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Tag Archives: The Fine Art of Small Talk

Posted on Friday, January 9th, 2015

Party Time? A Cheat Sheet To Help Break The Ice

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Of all the crazy things I’ve been asked about regarding The Fine Art of Small Talk (“Dear Debra, I know my boyfriend is going to propose but I don’t want to marry him” — ohhhhh.), it’s the everyday situations that can cause the most jitters.

We are in the thick of the holiday season, which means lots of parties, dinners, gift exchanges, cocktail events, company soirees and neighborhood gatherings. Here’s a short and sweet cheat sheet to get you through some of the stickiest situations.

There are some hard and fast rules: 
• Arrive with three topics to talk about; think of these as your safety net should you need them.
• Always be polite.
• Always be gracious.
• Always smile.
• Remember that you are likely harder on yourself than necessary.
• Remember that a lot of people get nervous, a lot of people are shy, a lot of people are uncomfortable — and those people are dealing with their own anxieties so they are not paying attention to yours.
• Alcohol or 22 cream puffs will not make the situation better. Ever.
• Steer away from foul language and sexual innuendos or starting any sentence with ‘I heard this joke that is SO funny. You are going to laugh SO hard. Now let me see if I remember it…’
• If you have that little voice that says ‘maybe I shouldn’t say this,’ listen to that voice. And listen good.
• It is not your responsibility to babysit other adults; but it is your responsibility to be a good guest or a good host by introducing yourself and participating in conversation.
• If someone, including you, thinks you’ve had too much to drink you probably have.
• You don’t have to answer every question — your weight, your income and your relationship can be off limits if you wish them to be.

If You’ve Met Someone Before But Have Forgotten Their Name — Again.
It’s so good to see you again. Forgive me; I’ve temporarily forgotten your name. Will you remind me?

If You’ve Met Someone 20 Times Before But Have Forgotten Their Name – Again.
Discreetly ask a friend to remind you and if that doesn’t work: It’s so good to see you again. Forgive me; I’ve temporarily forgotten your name. Will you be kind enough to remind me?

If You’ve Been Given A Gift That You Hate:
Thank you for thinking of me.
If You’ve Been Given A Gift But Didn’t Give One to the Giver:
Thank you for thinking of me.

If You Were Expecting A Year-End Bonus and Received a Jelly Of The Month Membership:
Thank you for thinking of me.

If You Are Hosting A Dinner And Guests Are More Than An Hour Late:
Make sure nobody is stranded on the highway and then encourage your guests to begin dining. It appears John and Jane are running a bit late; let’s begin and they will join us when they arrive.

When John and Jane Do Finally Arrive:
We’re so glad you’re here! Let me take your coat and get you settled; we started dinner; please sit down and allow me to get you a plate.

When You Are Serving Alcohol But You Know a Particular Guest Doesn’t Drink:
May I offer you something to drink?

When Someone At Your Event Has Had Too Much To Drink And Is Being Obnoxious:
Wow — it’s getting late! Thank you for joining us. Let me get your coat.

When Someone At Your Event Has Had Too Much To Drink And Drove To The Party:
Wow — it’s getting late! I hired Uber for tonight’s party; your driver is outside. Let me get your coat and walk you out.

When Someone At Your Party Has Food Allergies or Sensitivities That You Were Not Aware Of Prior To Arrival:
My apologies for not being aware; the salad and dessert are both (fill in the blank: gluten-free, dairy-free, nut-free) but the main coarse is not. May I offer you something else, such as a piece of chicken?

When Someone At Your Party Has Food Allergies or Sensitivities And Brought Their Own Food:
Thank you! Let me plate this for you and then we can sit down!

When Someone At Your Party Shares Big News That Is Not Necessarily Good News (divorce, job loss, illness, the latest Kardashian episode): I’m so sorry to hear this news, John. How can we be of support? 

When Someone At Your Party Shares Big News That Is Very Good News:
What wonderful news, John! May I offer a toast to celebrate (make a heartfelt toast.)?

When Someone At Your Party Is Intent On Talking About Things You Do Not Wish to Discuss (politics, religion, money, the Kardashians):
Gosh, I don’t think we have enough wine in the house to tackle this issue tonight! Speaking of wine, I was thinking back to the best gift I ever gave and it was the trip to Napa I surprised Steve with in 2008. What was a favorite gift you gave or received?

When You Are Stuck In A Conversation That You Want to End:
It was great catching up with you. Excuse me, I see Jane just walked in and I must say hello.

You’ve Insulted Someone By Mistake:
Forgive me! I did not mean to hurt you in any way (change the subject quickly).

You Are Tired and Want Everyone to Leave:
This was such a fun night (stand up, begin clearing dishes, do not open more wine.) – thank you all for being here. 
Whatever situation you are in, remember that being kind and generous usually solves most problems. If that doesn’t work, remember it will all be over soon.

Happy Holidays!

