Holidays bring the often trying task of making small talk with people you do not really know, whether they are co-workers in distant cubicles, business acquaintances you've never really had a chance to develop a rapport with or relatives you can't actually recall having met before, or at least not since the age of three. While Oscar Wilde maintained that, "Conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative," I say any port in a storm when faced with days of chit chat with unfamiliar people.
As a person accustomed to spending the better part of her time alone, I find it taxing to make conversation. Like most introverts, I am stressed by time spent in groups.
While I have been able to develop extrovert abilities for my professional life, the fact remains that I am not a good conversationalist except with a few intimate friends (or online -- the internet is a great gift to introverts). But it can be possible to make small talk without falling into Eliza Doolittle perils.
Small Talk Dos and Don'ts
DON'T turn into Eric Olthwaite and bang on endlessly about the weather in overly specific detail.
DO use the weather as a starting point remarking about differences between expectations and reality, or how it might have deleterious effects (although avoid nightmare scenarios for people who have to drive home after the gathering).
DON'T talk on and on about work. Parties are an excuse to forget the normal burdens of the day.
DO use work knowledge to provide an opening for a more personal connection: "You did such a great job designing that flyer; you seem to have a real artistic flair. Do you draw/paint/make music (etc.)?"
DON'T indulge in divisive political discussions, however much you believe your own views to be true.
DO tread carefully in political arenas of conversation. Make your opinions known without shutting down all other points of view. While in general you can get a lot of mileage out of "politicians are all corrupt" an even better tack is to turn the conversation to historical contemplation, as it seldom makes any one person feel on the spot (pace historians). "We tend to think of X as such a hero now, do you suppose there was just as much debate about what s/he was doing at the time?"
DON'T dredge up the past and renew old bitternesses.
DO at least try to get along with people with whom you have had disagreements in the past. Be an adult.
DON'T drink to excess to make conversation "easier" -- it seldom succeeds.
DO save your wild drinking escapades for your like-minded friends.
DON'T ask personal questions and put people on the spot. It's not really your business and your curiosity need not be satisfied.
DO ask about family: even if you can't recall all the relationships, people are usually happy to talk about those they love.
DON'T sit silent and resentful in the corner because you don't know anyone.
DO offer to help your host or hostess; making yourself useful will doubtless make you feel more comfortable than awkwardly twisting a napkin on your own.
DON'T wait for someone to come up to you.
DO look for other awkwardly silent people and confide in them how difficult you find it to be at these events with no one to talk to. Ask about their lives or compliment them on an article of apparel. Most people throw on something special for a party. Compliments are always pleasant to receive. Focus on finding out interesting things about other people and don't worry about being interesting yourself. Most people are just dying to talk about themselves anyway. Listen more than you talk and you will feel more at ease.
Image via MichaelBerenz's Flickr