Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Party time: Tips for smoother small talk

Tis the season for office Christmas parties. Does the thought of mingling make your palms sweat -- especially at your spouse's office soiree where you likely know no one or anything about them or at least nothing you can say to their face? If you need help making small talk, the tips here are timeless despite the fact that I wrote this four years ago.

I can talk to my colleague about anything EXCEPT work from 9-5, but we can’t seem to think of anything to talk about other than work when we go out to lunch. I have just enough social skill to know you shouldn’t talk about work at a party and I, like maybe some of you, worry about being engaging while mingling.

But what I’ve learned is that the best small-talkers are engaged. They succeed by showing genuine interest in others. And they’ve likely done their homework before the event.

See, by staying in a corner at a party or, worse, finding the TV and gluing yourself to the ballgame, you look like you don’t want to be there. At worst, you look stuck up. While making a favorable impression is important, to make friends or keep your job, it’s far more important to put others at ease and make them feel valued. When you invest in other guests, you’re also contributing to the event, said Debra Fine, author of “The Fine Art of Small Talk.” And I think that’s a way to thank your host for the invite.

Making small talk is a skill. Like penmanship, it requires practice to do well.

If you’re not sold on trying this yourself by the end of my column, at least try to look approachable. Smile, make eye contact and wait for the small-talkers to come to you.

It’s not easy for wallflowers to uproot their feet. Especially when you walk in fashionably late, as we did to my husband’s office Christmas party, and everyone’s already paired up at tables and gabbing away.

I dragged the husband to the table where the boss’s secretary sat with the office courier and his wife. There I was able to employ a tip I’d learned. Listen to other conversations to find something to talk about. The boss’s wife asked the secretary how her daughter liked her new job. Bingo. When the Mrs. moved on I found out the daughter is a hair dresser who opened a Christian bookstore.

If you hit it off with someone it’s hard to move on, but you can’t monopolize that person’s time. Leaving at the top of your game leaves people wanting more: “Be bright. Be brief. Be gone,” advises “Mingling Maven” Susan RoAne.

And what if you can’t get away from someone? I didn’t have to employ an exit line, but I had one ready: “The caprese salad looked good but I didn’t try it the first time through the buffet line.” I would never use one source’s suggestion: “I’ve enjoyed our talk but now I have to make-believe I’m interested in everybody else.” Wouldn’t that say to the person that you were just pretending with them, too?

Next, I employed Tactic No. 2, find someone who looks approachable, and Tactic No. 3, ask about something you know about them. In this case, it was the dispatcher and I knew she had penpals in Iraq. Here is where it helps to have a spouse or friend who has done a little reconnaissance for you.

If you don’t know anything about anybody, rely on “free information.” Maybe talk about how nervous you are making small talk or ask if they read my column.

You do have this in common: You’re all at the same event. Ask what they do for the company or how they know the host. You’re all in it together and can help each other get through it. And I got through it better than I ever have.

With each smooth transition from guest to guest, I got more confident. Maybe I should’ve shared these tips with my equally backward husband because much too soon, he told me it was time to go.

Now I just have to get invited to another party to keep practicing.

This column was first published Dec. 29, 2005, in The Dominion Post newspaper, which holds the copyright.

Leave a comment with your best and worst conversation starters.



I only look like the life of the party. Ha! Seriously, that's not an alcoholic beverage in my hand -- I'm at church -- it's EVOO. I dressed (or tried to dress) as Rachael Ray for Halloween this year.

1 comment:

Laura said...

I've also found that introducing two people is a great way to converse and move on all at the same time. Multitasking doesn't stop just cause it's a party right? "Rita, have you met Sally? She works in accounting and has a son at WVU just like you. Sally, Rita made that delicious spinach dip which reminds me that I need to go get a second helping before it disappears."

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