Monday, November 1, 2010

The Etiquette of Making Small Talk

Last week's column prompted a reader to ask me to go into greater depth about how to initiate conversations at the dinner table, especially with people you don't know well. What encouraged me to pursue this topic was partly because it is a skill which is incredibly useful to have; and also the person asking me to talk the art of conversation seemed to me to be self assured and a good conversationalist, yet shared with me the fright and discomfort they feel when they find themselves in this very situation.

Whether you find yourself at a business mixer or a large family dinner, there will be times when you find yourself face to face with a stranger, be it a new business acquaintance or a distant cousin. The silence which can linger can make both people feel uncomfortable and starting a short conversation is one of the easiest ways to break the ice. It is as simple as beginning with, "hello my name is" and moving on to ' isn't this a lovely gathering; I'm glad to be here tonight with such interesting company."

When meeting someone for the first time in any situation, be prepared to shake hands, standing up straight and with confidence. Smile and repeat the person's name a couple of times in the next few sentences to help you remember it. Diving into personal questions or areas where there could be a difference of opinion, such as religion and politics, is best avoided during the initial introductions. Stick to noncontroversial topics such as the lovely hospitality, the weather, world news, food, books and hobbies. It helps to stay current on world events. Matters of health, wealth, gossip, age and other unpleasant subjects can also wait until a relationship of a more familial nature develops.

I find that people do enjoy talking about themselves and in a way, because it is such familiar territory, it relaxes them and makes conversation easier, albeit a bit one sided. Speaking about your family and other personal interests opens the door for your new acquaintance to ask questions or reveal information of a similar nature without fear of embarrassment. Finding common ground is the end result of these initial exchanges, which although referred to as small talk, can have a very large influence on what sort of first impression you make and how successful the friendship might be in the future.

While logic would lead you to believe that your initial nervousness and discomfort can be eased by talking about subjects near and dear to you, the same can also happen when you focus your attention on putting the other person's level of comfort ahead of your own.

Have you ever noticed how the different tones of voice and topics of discussion change from when men are speaking to other men and women to other women, to when men and women are speaking to one another? This is our inherent, often disguised way of posturing for position and this posturing can differ greatly from one situation to another. This is where the black and white lines of the social and the business worlds become spectrums of grey. Being aware of your tone of voice and being sensitive to other people's feelings helps to make it easier not to cross lines inappropriately.

Although the nature of these initial conversations appears unimportant on the surface, it does reveal a great deal about the speaker, especially his personality. Such seemingly superfluous chats can be quite brief and act as catalysts for more substantial, perhaps even urgent matters; or they can carry on indefinitely as is occasionally the case with some difficult family relationships.

The ability to be comfortable initiating these opening conversations comes very naturally to some people; to many others it takes time and practice. The effort put into honing these skills is well worth it. As mentioned last week, the dinner table is a perfect training ground for such practice. As adults, it is our responsibility to teach our youth, tomorrow's leaders, these important skills, and with practice, they become comfortable and healthy habits. Feeling confident and at ease around strangers makes it far easier not only to make friends but to begin establishing meaningful relationships.