Follow Debra Fine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DebraFine

Posted on Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

Back to School: Top Ten Ways To Avoid Flunking the Fall

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It’s here! The school year is back! Some parents may be jumping for joy, especially those dealing with an eye-rolling teen or a bored 8-year-old. And some are white-knuckling it through the emotional turmoil of prepping a college-bound young adult (when did THAT happen — didn’t he just lose his baby teeth and learn how to tie his shoes?) for departure. Speaking from experience, that’s a rough one. Survivable, but rough.

Because the summer usually offers many freedoms — later nights, lazier mornings and space in between to just be a kid — the structure of a fall schedule can be a bit jarring for the under-20 crowd.

And while I am no David Letterman (love you, Dave!), I love a good Top 10 List, so below are the Top 10 Ways to Avoid Flunking the Fall.

1. Back Up Bedtime:

No matter what age your child is, chances are the bedtime hour has vacillated a bit over the past three months. Use these weeks before school to start transitioning into an earlier bedtime and a more structured wake-up routine. Ever try to wake a 15-year-old boy at 6:30 a.m. after a summer of sleeping until lunch? Exactly.

2. Collaborate on Calendars:

Add school and sports events to your calendar now, and share that information with your spouse and any other important people in your life. If your child is old enough to carry a smartphone or iPad, have him update his own calendar. This will encourage him to be responsible for his activities and can be a useful tool for tracking homework deadlines and social engagements. If your child is younger, discuss what each week will look like and create a chart that will help him understand his schedule. If your child can’t read, use stickers (a sticker of a soccer ball on Wednesday, for example).

If your child is leaving for college, talk through their class load, asking open-ended questions on how they foresee accomplishing schoolwork, any part-time work, sports, social and volunteer responsibilities. By talking with your child about prioritizing their time, you are setting them up for success and showing them that accomplishing a myriad of tasks doesn’t happen well without a plan in place.

3. Manage Medical Mayhem:

Make sure your child — no matter what his age — is up-to-date on vaccinations and physical exams. It’s easier to accomplish this task now rather than wait until the day before football practice starts. I speak from experience here. Also, if your child has late starts and early dismissals during the school year (this is a standard in some Colorado districts), schedule future appointments for those chunks of time. It’s much easier to squeeze in a teeth cleaning or eye appointment on those short days than try to do maneuver kids and teens after school when offices are busier and kids are over-booked.

4. Communicate About Communication:

Do you want your college freshman to connect with you daily? Weekly? Via phone? Via text? Via email? Clarify your expectations around this issue now to save headaches and heartaches later. Remember that your college freshman is, for the first time, out on his own. Maybe he doesn’t want to check in with you daily; or fill you in on every last detail of his day and night. Maybe you DO, in fact, want to hear his actual voice once or twice a week and would rather not find out about his life on Facebook. Communicating about communication will alleviate future confusion.

If you are parenting a younger child, carve out time at the end of each day to talk. Avoid asking: “How was school?” unless you are ok with getting a “Fine” in response. “Tell me during your science lab” or “What was the funniest thing that happened today” will get your child talking.

5. Role Play Reality:

Help your child, regardless of age, practice his social graces. Role-play introductions to friends, teachers and parents. Discuss the benefits of a firm handshake, a smile, eye contact and decent posture. Remind him that social media is forever, so think long and hard before posting anything that he wouldn’t want his grandmother or boss to see. Talk about ways to avoid peer pressure when it comes to drinking, drugs, sex, cheating, bullying and gossip.

Help younger children deal with playground issues by teaching them about walking away or stating clearly: “I don’t like it when you push me.” Remind kids of all ages that they have what it takes to handle tricky situations, but they can always come to you or another trusted adult if needed.

6. Find a Friend:

Taking your child to college? Make some inroads with the parents of their dorm-mate or floor resident advisor so you have another contact should you need it. Make conversation with other incoming freshmen and their parents without overdoing it; it’s not a popularity contest but it is a chance to make some connections for both you and your child.

For younger children, invite a classmate over to play before school starts and don’t skip on Meet the Teacher night, even if your child has been going to the same school for years. Having familiar faces to search out is so helpful, no matter your age. Let’s be honest, even adults look for someone they know when walking into a party or business function. Give this gift to your child and alleviate a bit of stress for everyone.

7. Navigate the Necessities:

Handle haircuts, new shoes, lunch boxes, school supplies, clothes and toiletries now. Let your child have a say in what he wants to wear on a regular basis and pick your rules sparingly. Forcing a kid to wear collared shirts and khakis while the rest of the pack is in sport shorts and sweatshirts are, um, mean. Agree that you have final say on special occasions (picture day, school plays, etc.). Don’t micro-manage things like coats and gloves. Kids figure out pretty quickly that standing at the bus stop in a t-shirt is pretty miserable when it 14 degrees outside.

For the college-bound, stores likeBed Bath & Beyond will allow you to shop for items in your home state and pick them up in another state, making packing the car that much easier. As for clothes, remind your child that less is more in a tiny space — and that you can always send needed items if necessary. Or use this as a way to entice them home more often…all’s fair in love and empty nesting.

