Surviving Holiday Small Talk

'Tis the season for awkward gatherings. Here's how to get beyond, "You're a systems analyst? That's ... fascinating."

After he returned from his famous tour through the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that the nation’s residents did not seem to possess the gift of gab.

“An American cannot converse,” he wrote, “but he can discuss, and his talk falls into a dissertation.”

Bernardo Carducci, a psychology professor at Indiana University Southeast and an expert in small talk, might say that the people de Tocqueville encountered made a rookie conversation mistake: talking too much and too long about one’s favorite topics. (Of course, he might also say that making insulting generalizations is not a great conversation strategy, either.)

Thanksgiving week means the holidays are officially upon us, which means it’s time for parties. And it's also time for small talk: hours upon hours of two-inch-deep conversations with people you barely know and may never see again. While juggling eggnog and a flimsy plate.

For some, idle chitchat is tolerable, even pleasurable—it’s the broth that keeps the meat of the party afloat. Others would prefer waiting in the DMV line with a stab wound to a few minutes of pleasantries at the punch bowl.

For that second group, Carducci has written a five-step guide for how to get a good conversation rolling with a perfect stranger:

1) Getting Started. Begin with comments about the weather or other facets of the environment (e.g., “Boy, this line is long”). Let others know that you are willing to make conversation, nothing more, nothing less.

2) The Personal Introduction: Who You Are, Something About You. In addition to clearly enunciating your name, you can anticipate the next question and provide information about what you do for a living or recreation. A common mistake made by bad conversationalists is to provide only a terse comment within the personal introduction, such as “I work at the mall.” A more constructive response might be, “I work at the mall selling cell phones, and you would not believe the reasons people give me for wanting a cell phone.”

3) Pre-Topical Selection: Fishing for Topics. Next, throw out topics for possible discussion. “I really like this movie.” The implicit rule is, when someone throws out a topic, support it either by asking a question or making a comment.

4) Post-Topical Elaboration: Expanding the Topic. For example, when talking about the vacations, you might say, “Speaking of vacations, we had some great Caribbean food on our last vacation.” Now you can talk about food or food-related topics (e.g., other ethnic foods, cooking shows, music heard in restaurants).

5) Conversation Termination: A Gracious Ending that Creates the Connection.  Finally, when terminating a conversation, let the person know you’ll be leaving soon, express gratitude for the conversation, summarize some of the major points, and set the stage for future conversation.

I chatted with Carducci recently about how to apply these rules for better holiday small talk. An edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Olga Khazan: Why is small talk so much harder than normal conversation? I have deep conversations with people all day, but when I’m at a networking event with people I barely know, I sometimes freeze up. Why is that?

Bernardo Carducci: There are two reason: One is, if you are in a deep conversation and have no trouble with that conversation, what we typically find is that has something to do with you being in your comfort zone or talking about a favorite topic. A favored topic is something that’s important to you, something you’re passionate about, something that you know a lot about. You’re the expert. Let's say you’re the tire king of Toledo, Ohio. You know about selling tires to cars. You have no trouble talking to anybody at a tire convention about tires or standing in front of a room of 2,000 people to talk about the tire business. But if we get you off of that favored topic, where you have to talk about other things, things that you may not be more comfortable with, people feel that’s much more difficult.

The other reason why that's difficult for lots of people is that they think conversation is something that just happens spontaneously. That it just happens without any thought, without any effort, that it looks like there’s nothing to it. They dismiss the nature of small talk. They think that small talk is not important, yet we know it is. They think they don’t know how to make this happen. It seems to just spontaneously happen. That's wrong. Also, people think that with small talk, you have to be brilliant at it. It seems so simple—they worry about their own level of confidence. They worry they won't be interesting enough.

Khazan: You have your five steps. Are there certain situations where those work better than others?

Carducci: No, this is any time you're going to engage in spontaneous conversation. That could be at a party, at an art reception, sitting with a perfect stranger on a plane. Whether you’re at a date, at a networking event, a holiday party. The anatomy of small talk is a fundamental structure. That’s the great thing about it—it works in a variety of situations.

Khazan: What are some good non-weather, non-sports topics?

Carducci: The easiest way to start a conversation is to focus on the shared environment—something you have in common with that individual at that point in time. That might be the weather ... "This is nice weather we’re having." There’s nothing wrong with that as an opening line. Having something simple like that is often a way to get the conversation started without expending real risk. What you’re trying to do is find out if the person wants to talk to you. If you’re waiting in line at a movie, then, "Boy, this line is long." At a wedding or a party, you might make a comment about the buffet. If you have something very simple like that, what you're really saying is, “I’d like to talk to you, would you like to talk to me?” The big mistake people who are bad small-talkers make is they fail to get started. They think they have to have the perfect topic or a killer opening line. They put all this pressure on themselves. All you really have to be is nice.

Khazan: What are some topics not to bring up?

Carducci: There’s really no topic you can’t talk about. The key is you want to have an exchange, not a debate. The purpose is to find out what you have in common, and to help expand on the similarities and commonalities. You can talk about politics or sports. You can talk about sautéed fish. Some people can even turn that into an argument, but you have to think about conversation differently.

Khazan: What are some good conversation closers? That can be kind of hard, too. It can sound overly formal to just say, "I've enjoyed this, but I'm going to go mingle."

