12.23.08

How to, Uh, Talk to People

From bantering at parties to escaping blowhards, Catherine Blyth, author of The Art of Conversation, has foolproof techniques for surviving the holiday chitchat marathon.

Silent night, awkward night. Why are so many holiday conversations so fraught? And boring. And shallow. Maybe because you’re going about it all wrong. Fortunately, Catherine Blyth, author of the forthcoming The Art of Conversation (Gotham), has some big ideas for making small talk that jingles rather than jangles the nerves.

So here’s a scenario: say I’ve just been laid off from my impressive job as an investment banker and now I’m working at T.G.I. Friday’s. Obviously, I don’t want to talk about this. How can I (a) prevent the topic from coming up, and (b) tactfully move it aside if it does?

Platitudes and clichés are a brilliant way to neutralize a line of discussion. When people say things like, “No use crying over spilled milk,” they seem to be expressing sympathy, but they’re also shutting down that line of discussion. By saying something anodyne – “Yes, these are rough times” – you’re giving them nothing to build on. Something very generic and bland sends a polite message: Don’t go there.

“Be pretty nosy about something that doesn’t matter a great deal.”

The holidays also often mean being stuck in social situations with certain family members you share tension with. Any tips?

Pretend you’ve just met them for the first time. There is a mask that stands between you and that person, which is based on your memories and presumptions. Just assume you don’t know them at all and start from scratch. On the most mercenary level, you can find an incentive for talking to them because they’re bound to know something that would be of use to you.

Okay, my Uncle Freddie is inevitably going to drink too much and start defending George Bush. I know I can’t change his mind, but how can I win the argument on conversational points?

He sounds like a demolition ball. In that case, you want to give him his airtime. It depends how aggressive he’s being – does he literally attack you? “You lily-livered liberal, blah, blah, blah”?

No, he doesn’t make it personal.

So he’s not a nasty guy, this is just a drum he likes to bang. He’s obviously having fun with the idea that he’s outraging you. So don’t seem outraged. It’s like toddler training, isn’t it? Don’t reward the behavior, and he’ll probably tire of it. The worst thing you could do is get really affronted so that you’re just back and forth, bish-bash bish-bash.

How about holiday parties? Any golden rules for talking with coworkers outside the workplace?

I think it’s good to avoid talking about work because that’s the default topic, and it’s so boring, isn’t it? Avoid talking to your boss altogether, but if you are forced to, assume they’re really shy. My personal mechanism might be to be pretty nosy about something that doesn’t matter a great deal. A lot of small talk stuff applies.

Speaking of small talk, let’s talk about New Year’s parties. Say I’m going to one where I won’t know anyone but the host. I enter alone, this roomful of strangers turns to look at me, and I’m a deer in the headlights. What should I do?

Look as if you’re happy to be there. People always take it personally if you look cross or nervous or strange. Plaster that optimistic look on yourself. Someone told me that by far the strongest impression we form about what someone is telling us is based on how they look and how they sound—very little of the judgment is based on the actual content. So just think: It doesn’t matter what I say, I’m just happy to be here. Find your host, and if you can’t find your host, find the food and drink—that’s where groups form and re-form. If you’re at somebody’s home, offer to help serve food and drink, and you’ve already got your icebreaker.

One of the biggest party conundrums is how to infiltrate a group of strangers that’s in mid-conversation. What’s the secret?

If they’re in the flow, the last thing you want to do is nuke the momentum. Position yourself by the group, and meet someone’s eye and smile. Don’t assume they all know each other—they’re probably a bunch of strangers too. There will be a natural break in the conversation, when people are laughing or something, so watch for the break and surf in.

How about gracefully exiting a boring conversation?

I think it’s good to say, “I wish I could talk to you longer but I must go and see so and so.” “Anyway” is always a good turnstile word. “Anyway! Well, okay then!” I never think you should say, “I need to go to the loo.” I hate that. “Nature calls!” I just think that’s unnecessary. But you want to give them that sense of the satisfied customer. “What fun to have seen you again! I wish I could have talked to you longer.” Put the encounter in the past tense. “It’s been great talking to you.”

And just so we’re not being presumptuous, how can I prevent myself from being the bore at the party?

The most important thing is to watch the other person’s face to see if they’re not engaged. Don’t talk longer than three minutes. Notice whether your glass is full and theirs is empty. When you can’t remember why you began saying something, it’s a good sign they won’t remember either. And always keep things relevant—the secret of good conversation is that all people can pitch in. If the other person isn’t pitching in, you’ve lost them. You’re not making it relevant to them. Beware generalizations. And don’t hog the airtime. Whether it’s a stranger on the street or the person you talk to all night and end up spending the rest of your life with, every single conversation is a little relationship.

Will Doig is the Features Editor at The Daily Beast. He has written for New York, The Advocate, Out, Black Book and Highlights for Children.