8. Make It Personal:

For the shorter set, add notes to their lunch boxes or color on their breakfast napkins — anything that lets them know you miss them and think about them and encourage them. I’ve seen blogs about cutting sandwiches and fruit into fun shapes to make little kids smile. And while that’s such a cute idea, we both know it won’t happen for long. But a quick “Good luck with spelling” on a sticky will do the trick.

For those heading out of the house for college, send a care package! Then send another one! And another one! Kids love getting mail and treats, no matter how cool they are. I would jump for joy if I opened my mailbox and found a box filled with cookies, new magazines and a $20 bill, wouldn’t you?

9. Make It Easy:

Hoping your freshman will send letters to you? His grandparents? His siblings? Provide him with a stack of funny cards and other various stationary along with a book of stamps and a list of addresses — and then just hope for the best. Offer a gentle reminder about how HAPPY his grandparents would be to receive a handwritten note from him. Remind him that his grandparents have been putting money in his college fund since birth.

10. Read My Book or Have Your Teen Read My Book or Read My Book Out Loud to Your Teen:

I’m kidding on the last one – do not read this book out loud to your teen because then your teen will hate us both.

This is not even a plug for you to BUY the book. I swear. I don’t care if you get it from the library or page through it at the bookstore. Really. But Beyond Texting: The Fine Art of Face-to-Face Communication for Teenagers was written for a reason – to help children and young adults navigate human interaction, balance real life in a digital world, and use technology as a tool instead of a crutch.

 

Posted on Friday, March 28th, 2014

Teaching Teens The Fine Art of Communication Could Save the World!

 

beyond texting book cover

Technology is a such a blessing… Until it becomes a curse. Or a crutch. Maybe it’s all three, actually, when you really stop to think about it. After all, it’s lovely to text a friend, letting her know you are running late for a get-together but being constantly tethered to a device and the never-ending beeping and ringing can be exhausting. Blessing vs. curse.

But it’s the crutch part that resonated with me to such a level that I wrote my third book, Beyond Texting: The Fine Art of Face-to-Face Communication for Teenagers. I didn’t go willingly, as they say.

The book was a result of being asked by my publishers, friends, and colleagues to please write a book for the younger generation. I didn’t want to do it. I texted and emailed and FaceTimed my publisher over and over again refusing. But by then my brain had been tuned into the teenagers and 20-somethings I encountered everywhere I went, and after watching so many of them, including my own, relying on their devices to make it in the world, I relented.

Seeing teenagers constantly head down, earbuds in and hunched over their smartphones really made a mark on me. I first considered going to chiropractic school, knowing that the future generation is going to have loads of neck problems (for all of you entrepreneurs out there, may I suggest considering this line of work because surely there is money to be made) but I am no spring chicken, and small talk is my gig.

So, the book and the blogs and the talks begin now. Not to blow my own horn, but I am basically singlehandedly saving the world. I know, I know — it’s a big job. But without face-to-face communication skills, the next generation will be unable to make conversation, ask for a date, propose to a mate and, thus, create the next generation. The entire human race could die off if we don’t start teaching our teens how to communicate! I don’t know about you, but I’d like some grandchildren one day. And someone to serve me tapioca in the home — when and if the time comes.

How do you teach your teen the proper way to build relationships and interact with others? While my book offers an in-depth approach, these three tips will help you both get started:

Exude Energy:
It’s normal to feel nervous and overwhelmed when entering an unfamiliar situation. Take a deep breath and relax. Can’t? Well, fake it if you can, and remind yourself that everybody else is feeling the same way. Put away your phone and look at others in the eye, smile and extend a firm handshake. It will feel awkward at first, and you will be itching to reach for your device as a way to curb your panic, but force yourself to engage on a human level because it gets easier. I promise. By appearing energetic, interested, engaged and friendly, people will be drawn to you, making the vibe in the room even more inviting and comfortable for you and others.

Break the Ice:
Initiating a conversation with a stranger is a gift that keeps on giving — to both you and the your conversation partner. Even after all these years of small talk, I always enter a room with at least three topics to talk about. Always. So, here are some conversation starters that work:

• How’d you do on the test? The essay part was the toughest for me!
• Have you met the new science teacher?
• Biology is killing me — can we study together?
• I was behind you at the assembly this morning. What did you think about the presentation?
• I love your (band) shirt. Did you know they are playing here this summer?

There is no ‘perfect’ conversation starter, but there is always an ‘A’ for effort, so saying hello first will earn you credit. Sure, you’re going to get rejected sometimes and that’s life. But by trying, and by being kind and genuine, you have a better shot of starting a meaningful exchange.

Introduce (and then Re-Introduce) Yourself:
This is so basic – but so often overlooked! Sometimes you’ve managed to actually start and carry on a great conversation and you walk away realizing that you have no idea what someone’s name is and they have no idea what yours is! Give someone the gift of your name, even if you think they may know you already:

John (to a professor): I was so happy with the B on the final

Professor: Yes, good work.

