Oh fun, a holiday party. Cue the awkward silence as you stand beside a fellow partygoer with whom your only shared interest appears to be the bean dip.
Margaret Shepherd, author of "The Art of Civilized Conversation" (Broadway), offered pointers for how to gracefully break the ice to start a good dialogue — an exercise far more enjoyable when you don't view it as networking to get ahead, she notes, but as a chance to learn something interesting.
"It's an opportunity to really connect with somebody," she said.
If you don't know anyone: Ask the host if there's anyone he/she thinks you should meet, and request an introduction. Don't whine that you don't know anyone and glue yourself to the host's side all night, because then you're just annoying.
If you don't know what to say: Rub two clichés together. Rather than revert to predictable observations, like the awfulness of the weather or the attractiveness of someone's coat, combine two banal topics into something more personal, such as: "That's a beautiful color you've got on, it warms me up just to look at it." Everyone loves to be praised.
No, really, you don't know what to say: After sticking your hand out and introducing yourself, you must cover three basic points before moving on to any more meaningful conversation. 1. Ask a question ("How do you know the host?"). 2. State a fact about yourself ("I live next door"). 3. State an opinion ("This bean dip is amazing."). Only after laying that groundwork can you broach deeper topics.
If you're itching to talk about the Republican primary: Resist! Good manners dictate that with new acquaintances you should steer clear of discussing politics, religion, money or sex — which may seem like antiquated advice, but more often than not those topics set the conversation down a negative path.
"Almost everyone wants to convince you of their beliefs, and almost no one wants to hear yours," Shepherd said. "It's best to focus on topics that will let you grow and where the other person is likely to meet you halfway."
If you find yourself rambling: Be sure to "boomerang" the conversation to allow the other person to talk, perhaps by asking if they've had a similar experience to yours. People are happier talking about themselves.
If you're talking to children: Resist the urge to note how much they've grown or remember how obsessed they were with Webkins at your last meeting. Rather than push a kid back to his or her younger self, focus on the present: "I haven't seen you in two years; you must have grown into some new interests that I need to catch up on."
If your efforts are falling flat: Don't take it personally, as some people are really shy. And don't be afraid of silence. Stand shoulder-to-shoulder, rather than face-to-face, which is less intimidating and allows you to people-watch together.
The key to get a conversation rolling is to ask questions — and really listen to the answers so you can follow up (don't let your mind wander 10 seconds in). There are five general categories:
1. A person's journey. (What brought you to this city?)
2. The recent past. (How is business nowadays?)
3. Travel, (Any interesting trips planned?)
4. The current situation you're sharing at that moment. (What did you think of that speech?)
5. Companions. (Do you have family in the area?)
— A.E.R.Copyright © 2015, CT Now