Small talk pays large dividends

Times Staff Writer

Question: You've braved an invitation to a benefit and you're seated at a table full of strangers. Now what do you do?

1. Butter a roll and wait for your dinner partners to talk.

2. Launch into a lively monologue about your trip to Kyrgyzstan.

3. Ask a tablemate a personal question such as "Are they real?"

Answer: None of the above.

In fact, if you employ any of these techniques, chances are you'll turn your potential for a social coup into a catastrophe. Effective partygoers don't wait for others to speak up, they "assume the burden of another person's comfort" by making the first conversational move, says small-talk expert Debra Fine. And they never launch into soliloquies or pry into another's personal life -- boorish! Instead, they engage people with ice-breakers such as "How did you become interested in this charity?"

In the world of social affairs, effective small talk is often a prelude to deeper conversations that can lead to friendships or business relationships, say communication experts such as Fine, author of "The Fine Art of Small Talk" (Small Talk Press). Even when you'd rather be home, you can utilize conversational tools that will make a social experience more enjoyable.

"The biggest problem is that conversation always bogs down after you get past the freeway and the weather," says Norman Sigband, distinguished professor emeritus of management communications at USC. "When I counsel people who go to three or four of these affairs a week because of their position or financial status, I tell them to try to learn of another person's primary interest and then turn the conversation over to them. The best way to make the contact is to get another person to talk."

Once somebody begins to chat, a conversation can be advanced by responses such as "How do you handle that?" or "Tell me more about that," Sigband observes. "Invariably, they will talk themselves into a position that you can take advantage of. That sounds pretty crass, but the person who talks about his exploits or his financial gains leaves himself wide open to being asked for something. This is especially true of charity events. A person can say to them, 'Oh, I'm so happy to meet you. I've seen your name and your many contributions in the columns.' The person is flattered, of course. And then you can say, 'The group I represent would be very interested in talking to you about....' "

Tips from the pros

Connie Wald didn't realize that she was following the rules of effective social communication when she attended a recent benefit luncheon. But no sooner had a stranger sat next to her than Wald introduced herself, paused a moment, then said, "Well, here we go again, getting ready for war. I remember so vividly how we had to prepare for Word War II, storing water, food. And now we're starting all over again." Bingo! Wald had assumed responsibility for the conversation and employed a tactic that CNN talk-show host Larry King swears by -- zeroing in on news of the day. King also advises partygoers to maintain eye contact. "Never look over the shoulder of people you're talking to," he warns.

Social dynamo Barbara Davis makes an immediate attempt to find out what she and her table partners have in common, she says. "I tell them a little bit about my interests and then inquire about theirs. I'm not saying I'm any good at it, but I've been lucky using this at parties." Most often, Davis, who has raised millions for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, finds herself in social situations in which the common denominator is the charity itself. On those occasions, the table talk just flows, she says. "And it's usually about the health and well-being of children."

Colleagues President Jane Ackerman steers clear of negative remarks when she's on the social circuit. It's easy to look around a room and find fault with the decor, people or food, she says. "But I find negative comments a turnoff. I try to deflect them by saying something positive. That sounds very goody-two-shoes, but once you open the door to negative comments, it's like a free-for-all."

No matter how practiced you are at party talk, "the potential at social affairs for even small rejections is large," says Jean Twenge, a professor at San Diego State University who specializes in social and personality psychology. "That's why these situations can be so uncomfortable. Even when a person already likes you there is potential for rejection -- they aren't going to be able to spend the entire evening talking to you."

Don't take rejections personally, she advises. "It's easy to feel hurt, but usually the other person is doing their best -- just like you are."

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