John: I’m John Smith – I am in your Tuesday/Thursday class and am registering for your course next semester.

Professor: Great, John. I’ll look forward to seeing you in class.

John: Thanks Professor Green; have a good summer.

John re-introduced himself to his professor and established a connection. Next semester, if John needs some additional help or is looking for a reference, he’s already set himself apart from the other hundreds of students Professor Green sees every week. One small exchange can result in big things.

When I look back on my teen years, I shudder at the memories. My hands shook during presentations. My mouth went dry when a boy talked to me. My heart pounded when I walked into a party alone. The tips I shared here — and the others in my book — are not earth-shattering but oh so necessary. Social media may be killing all of of our social skills. But by teaching our teens the basics, and helping them embrace face-to-face communication, we are saving the world! And we have a greater chance of having successful, self-supporting adult children! And grandchildren! And tapioca!

Posted on Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

How To Win The Gold Medal In Losing

Fine Showing at the Super BowlI don’t know if you heard, but the Denver Broncos lost the Super Bowl. I know, I know, I was shocked too; but at least I got to be shocked in person, because I was actually at the Super Bowl this year. You know that famous painting by Edvard Munch titled, appropriately, The Scream? Now you’ve got the visual of Debra Fine at the game, except I have way more hair and I was wearing way more orange.

I would like to say I handled the loss with grace and aplomb, but I was — you know — disappointed. All Broncos fans were disappointed. We (and, yes, I speak for every single Broncos fan here) never even considered a loss. No one told us. I considered blaming the loss on Joe Namath’s coat, but that seems immature. What did that coatever do to me?

I was with my husband and our children and, as usual, I was, impressed with the good sportsman like conduct we all managed to embody during what some (some = me) have called a bloodbath. You already know my view on booing; but let’s face it — losing is just not as much fun as winning.

So here I am, licking my wounds from the Super Bowl loss while already engrossed in the Olympic games and I am asking myself what, exactly, makes a good loser?

And no matter who you are and what you say, we have all been on the losing side of life. Perhaps you were not given a deserved promotion, asked to the prom by the one guy you actually wanted to go with instead of that Mr. Creepers from chem who asked you two years in a row, chosen for the schoolyard kickball team or voted asAmerica’s Next Top Model (I can’t answer to the last one, but the others, well, let’s just say I get it and leave it at that). How do you overcome the sting of losing? The bigger question — how do you overcome the loss and become a gracious loser?

Earlier this month
I watched the women snowboarders battle it out on the slopes of Sochi and my heart swelled with the obvious rapport between the competitors. Not only were they all engaged in each other’s attempts, they were hugging and high-fiving at the beginning and the end of each run. Even while standing at the bottom of the hill, realizing that the gold had just gone to American Jamie Anderson, Enni Rukajani of Finland and Jenny Jones of Great Britain, now taking home the silver and the bronze respectively, were congratulating Anderson — in a big way. Hugs, smiles, kisses and words of praise. When Sarka Pancochova managed to make her way down the mountain unattended after a major spill that resulted in a cracked helmet and what I can only assume what will be a screaming headache (and hopefully not more), the spectators and competitors alike were rooting her on. Everything was how it should be — kind, gracious and authentic.

It’s hard to know what to say and how to say it when you are in the tornado that comes with loss. Emotions are whirling, reality is setting in and your mind, body and soul are trying to comprehend what just happened.

I’ve had several people approach me over the years about this topic. And, like most parents, I’ve had to patch up the broken spirits of my children when things didn’t turn out the way they had hoped. So we all have experience in losing; but some of us need practice on how to handle it.

Here’s the good news: you are allowed to be totally and utterly disappointed at a loss. That’s normal. If you didn’t feel the pangs that come with defeat, you would not be human which would make you a robot or — worse — dead. So accept the fact that every single person has experienced loss and every single person, except maybe Ghandi, felt upset by that loss. You are free to go home and eat half a sheet cake, or rip out that ugly fireplace or make fun of Joe Namath’s coat, but in the meantime, you get to take this opportunity to congratulate someone else for his or her good fortune. Rule number one when it comes to being a good loser is to keep all negative comments out of the mix and be the first one to approach the winner. Do not hide out in the corner (eating sheet cake or mocking Joe Namath!), square your shoulders, take a breath and walk up to the winner with purpose and pride.

Sound impossible? It’s not. And like someone somewhere said sometime, you can do anything for a minute. Here’s how:

You and a colleague were up for the same promotion and it was just announced that your colleague was awarded the job:

What to say: “Pete! Wow! Congratulations on the promotion.”

What to do: Smile, shake Pete’s hand and excuse yourself. You don’t need to be a hero and soak in Pete’s success; you just need to be gracious and polite. You can go now. Go on. Go get that sheet cake. Skedaddle.

You are sitting at a very expensive fundraising dinner because you are a finalist in a philanthropic award pool; and your name is not called:

What to say: “Beth — congratulations on the win. Your efforts this year have been amazing and it was an honor to be nominated along with you.”

