I have a friend who is extremely nervous in group situations. She runs marathons, manages her household and raises her child alone while her husband is deployed for months at a time, and can whip up a gourmet meal out of almost anything, yet she trembles at the thought of having to make conversation at a dinner party.
Research indicates she isn’t alone. About 20% of the population suffers from sensory perception sensitivity. This trait typically manifests as shyness or inhibition.
On the downside, individuals with this trait take longer to make decisions and bore easily with small talk. On the upside, they are detail-oriented and more conscientious than their more outgoing counterparts (click here for more information on this topic).
Setting the science aside, the reality is that we all find ourselves in situations where it is necessary to make conversation with people outside our family and close circle of friends. Even if you aren’t shy by nature, it can sometimes be hard to engage in meaningful conversation with someone you don’t know well.
Who among us hasn’t suffered the awkward silence staring at a new acquaintance, frantically racking our brains for a conversation topic? Since we can’t avoid these situations, I’m going to give you some help in the form of simple tricks and conversation starters that will have you chatting up a storm at your next group event.
The art of being a great conversationalist involves more than what you say. It has a lot to do with how engaged and interested you appear to be. That’s why body language is such an important facet of good conversation skills.
- Eye contact – When you are listening, good eye contact indicates that you are paying attention to the person who is speaking. When you are speaking, it shows confidence and honesty.
- Posture – Good posture not only makes you look more attractive and more confident, it makes you appear interested and shows respect to the speaker. Picture a surly teen slumped in his desk compared to the eager student beside him sitting up straight with pencil poised for note-taking—which one gives the impression of being interested in what the teacher is saying?
- Gestures – the occasional gesture to emphasize a point is fine, but fidgeting indicates boredom and is distracting so if you tend to fidget when you’re nervous, adopt a habit of clasping your hands together in your lap while you converse.
Tips For Making Small Talk
For most types of group events (e.g. dinner parties, school events, church activities) you will primarily be engaged in small talk with other attendees, perhaps several people, as you mingle at the event. When you worry too much about what you are going to say, you often miss important details like the person’s name who you’ve just met.
Rather than stressing yourself out over what you should say, walk into these situations looking forward to and prepared to learn as much as you can about each person you meet. This will set you up to be the best conversationalist EVER because it will force you to:
- Ask questions about the person to whom you are speaking
- Be a good listener
- Avoid talking too much about yourself
Why will this make you the best conversationalist ever? Because the person you are speaking to will feel valued and interesting, which is really all most of us want.
Don’t know how to get the other person to talk about herself? Here’s a few questions to get you started.
- Are you named after someone in your family? How did your parents choose your name?
- Where are you from? Where did you grow up?
- Do you have any pets/children/siblings? Tell me about them.
- Are you married? How long? Tell me about your husband.
- What do you do in your free time?
- Do you have any plans for the upcoming holiday or season?
- What was your first job? Did you like it? Did it affect your job choices later in life?
- How do you know the host? How did you get involved in this group/event?
Topics To Avoid
I realize I just encouraged you to ask your conversation partner tons of questions about herself. By all means, feel free to ask any of the questions above. There are a few topics, however, that you should steer clear of when making small talk.
- Politics (unless you are at a political fundraising event or something similar, you should stay away from this controversial topic)
- Religion (again, unless you are at a church event, this area can be sensitive and even offensive to some)
- Finances (even at a fundraising event it is ill manners to inquire about someone’s financial affairs)
- Intimacy (if you are shy, you’re probably blushing at the thought of discussing this topic in public and if you’re not shy, take a clue from how uncomfortable the shy people are as to why you wouldn’t want to broach this subject with a new acquaintance)
- Gossip (save this for your girlfriends—you may think it makes you look like you’re in the know, but really it just makes you look petty and cruel)
How To Deal With Inappropriate Questions
Since not everyone has discovered this amazing website yet, not everyone you meet will be armed with this great knowledge you now possess. Consequently, you might be confronted with an inappropriate question or remark at a social function. These are definitely scenarios where two wrongs to not make a right. No matter how tempting it is, do NOT answer a rude question with a rude response. If others don’t view the question as rude, it will just make you look like a jerk. A better tactic is to innocently point out the inappropriateness of the question with a sense of humor and/or pleasant disposition. Here are some examples:
Q: When are you two going to have kids?
A: About nine months after conception.
Q: Your wedding ring is gorgeous! How much did it cost?
A: Half his net worth if he ever wants it back.
Q: You live there? I heard that was a rundown neighborhood.
A: Not until we moved in.
On a more serious note, you can usually derail an inappropriate question with one of these responses:
- Why do you ask?
- What do you think?
- That’s personal and I prefer not to talk about it.
I hope these tips help you navigate your next social event with less anxiety. If you have your own tips to share, please do so in the comments.