With the holiday season in full swing, chances are you have a party or two on your calendar. Maybe an office get-together. A neighborhood potluck. An industry association event (yawn). Some people shine at these kinds of gatherings, able to tear through small talk like a five-year-old opening presents on Christmas morning.
I am not one of those people. I am awkward and strange and nervous. I am the person you can’t wait to get away from with the lame excuse that you have to refill your drink even though you’ve only taken one sip. Case in point: I have attended a writers’ gala dinner and for some reason found it appropriate to open a conversation with National Book Award Winner Julia Glass about a fun little fact on orgasms from Mary Roach’s book Bonk. I wish I was lying.
Clearly I needed this post before that dinner.
Etiquette connoisseurs suggest reading the arts and leisure section of the local newspaper before a party to have plenty of conversation starters. Does anyone do this? It’s not that I’m bereft of preferred topics. In my case, the problem is twofold. I often become stymied in large social groups of strangers, especially around people I admire (Julia Glass, I’m so sorry!) so I say the first thing that pops into my mind. Also I don’t want to be boring.
Good conversation really is an art. How do you engage someone else and be engaging at the same time? Gretchen Rubin of The Happiness Project listed suggestions for making good conversation, including Ask open-ended questions and Ask getting-to-know-you questions, which makes me feel like I’m at a job interview instead of a party. But I suppose if I treated conversation like work, I wouldn’t make ridiculous comments about orgasms during the soup course.
We all have that colleague or friend who finds a way to steer the conversation back to his/her favorite subject (the children, the office, the recent vacation, etc.) no matter the actual topic at hand. And don’t forget the person who is itching to get in his/her point without listening to a word you’re saying. But how do I know if I’m the one boring people to tears? Gretchen Rubin says that if you’re the one doing all the talking or if the other person’s body is partially turned away from you, then you might be the persona non grata. Body language is more important than I’ve realized. When I get nervous in a social setting, my shyness (arms crossed, eyes looking off into the distance) must read as aloofness or conceit, which makes it difficult to think about those tips for making good conversation.
Maybe it would be easier to remember what NOT to say. In serendipitous support of this idea, a recent episode of the This American Life program on NPR had the answers. Producer Sarah Koenig’s mother has lived by a set of seven conversational no-nos.
“It’s just a question of whether you want to bore people or not,” Mrs. Matthiessen, Sarah Koenig’s mother, says. Here are her off-limits topics.
- Rule 1: Health. We’re not talking about serious illnesses here. In this category are your old Aunt Maude’s medications and general doctor visits. “Aches and pains, [it’s] really tiresome,” says Mrs. Matthiessen.
- Rule # 2: Diet. Discussing your low carb, all-liquid, South Beach, cauliflower, cantaloup diet is not all that interesting to listeners.
- Rule # 3: Money. This one is probably most transgressed in the US compared to other countries. “Vulgar,” Mrs. Matthiessen says.
- Rule # 4: Sleep. I can see her point here, although I’ve broken this rule myself on occasion, telling co-workers and friends that I didn’t sleep well because I had a stuffy nose and… (oh, dear, see Rule # 1, above). That leads to…
- Rule # 5: Dreams. This one hadn’t occurred to me before, but one’s dreams are really only interesting to the dreamer. Even if you tell me that I was in your dream posing as the grand marshal of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in a Santa outfit, it’s still not incredibly interesting to me. Unless, perhaps, you’re Salvador Dali, then you might get a pass.
- Rule # 6: Route Talk. “Route talk is when people tell you how they arrived, or how they came, how they got on the road, which road, how long it took. That is the top of my list for what you don’t talk about,” says Mrs. Matthiessen.
- Rule # 7: Womanly Cycles. Enough said.
Do you have any taboo topics to add to this list? Have you violated Mrs. Matthiessen’s conversational no-nos?
Have a great weekend, everyone!