What to do: Send Beth a note later in the week. Send the award committee/event host a note later in the week. Send yourself some flowers.

You are sitting with a bunch of other parents at the Homecoming game when they announce the queen and instead of your daughter, it is that spray-tanned obnoxious cheerleader who, by the way, had lice in the fourth grade.

What to say: “Congratulations, Ann. Jessica must be thrilled.”

What to do: Go find your daughter, hug her, tell her that high school is almost over, and remind her that she never had lice.

Your son does not make the baseball team:

What to say: “I’m sorry, buddy. How are you feeling? I’m proud of you for going out for the team and trying your best.”

What to do: Hug him, tell him that grade school is almost over and soon he’ll be in high school where the homecoming queen won’t give him the time of day and then have a job with the possibility of a promotion and then he will do a lot for the community and will be up for a non-profit award that he won’t get and this loss will just be one of many!! Ok — delete everything after “hug him.” Add in a Dairy Queen run. Call it a day.

In 99 percent of losing scenarios, this recipe stays the same: Be first on the scene, offer a quick but sincere congratulations along with a handshake or hug when appropriate, and move on. To lose is inevitable, but to be a good loser is achievable. So go out there and be the best good loser you can be — gold medal or not — you’ll be happy you did.

 

 

Posted on Monday, January 13th, 2014

How To Accept A Compliment – Without Complicating It.

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Most of us are out there in there in the world giving it our all. Looking good, working hard, being a true friend, an attentive parent, a dedicated employee and a contributing member to society takes a lot time and energy. I mean, just drying my hair takes a solid 43 minutes. It’s not easy being me, you know? And wouldn’t it be nice if just once, someone noticed?

Yet when someone DOES notice, and they do, many of us either freeze up or immediately disregard the kind words coming at us. Why?

According to Robin Abrahams, columnist for the Boston Globe, people feel that when they acknowledge a compliment, they are validating it and, thus, patting themselves on the back. “Gosh, yes, drying my hair DOES take in inordinate amount of time and upper body strength!” seems, oh I don’t know, ridiculous.

But, according to Abrahams, deflecting a compliment is not modest or unpretentious; it’s actually a bit rude. After all, someone has taken the time to not only notice you and your efforts, but has gone a step further and actually acknowledged it. That’s nice, right?

You’d think hearing nice things about yourself would be easy, but in fact negativity weighs heavy. Aaron Ben-Zeev, a Ph.D quoted in Psychology Today, simplifies it: “To sum up, negative emotions are more noticeable than positive ones since attending to negative events is more important for our survival than attending to positive events.”

Is that why accepting a compliment is tough, because we are built with the fight or flight mechanism that saves us from something scary and, therefore, we are gravitate toward something negative versus positive? To put it simply: Is running from a bear easier than accepting a heartfelt compliment?

Let’s hope not. I’ve never run from a bear, but that sounds sort of hard.

Here’s the good news: I do know the secret to accepting a compliment. Are you ready? Here it comes:

Say “Thank you.”

Yep, that’s it. Just say thank you. Resist the urge to discount yourself and, in doing so, the complimenter (let’s pretend that’s a real word just for today, okay?). Resist the “Oh, this old head of hair?! I’ve had it forever! It’s nothing, really,” comeback and be a gracious complimentee (let’s pretend that’s another word, just for today).

Here are some responses to get your through what should be a great small talk exchange but could, in fact, cause you to panic as if you are, well, running from a bear. Remember, you can accept a compliment and still gently lead the conversation in another direction which is the sign of the true small talk pro that you are — here’s how:

Is that a new car? I like the color!
Thank you! I’ve never had a red car before and I am enjoying it.

I loved your speech.
Thank you. I am so glad you liked it.

Dinner was delicious.
Thank you. My sister made it years ago and it’s become a family favorite. What’s your go-to recipe?

Your children are so polite.
Thank you. That’s a really lovely thing to say.

Your new book is great!
Thank you; hearing that makes the hard work worth it. What else are you reading these days?

I can tell you worked hard on that report.
Thank you. It’s nice of you to notice.

Your hair looks fabulous.
Thank you. Now, check out my arms!

Posted on Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

Get OUT! How To End A Nice Conversation Nicely

 

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I am guessing you, like me, are decompressing from a holiday season full of social gatherings. Dinners and cocktail parties and brunches and school programs seem to quadruple in size during the months of November and December. Some are fancier than others. I mean, some of us even had soirees at The White House. I won’t mention any names, no reason to brag.

Okay — it was ME! Yes, I was in the nation’s capital last month and had the pleasure of rubbing elbows with President and Mrs. Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, my sister Naomi, and Governor Bill Ritter. Not necessarily in that order. Naomi still gets my vote.

This year’s Holiday Collection of blogs included how to start a conversation and how to break into a group who is already happily conversing, so by now you are feeling good, yes? You small-talked away with a previous stranger or enagaged in a lively discussion with a group. But then you want to…

Get. Out.