Carducci: At a social function, you want to talk to a variety of individuals. If you talk about ending a conversation, the thing to do, first and foremost, is let the person know that the conversation is going to end. Express gratitude for that conversation. Highlight something that was said during the conversation, so they know that you’ve been listening and not just nodding your head. Create an opportunity for further conversation.

You might say, "I’m going to have to leave here in a few minutes. There are a few other people I need to mingle with. I really appreciated talking to you. I found your comments about the subplots of these different movies to be really interesting. I never thought about these movie subplots this way. Do you have a card or email so that I can get ahold of you?"

Or, "I’m going to talk to a few other people, but maybe in a half hour or after drinks are served, we can get together and talk more." The point is, you let them know the conversation is going to end. This is also true of a bad conversation. Let the person know that the conversation is going to end. If they keep talking, say, "I really have to go," and you simply leave. You've given them a chance to terminate the conversation and they didn’t take it. You need to be nice, but not a martyr.

Khazan: What are your thoughts on complaining? It seems to bring people together … but you also want to keep things festive.

Carducci: If that’s a topic of conversation, that’s fine. But simply venting brings people down. Try to offer a solution as well. What tends to happen is, you start complaining, then other people start complaining, then people try to out-complain everyone else. It turns into a bitchfest. "I'm worse off than you, I’m worse off than you." Who wants to be in that conversation all evening? Try to be the person who offers a solution as well.

Khazan: How would you tailor your small talk for someone like a boss’s wife, or someone who is important in some way—so much so that it kind of matters what you say? Are the rules different at all?

Carducci: Rules of self-disclosure are general rules. You want to keep the depth and nature of conversation appropriate to the situation. Maybe if you’re talking to your boss’s spouse, you don’t want to talk about work. Maybe you know they just got back from vacation, you might say, “Oh gosh, I heard you guys just got back from Florida, and you had an interesting time in Little Havana. When I was in Indianapolis, I went to a Cuban cafe, and they had a great band there." There are all kinds of things you can throw out on the table. What you’re looking for are topics of commonality.

You want to make sure you’re participating. That you’re not just asking the person all the questions because you’re afraid to say anything. That’s not a conversation, that’s an interrogation. It’s like, how lazy is this person? Once you find commonality, what begins to happen is you focus on the conversation and not on yourself. You're more relaxed. That’s when you have a really good conversation.

Khazan: What about someone you really disagree with, like your Tea Party uncle or your cousin who wears jeggings?

Carducci: You simply shift the conversation. You can talk about politics. “Well, this immigration issue is not the only thing that’s involved in this political climate.” You can throw out another topic. You can simply provide an alternative. The rule is you either have to contribute a topic, or offer an alternative. You can provide another issue. Or provide an alternative. “You know, this is a festive dinner. Maybe we should talk about more festive things since we only get together once a year.” You provide another topic.

If you can see other people are uncomfortable with this topic of conversation, or this person is on their favorite topic, ranting about Republicans, or whatever, don’t be afraid to stand your ground and say, “We need to jump off this.”

When you talk about good conversation, it’s not about getting what you want to say out. It’s helping other people look good in the conversation. It’s designed to be other-focused rather than self-focused.

Good conversations are exchanges, when the moment you stop talking, someone else jumps in. People are in the flow. It’s like a good basketball game. When you have someone dominating the conversation like that—that’s like a ball hog. Everyone else is sitting on the sidelines.

Khazan: Something I always find daunting is having to talk to kids in front of their parents, if I barely know the parents. I don’t have kids, and I can’t really remember what kinds of things I knew about at various ages. For example, is Santa in the picture? How do you play that?

Carducci: That goes back to step one: getting started. You’re in their house. Ask them something about their house. What do they do at their house? What are they doing at this time of year that’s exciting, that’s special? After a few minutes, say, "I need to talk to some other people, I have to go." You tell the parents, "I really enjoyed hearing Johnny’s story, but I have to go on."

Khazan: Holiday parties mean people of different religions are coming together ... how do you navigate all the terminology without making assumptions about people? I have a Jewish last name and sometimes people wish me Happy Hanukkah. (Ed: In actuality, I worship Taylor Swift). Is "Happy Holidays" always the best bet?

Carducci: The best thing to do is to be cautious and follow the lead of the host. If you’re in a household and it’s clear that they’re celebrating the holidays with Jewish themes. If they greet you with Happy Hanukkah, say, “Happy Hanukkah and happy holidays to you.” If you’re unsure, wish people happy holidays. You can never go wrong by being nice. It’s not about you having a good time, it’s about them having a good time.

Khazan: Can it start to feel like work, though? If you're supposed to accommodate other people and make sure they're having a good time, does that maybe come at the expense of you yourself having a good time?

Carducci: When you start to do something new, it is work, it is performance. If you’re trying to learn a new golf swing, you’re learning a foreign language. Behavior change is never easy. It always gets worse before it gets better. If you want to be a good conversationalist and you’re not, you’re going to have to do things differently. But as you do this more and more in your daily life at work and when you're socializing, it becomes second nature.

Think about a Broadway play. There’s a play that you see. This play looks fantastic. These actors did a great job, but this is not the first time they’ve done this. They start out with a table read, then they have a walk through, then they have a dress rehearsal. Then they have a soft opening, where they take it to Des Moines, Iowa. Then they bring it to Broadway. It looks natural because they practice.

If you do this enough times, this will start to look natural, and feel natural. I try to talk to as many people as I possibly can. Once you get good at this, you want to do it all the time.