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Small talk, yet such a big fuss

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014 10:58 a.m. CDT

If there’s one thing worse than being a motormouth, or a blabbermouth, or just a bigmouth, it’s finding yourself to be a “no mouth.” That’s what I call the feeling you have when you’re desperately trying to start a conversation and realize you have absolutely nothing to say.

This could happen at a party. This could happen at a party at work. This could happen at an important party at work where you have one of those rare opportunities to impress a senior manager by demonstrating what a brilliant, insightful, articulate individual you are, when what you really are is a statue — a tower of Jell-O, with a beer in your hand, a Ritz cracker in your mouth, and absolutely nothing in your brain.

Not a pretty picture.

If this is a situation in which you often find yourself, it’s time to find Gretchen Rubin. In an article rushed to me by LinkedIn, which for some crazy reason thought I needed this information, Rubin — a “best-selling author and blogger” — asks and answers the question, “Do You Struggle to Make Conversation? A Menu of Options for Small Talk.”

The menu in question is a buffet of yummy conversation starters that you can use when your lips are saying, “yes-yes-yes,” and your brain is saying, “huh?”

“Comment on a topic common to you at the moment” is Rubin’s No. 1 idea. The topic might be the venue or the food, she suggests, but be sure, she adds in a bold and underlined injunction, to “keep it on the positive side.”

“The first time you come into contact with a person isn’t a good time to complain,” Rubin believes. I disagree. I think you have a much better chance of starting a dynamic conversation if you pile on the complaints. Say, you’re at an out-of-office event celebrating the hire of your new manager, Jim. You meet an attractive woman and want to start a conversation. You open with: “Can you believe they’re having this party in a dump like this?” and “This food is disgusting! I wouldn’t feed this swill to my cat.”

If you’re lucky, the target of your complaints will answer immediately, “I’m sorry you’re so dissatisfied. I’m Jim’s wife, and I selected this venue, and personally made all the food. Obviously, you are a discerning person with high standards, and I’ll be sure to tell Jim all about you.”

And there you go — conversation launched.

Another technique Rubin recommends is to make a “comment on a topic of general interest.” You could try an item from Google News, which a friend of Rubin scans before attending any social function, but with the country so divided in terms of politics and just about everything else, it will be difficult to find a topic that is not wildly controversial. This is why I recommend bringing up the one person everyone admires, as in, “You know who I wish would run for president? Kim Kardashian.”

Anyone who disagrees with that statement, you don’t want to know.

Rubin’s idea to “ask open questions that can’t be answered with a single word” is a really effective strategy. While everyone else is talking baseball or football, or what happened on last week’s episode of “Duck Dynasty,” you step in and step up with: “Plato said universals were ‘Forms’ that had real existence. Aristotle agreed but said the forms were ‘in the things themselves.’ Where do you stand?”

If there’s no immediate response, Rubin suggests you “ask a follow-up question.” I suggest, “What are you — stupid?”

Rubin admits she doesn’t personally have the gumption to personally adopt the next strategy but insists her husband is a master of being “slightly inappropriate.” Since you are extremely inappropriate almost all the time, it could be difficult for you to dial down the inappropriateness level, so here’s an idea for a suitably, slightly inappropriate opening comment: “You know,” you say in a low whisper, “I’m not wearing any underwear.”

If this confession doesn’t evoke a response, and you sense the comment is not sufficiently inappropriate, you can add in a lusty voice, soaring over the crowd, “That’s right! I’m not wearing any underwear, and I’m loving it!”

“Watch out for the oppositional Conversational Style,” Rubin warns at the end of her article. This is where you disagree and correct whatever others say. You can skip this gambit with complete strangers at a party, but you can’t avoid it at home with your spouse. Otherwise, what would you ever say to each other?

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