Yes, you’ve thoroughly enjoyed the chatting and you’ve used your skills to shine, but all good things must come to an end. Even a lively interchange that you, in fact, initiated. Here’s where honesty and maybe a little humor go hand-in-hand. If you are kind and to the point, you should be able to extricate yourself from the conversation without damaging the relationship or, more importantly, the other person’s ego.

In my book, The Fine Art of Small Talk, I dedicate an entire chapter to this very topic, but it’s the holiday season and there is no time for chapters — only short cuts. First, find a natural break in the conversation, whether it is someone else joining the group or the ending of a funny story. Then, smile, offer your hand, and use a direct, kind approach to disengage. Here are a few one-liners to help you on your way out:

The key is to be authentic. Do not lie. I have heard too many stories of people saying they had to go call the babysitter only to be caught minutes later by the conversation dumpee yukking it up on the other side of the room. So do what you say you are going to do and do not make false excuses. When it comes to conversational clout, you’ve got to take your oath seriously, White House or not.

Posted on Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

The Holiday Collection: Breaking In Without Breaking Out in a Cold Sweat

Debra with The Bidens!

 

So by now you know that I recently spent a few days and nights gallivanting around DC with elected officials.

Wait. That sounds bad, doesn’t it? Gallivant may be the wrong word as I am not — and will never be — Rielle Hunter.

But I did spend time at The White House and at Vice President Joe Biden’s private residence and it was and still is unforgettable. Being in the small talk business is a benefit for me because I usually don’t have the panic that others often experience when walking into an unfamiliar room with unfamiliar faces and starting a conversation. For those of you who suffer — and I know many of you do — I remember your pain. Last week’s blog included four simple steps to starting a conversation with a stranger; a little pre-holiday gift to keep you merry and bright. But what happens if you don’t find a singleton in the room? What if everyone is already grouped together and chatting merrily while you are standing alone, feeling foolish?

Breaking in is hard to do, especially when it comes to conversation. You don’t want to continue to stick out like the Lone Ranger without Tonto. You also don’t want to start lurking around like…well…I was going to say Rielle Hunter but that would be in poor taste. So, let’s just say you don’t want to start lurking around.

Not to fret my fellow small-talkers! There are simple, non-lurky ways to find your way into a group conversation. Here’s how:

Fake a seizure.

Kidding — here’s how to do it:

If there is someone specific in the room that you have been hoping to meet and he is engaged in a conversation with another person, wait patiently and then approach the OTHER person, your target’s conversation partner. Politely, ask for the other person’s permission to interrupt:

Hi, I’m Debra Fine. Excuse me for intruding, but I’ve been trying to connect with Bob for weeks. Would you mind if interrupted you both for just a moment?

Most people are gracious enough to agree.

The other option is to tap the shoulder of your intended conversation cohort and state your wishes:

Hi, I am Debra Fine. Excuse me for intruding, but I promised myself to connect with you, Bob, before the evening ends. Please look for me when you have a free moment.

At this point you will either be invited to join the conversation or Bob’s partner will excuse himself and move on (he may have been ready for greener pastures anyway, so double kudos). If neither of these things happens, Bob will know you made an effort and will likely seek you out later.

Attempting to break into a larger group? Try this:

Stand slightly away from the group, but show interest in the speaker while waiting for the group to acknowledge you. They will likely physically shift a bit to allow you into the inner circle.

Ease your way into the conversation by acknowledging that you have been listening. You can do this by nodding your head, smiling, or chuckling at a funny quip that’s been shared.

Look for visual cues that some or all of the group has warmed to you. At that point, you know you’ve been officially welcomed to use your small talk skills like the pro you are. No Rielle Hunter or fake seizures necessary.

Posted on Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Small Talk at The White House (yes – that White House)

White house 1

 

 

I’m going to a cocktail party at The White House next week. Yes, Debra Fine will be drinking champagne at The White House. Do I sound like I am bragging? I’m not. Well, maybe a smidge. But I am, in a word, thrilled. I have a feeling that Mrs. Obama and I will become lifelong friends and share workout tips, but I digress.

Back to business. While I am elated to be attending two VIP cocktail receptions in the nation’s capital (yes, I will also be at a little soiree with Vice President Joe Biden but didn’t want to rub it in), I know that the holiday cocktail party, whether at the White House or at your neighbor’s house, can cause distress for many of you. How do I know? From you! You’ve told me on Facebook, in Q&A sessions following a keynote speech, in personal emails, even in line at the grocery store! Not to fret, fellow small-talkers, navigating a cocktail reception is not as tough as you think.

Like everything else, there is a beginning, middle, and end.  It makes sense to start with the beginning, and get to the middle and end of a good cocktail party conversation in parts two and three of this series, respectively.

Let’s assume that you’ve got your icebreakers and three or four topics in mind for when a conversation starts happening. You’ve practiced your most winning smile in the privacy of your bathroom mirror, you don’t have any food in your teeth and you still remember your own name. All good things. So you arrive at an event where you know nobody and you wait for someone to approach you, right?

