As much as I dearly love my wife and can even tolerate her friends, I agonize over small talk. Most of her friends are amusing, but not intellectual. Any suggestions for easing my stress over having to make small talk?
–PW, Far Hills, NJ
We all have found ourselves at one time or another stuck in as situation where we have to make small talk.
My experience has been that people with the best manners are genuinely interested in whom they are presently talking.
Curious to know how other people spend their time, they invariably ask questions in order to get to know them better.
- One of the secrets to being a good politician is being able to engage in “Only You” attention.
Being curious is not necessarily asking about their job level, salary, pedigree, or where they went to school.
- Look for ways to connect through common interests that include: sports, travel, movies, restaurants, hobbies, children, pets, astronomy, history, literature, etc.
- Studies show that connecting through a common interest eventually leads to deeper conversation about business and relationships.
One study of the habits of rigorist cyclists found that their bond over cycling had the same effect as playing golf does on older generations in forging business and social connections.
People with good manners are generally indefatigable listeners.
- The president with good manners listens.
- Lyndon Johnson didn’t like listening to people in social settings. According to biographer Robert Caro, LBJ would doze off at dinner parties and would only revive if he had the floor.
The person with manners doesn’t make people squirm.
- Nixon was clueless regarding manners witnessed by the horrible jokes he told at parties: “Why did the farmer bring the bucket of shit into the living room?”
Answer: “Because he wanted to keep the flies out of the kitchen.” There was dead silence; guests squirmed.
The person with manners doesn’t use crudity or profanity.
- Nixon and Kennedy, who were both Navy men, used a lot of profanity privately.
- LBJ used crudity as an elaborate and interesting social tool, according to journalist Lance Morrow.
- Carter never used profanity.
- Reagan, a known jokester, liked to make innocent dirty jokes.
The person with manners is good at small talk because s/he is curious and listens.
- Nixon was clueless about manners and had no small talk at all.
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt apparently was a genius at making small talk.
The very phrase “small talk” suggests to most of us that the subject is superficial, unimportant, and not of great interest.
But small talk can lead to big talk.
Shy, introverted people or those with social anxieties find small talk empty, whereas those who are more socially confident take great sport in bantering back and forth — for instance, who knows who and who knows who better.
- In fact, having the gift of making small talk may be a valuable life skill that enriches and enforces relationships.
- Small talk can be used to set boundaries with someone you really don’t want to be with. The object of course is to make them go away.
- When you’re in the midst of an enthusiastic conversation, the energy can be seductive.
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