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TANGENT Party chatter starts with silly stuff

You can take it up or down from there, but don't let it die

By Celeste Smith

Knight Ridder Newspapers

This time of year, the world seems divided into two camps: Those who love going to holiday parties -- and those who dread them.

Whether you're the life of the party or a shy introvert, small talking is a skill we should all develop anyway, since it's "a permanent fixture in our social system," notes Andrea Kirby, a Charlotte, N.C.-based communications coach who has worked with sports figures on giving media interviews.

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"Because of e-mail, we have gotten away from some of the necessary forms of small talk," Kirby said. "You have to learn the basics. If you do, you'll definitely have fun." Need ideas to get started? Here are suggestions from Kirby and other gifted gabbers.

Use the obvious

Andy Kaplan takes advantage of Charlotte's easiest icebreaker: "'Why did you move here? Where did you move from?' That's probably the most easy opening in town," said Kaplan of Lake Norman's Toastmasters club, where members practice impromptu and planned speaking.

The theme of the party also offers lead-ins to conversation starters.

At a Christmas gathering, Kirby once asked a guest about a favorite ornament. That got the talk rolling. "It's a silly little question, but for some reason, they go on."

If you're at a New Year's Party, Kaplan suggests asking a guest about a favorite thing he did that year.

Keep things going

Even shy people must realize that small talk is a two-way street, notes Debra Fine, author of "Small Talk: How to Start a Conversation, Keep It Going, Build Networking Skills -- and Leave a Positive Impression!" (Hyperion Books, $16.95.)

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So "assume the burden of conversation," Fine writes. Remember the names of people you meet, and fill awkward pauses with conversation. Don't hope others will take on these tasks, says Fine.

Be mindful of body language

If you smile and make eye contact, "it makes the person relax if you're approaching them," Kaplan said.

Don't hesitate to approach a cluster of people already engaged in conversation. Just pick the right bunch.

"There are always small groups of two or three people who are talking, but not so intentionally that you can't butt in," Kirby said. But "I never walk up to anyone who's laughing too hard, because they have their own thing going."

Avoid conversation killers

Politics, religion, or health and job woes can put a damper on a party, even if you are among friends.

Charm the hosts

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If a couple is throwing the party but you know only half of the twosome, make it your purpose to chat up the other mate. "Make a point that you're pointedly interested," Kirby said.

Then, Kirby said, you can enlist either one's help on working the party, by asking, "Who would I like to meet?"

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