No, no, no. Remember, the holidays are all about giving — so give yourself and someone else the gift of conversation. When you enter a room, look around for others that are standing on their own. You can usually find these folks hovering around the buffet or obsessively checking their phone or standing much too close to a potted plant. These people are nervous and feeling awkward and, because of that, will be your very best listeners because you, savvy small talker that you are, are about to relieve them from feeling completely panicked and self-conscious.  Go you.

Be the first to make eye contact and smile at a stranger.  And if they don’t smile back, I will send you a paperweight from the president’s desk. Don’t ask me how I got it.

Once you’ve established eye contact, introduce yourself and offer a handshake.

Hello, I’m Debra Fine.

If the other person speaks your language, and you don’t receive a handshake and a name in return, I will send you a paperweight from Mrs. Obama’s desk (I believe she uses hers for bicep curls because wow, those arms, but I digress — again.).

Once you receive a name and a handshake, use the other person’s name and one of your icebreakers to get the conversation going. I find a statement/question combination to be the best bet:

It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ken. This is my first visit to the White House inner sanctum and it’s more than I imagined! What’s your history with visiting the White House?

Notice I did not pose a yes or no question, because then Ken and I might hit a roadblock. Instead Ken has the chance to either tell me he has never been to the White House, and then we can talk about being newbies to the whole experience; or Ken can tell me he has attended several functions, and then I can ask him about some of the highlights; or Ken can tell me he took his children on the standard White House tour and now I have some insight that Ken is a father and I can take the conversation in that direction. No matter what Ken’s response, the conversational path is lit for me. Let’s pretend that Ken is new, like me:

Isn’t this exciting, Ken? What surprises you most about being here?

The statement/question pattern is effective for starting and continuing conversation, especially if you keep the question open-ended (not a yes/no question). Now Ken and I are on our way to a meaningful exchange and Ken and I are not both standing alone in the middle of what might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be wined and dined at the White House.

See? It’s as easy as that.

It is.

At the end of the day, there are really four short steps to starting a conversation: • Find an approachable person • Make eye contact • Smile • Offer your name to them and use their name in conversation
Giving the gift of conversation is worthwhile to everyone. True success comes from taking the first step and saying hello. The topic is not nearly as important as the effort. So exercise your conversational muscle and do some heavy lifting when it comes to making small talk, because connecting with another person is even more important than sporting rock-hard biceps. I promise.

Posted on Thursday, December 5th, 2013

Making International Conversation Without An International Incident

             international

Dear Debra,

My partner and I travel often for work and pleasure, and while we are great traveling companions, we disagree on how to converse with the people we meet. When traveling internationally, specifically to poorer countries, is it condescending not to ask your taxi driver if he’s ever been to the U.S. (thus assuming that he does not have the financial means to travel?) — or is it worse to pose the question, when clearly the driver’s financial story seems obvious?

Please know that I am not a snob, nor am I typically a person who just assumes the life experience of those around me, I simply want to do the right thing. Do we appear like two wealthy, disconnected Americans living the high life, or do we level the playing field by asking this question? Interested to hear your take — thank you.

Sincerely,

Traveling Man

 

Dear Traveling,

First, I applaud you both for making small talk while traveling. And, I applaud you for traveling, period, as it opens up a new way of looking at the world.

I understand your dilemma, and I believe there is a balance. Instead of asking a specific question, such as: “Have you ever been to the U.S.?,” try approaching it from the angle of getting to know more about the person, rather than his or her specific vacations. Open-ended questions are the quickest and kindest way to achieve a positive end result.

Saying the cliché: “How are you today?,” is appropriate as long as you really mean it, and are planning to follow-up with a more engaging conversation. For example, jumping into a cab in Chicago and saying: “How are you today?,” is really just you saying hello, a form of greeting. When traveling internationally, asking “How are you?” is an actual question, one that will likely get a response. So, if you are hoping for a conversation in Chicago, “How are you?” won’t work — but if you are shooting for a meaningful exchange in another part of the world, you are in luck.

The key to keeping a conversation going is to dig a little deeper with your phrases and make the exchange about the other person.  Open-ended questions that might work for you and your partner while traveling could include:

• “We are so excited to be in Bali — what brought you here?”

• “What is your favorite thing about living in Bali?”

• “If we were to sample one new dish while in the country, what do you recommend and why?”

• “What advice would you give first-time visitors to this part of the country?”

• “How did you get started in this kind of work?”

• “Tell me about your family.”

• “Describe your definition of the perfect day in Bali.”

I, too, travel a lot for work and pleasure. Striking up a conversation has allowed me new experiences and lasting memories. Because of exchanges between myself and a local, I have discovered the best hole-in-the-wall restaurants, engaged in expeditions that are not listed in any guidebook and learned more about the city I am visiting than I ever imagined. And I’ve made many friends across the world. Real friends who ask, “How are you?” — and mean it.  Happy travels.

Posted on Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

She Said WHAT? Ten Things Not to Say at the Thanksgiving Table.

