the person who chats up everyone in the grocery store line or holds court in a crowded elevator. But she makes it a point three times a week to start a conversation with someone she doesn’t know.
“The rewards are enormous. And it sharpens my skills,” she said. “It’s like running. With practice I get better and better.”
The biggest risk is that the other person will blow you off, Fine said, but so what?
“I’ll get over that pretty quick,” she said. “Shy people need to remind themselves of that.”
Perhaps the most important small-talk skill to learn: Use “free information” as conversation starters, Fine said.
The first bit of free information is that you and the other guests are at the same event. Ask about their interest in the event. Or if the gathering is at someone’s home, ask about their connection to the hosts. Offer information of your own, such as, “I met Susan in college; how do you know her?”
The environment may offer material, including art and photographs: “How did you get your dachshund to pose like that?”
A few weeeks ago Fine noticed that the woman on the plane next to her was watching HGTV and commented on the type of home-and-garden shows she liked best. Besides leading to a pleasant discussion, Fine’s comment led to some business. The woman booker as a speaker for a group of financial advisers she worked with.
Small-talkers do best with open-ended questions. They elicit longer answers or stories that will move the conversation along.
Some people, Krandt said, provide a good conversations starter but fail to listen well, missing the cues to find out more about the other person. Listening takes practice, too, she said.
Form many, including those most anxious about social gatherings, it’s OK to actually prepare, Fine said.
Thinking ahead about who will be there, going over their names and rehearsing what you know about them can make you feel comfortable walking in. If you know you’ll get stuck after commenting on the weather, review for yourself some current events that caught your interest.
“Have two or three things in your head,” Fine said. “It only takes a minute.”
If you’re reluctant to approach large groups, look for someone standing alone or for a small group of three. Smile at people and look at their eyes or, if that’s hard for you, at least at their eyebrows. They can’t tell the difference, Kandt said.
Sandels, a 32-year-old assistant controller, said his strategy is to find a group that includes people he knows well and a few he doesn’t. The he listens for an entry into the conversation. It’s a comfortable way to reach out, he said.
“I’m all for making new friends,” he said. “But I need the comfort of people I know.”
Finally, if you arent’ ready to be the approacher, the experts said, at least look approachable to others. That means don’t slump or stare at your shoes. Have a pleasant look on your face. It might take a conscious effort.
“If I didn’t pay attention to my body language,” Fine said, “my head would be down, my shoulders would get round. I never let that happen now.”
There are pitfalls to avoid. One is to take care that your questioning doesn’t come off as in inquisition, too rapid-fire or too personal. And avoid questions that might end up badly: “So Sarah is a senior this year. Did she get asked to the prom?”
And while it’s great to find a strong connection with someone, don’t consider that person a safe harbor and drop anchor. You aren’t there to monopolize that person’s evening, Kandt said. Exchange information and get together again later.
To Fine, small talk is still not a passion for her, although she has a passion for the good tings casual conversatoins can bring, she said.
“If I had to pick what I wanted to do even today, got to a party or read a good book,” she said, ” I would probably pick the book. But I could go to that party and have a lovely time.”
Do your part
Here are a few of author Debra Fine’s ideas about being a part of the conversation solution, rather than the problem, at gatherings.
■ Be ready to tell others something interesting or challenging about what you do.
■ When you tell a story, present the main point first and then add the supporting details.
■ Compliment others about what they are wearing, doing or saying.
■ Ask others about things they have told you in previous conversations.
■ Listen carefully for free information.
■ Be ready to ask open-ended questions to learn more.
■ Be enthusiastic about other people’s interests.
■ Keep up to date on current events and issues that affect our lives.
■ Accept a person’s right to be an individual with different ideas and beliefs.
■ Reintroduce yourself to someone who is likely to have forgotten your name.
■ Be ready to invite others to join you for other events and activities to further the relationship.
■ Start and end your conversations with the person’s name and a handshake or warm greeting.
■ Find an approachable person. Smile, make eye contact, offer a handshake.
■ Seek common interests, goals and experiences with the people you meet.
■ See that the time is balanced between giving and receiving information.