Times may have changed, but courtesy never goes out of style. In today's world sometimes it's complicated to figure out how to do the right thing. Local etiquette expert Karen Hickman answers your questions or helps solve your dilemmas on Fridays in The News-Sentinel and at www.news-sentinel.com.
Q: Karen, I am just out of college and starting to attend networking events to broaden my circle of connections. I keep hearing about the importance of “small talk,” and I wonder how I can increase my comfort level and ability to make polite conversation with strangers.
A: Contrary to what many people think, small talk is not inconsequential. It plays a very important role in getting to know people and is an important conversation skill in communicating with others effectively. It is also a skill that can be cultivated and improved upon with time and attention.
Small talk is the ability to make conversation with strangers and people you don't know well, by introducing safe topics that will allow you to start the connection process. Those safe topics then open the door to heavier topics after you have gotten to know someone better.
Before going to an event, think of several topics that you could discuss with anyone, that would not be too invasive or controversial. For, instance, the latest books or movies that are out and creating a buzz with people. Also, major sporting events for that particular season are always important to know, even if you aren't a sports fan. A little knowledge about many topics can be great ice breakers in any conversation.
When you first meet someone, be the first to say hello with a safe opening line, like, “Hello, isn't this a beautiful day?” After that, wait and see if the individual is open to more conversation.
If they don't respond with anything, that's a cue that they aren't open to chatting with you. Paying attention to those cues is important so you don't become an annoyance to someone who is just not open to talking at that moment.
Another important point in any conversation is to focus on the other person more than on your yourself. Often, the greatest conversationalists are really good listeners.
Pay attention to what you say or don't say when you are first meeting and greeting people, even those you know well. Do you say, “How are you?” Or do you launch into what is happening in your life? Much of what we do and say, is done so automatically we aren't even aware of it. Doing some self-evaluation on your auto conversation mode can be very helpful in building your conversation skills.
There are also some topics that should be avoided with people you don't know well. In fact, some of these topics should be avoided with people you do know well, if it is going to start a heated debate.
Avoid these questions and or topics when making polite conversation:
•Don't discuss money, having it or not having it.
•Don't ask how much a person makes or what they paid for something.
•Don't ask people how old they are.
•Don't talk about your health issues.
•Avoid religion and politics.
•Don't gossip or speak ill of someone.
Remember to be open-minded when talking with others and respectful of their views, even if their views aren't the same as yours.