 

thanskgiving debTwo topics seem to dominate the morning shows during Thanksgiving week: what is the most fattening thing on the table and how to create the most decadent holiday menu. Is it just me, or does it seem counterproductive to dish on the heart-attack-inducing fat and calories in sausage stuffing while also talking about how to make the very best of said stuffing?

No matter, though, because you’ve got way bigger problems than creating the most succulent turkey while subsequently keeping the button on your pants from popping off and dinging someone in the neck. You actually have to sit at a table and converse with people. I know, I know — you almost forgot that part, didn’t you? Most people do. Everyone is so caught up in ironing napkins and fretting over burned pie crusts that by the time the actual celebration hits, there is a table full of guests ready to eat, drink and be conversational and then — whoops — conversation turns to confrontation. It’s like magic. Dark, spooky magic.

As you might imagine my years of small talking across the country have allowed me to hear loads of stories about awkward, painful, or downright rude comments made at the Thanksgiving table. Thanksgiving is a time to be grateful for the good things in life. And that includes the people around your table. Yes, all of them. YES, even Uncle Joe.

So — I am sharing with you my some of the most heinous conversation killers so you can both avoid saying them and dodge them if they come your way.

Debra Fine’s Top Ten Thanksgiving “Oh No, She Didn’t?!” Just Say That List:

1. “So! Any wedding plans?” or, next, “Any baby news yet?” Many of us (me included, I must admit) presume that running the dating marathon reaches the marriage finish line. No. And no again. As for the baby question, think first! What if the couple is struggling to conceive, doesn’t want to have children or is expecting but not ready to share the news? So pipe down. If someone wants you to know their intimate intentions, you will. Try this: “Catch me up on what’s happening since I last saw you two.”

2. “I heard Sarah got into Northwestern… why in the world is she going to Michigan State instead?” Maybe Sarah just loves green and white. Maybe Sarah didn’t really get into Northwestern. Maybe the economy has put a damper on attending private institutions. Maybe you should just pass the gravy. Try this: “I hear Sarah was accepted to a number of universities; what swayed her decision to go to MSU?” 3.”No, thanks. I gave up drinking after I see how it ruins families.” This is meant to deliberately point a finger, and everyone knows it. If you must address someone’s overindulgence, do it in private! Making someone feel bad about him or herself does not typically drive better behavior. It drives people to — well, I was going to say ‘drink,’ but that seems inappropriate here. Try this: “I’d love some water, thank you.”

4. “This house is so much smaller than your old one!” Um, yes, homeowners are aware of their square footage. Falling APRs and zero interest loans created a housing crisis for basically everyone, not just those strangers you read about in the newspapers. Try this: “What’s the best part of celebrating your first Thanksgiving in your new house?”

5. “Betcha wish you didn’t vote for him now!” Stop gloating and remember that we are all in this together. And karma is real. Start ridiculing your guests’ choice of candidates and I guarantee yours will turn up on the front page with a drug problem. Or a mistress. Or a mistress with a drug problem. You get the picture… and it’s an ugly one. Try this: “Who wants potatoes?”

6. “How much pie have you had?” or “Why aren’t you eating anything?” Leave everyone alone and let others eat or not eat; just worry about yourself and what you are putting in your own mouth which, at this point, seems to be your foot. Just because you slaved over the pumpkin pie or prepared three types of jello does not mean everyone is required to indulge. I mean, I would eat the three types of jello but …. Try this: “Everything is delicious.”

7. “I just can’t imagine being a stay-at-home mother — what do you do all day?” Oh, no no no — this is one of the lowest blows because it typically pits woman against woman and that is a crime! We must stick together, whether we are running a Fortune 500 company or running another load of laundry. Your job as a guest is to show genuine interest in your conversation partner; ask questions that elicit a thoughtful and honest response. Try this: “What surprised you about becoming a stay-at-home mother?” or “What part of the day do you love?” or “Walk me through a typical day at your house/office?”

8. “Nice shirt” (followed by an eye roll or a heavy sigh). Leave him alone. His priorities are not the same as yours. Appreciate that he is wearing a shirt. And hopefully pants. Period. Try this: “Nice shirt” (minus the eye roll and heavy sigh).

9. “Your son looks just like you and your daughter looks like she could be from a different family? Is she the milkman’s baby?” What if she IS the milkman’s baby? What if she is adopted? Personal questions that you do not know the answer to are never a good idea. I repeat — personal questions you do not know the answer to are never a good idea. These include:

“Did your son graduate?”

“How is the boyfriend?”

“Are you going to get him some braces?”

“Did she go to prom?”

“How’d she gain all that weight?”

“How’d she lose all that weight?”

“Did she find a job yet?”

Try this: “What’s the latest news on Jane?”

10. “Delicious! Did you cook this or order it?” You may be asking because you sincerely wish to know how you can create this dish yourself, but you are putting the host/hostess on the spot. Instead, compliment the dish and ask for the recipe after the meal. If it was not homemade, maybe she will confess. Or not. Try this: “Happy Thanksgiving everyone