Master the art of making conversation with these expert strategies
The first batch of invites to holiday parties has started arriving. And while there’s a lot to love about these festive gatherings, having to meet so many new people and make so much small talk can be overwhelming—even to those born with the gift of gab.
“Most of us are very self-centered in these situations, and think that everyone in the room notices that we have no one to talk to or knows that we feel uncomfortable,” says small talk expert Debra Fine, author of Beyond Texting and The Fine Art of Small Talk. Happily, she says that's untrue. At parties, everyone (except the host) is thinking about themselves—their outfits, their friends, and their plans for later. They're absolutely not wondering why you are standing alone by the cheese platter. (So don't panic—though you might want to read Effortless Tips to Avoid Overeating at Holiday Parties.)
The easiest way to master small talk, says Fine, lies in getting outside your own head. “You should always assume the burden of your conversation partner’s comfort,” she says. Once you stop worrying about how you’re coming off and start focusing on making the other person relaxed, insecurities falls away, leaving you free to dazzle. These eight tips will help you do exactly that.
Before the party, think up a few questions. (For this time of year, Fine suggests, “What are your [work, travel, vacation, etc.] plans for next year?” “Are you making any New Year’s resolutions?” and “What are your holiday plans—any fun traditions?”) Then call out a few topics you can talk about if you’re asked. Maybe you’re training for a marathon or have family coming to visit. This way, you’ll have all the conversation fodder you need to avoid awkward moments.
If you don’t know anyone else at the party, introducing yourself can feel intimidating. To make it easier, Bill Lampton, Ph.D., president of Championship Communication, suggests talking about yourself. First, just introduce yourself. Then, bring up your topic of choice, which can be as simple as how you know the party’s host or as complex as how the season impacts your work schedule, (“Boy, am I busy. November is our busiest month at work!”). Finally, invite your speaking partner to weigh in: “Does your job pick up this time of year too?” Bam—instant convo!
A trap many people fall into is answering other people’s questions incompletely, says Fine. It’s understandable. After all, “What’s new?” is often code for “Hello.” But when you’re trying to make small talk, responding, “Not much, you?” is a surefire conversation stopper. Instead, Fine says to make a point of offering a real answer. “If someone asks just, ‘How’ve your holidays been?’ rather than just saying fine, I might say, ‘Great, both my sons are coming in from the east to spend a week with us. I’m really looking forward to it.’” That way, she says, you’ve offered up more conversation topics—your kids, holiday travel, visitors, and so on.
Even if you’re playing the conversation game like a pro, the person you’re talking with may not be. If you’re being handed one-word answers, dig deeper, says Fine. “You have to prove you didn’t just mean ‘Hello’ when you said ‘How’s it going?’” she explains. “If they respond, ‘Good,’ have a follow-up ready, like, ‘What’s new with you since the last time I saw you?’” (Don't miss Why Conversations Go Wrong—and How to Fix Them.)
A good rule of thumb is to steer clear of asking anything you don’t already know the answer to, says Fine. That means no “How’s your boyfriend?” if you don’t know for sure that they’re still together, no “How’s your job?” unless you can guarantee she’s still working there, and no “Did you get into Penn State?” unless you know she did. Stick to broader questions, like “What’s new?” or “Any plans for next year?”
Been cornered by a chatty Cathy since you walked in? Take a cue from talk show hosts. When they’re running out of time during a news segment, they’ll signal their interviewee by saying something like, “There’s time for one more question,” or “We only have about a minute left…”
Obviously, you can’t be so blunt in real life, but try dropping hints—or, as Fine calls it, “waving the white flag.” First, acknowledge what the other person has been saying: “Wow, your kids sound really accomplished.” Then wave the white flag: “I just saw my friend walk in and I want to say hi…” And finally, offer one last remark or question. “…but before I do, tell me, how did Sally end up doing on her SATs?” “This lets both of you get out with dignity,” says Fine.
If you’re introverted, shy, or even just feeling tired or sick, parties can be stressful. That’s why Fine suggests giving yourself a built-in breather. Before a get-together, she’ll give herself a goal—usually something like talking to two or three new people. Once she’s fulfilled her quota, she takes a time-out, relaxing alone. This gives her extra incentive to socialize, without getting burned out—guaranteeing she’ll have a good time.