Holidays usually involve a full deck of gatherings, from intimate dinners to company shindigs. The sheer number of conversations can lead even extreme extroverts to fantasize about a night of Netflix. Still, parties don’t have to be an endless round of weather reports and job-status updates.
At most events, you’ll encounter numerous personality types, and small talk can be challenging or charming. Learn which conversation strategies to embrace with whom, and you might find yourself moving beyond idle chatter and into a conversation you really enjoy.
“Oh, you’ve been traveling? Let me tell you all about my last trip . . . and my kids . . . and my job.”
Center-of-the-world types have a knack for turning any conversational topic into a monologue. Then again, we can all fall prey to chattering about ourselves when we’re nervous.
Either way, self-interested conversationalists excel at filling awkward silences, so when you feel tired of talking, they might be the perfect conversational partner.
If you’re stuck listening to a narcissist, you can do one of two things: Go with the flow, or engage others in the conversation.
In the first case, slow down and pay close attention. Make it a listening exercise. Ask questions, looking for elements of his or her story that you can take interest in.
In the second case, see if you can entice a third party to join the chat. A three-way conversational flow might prove more rewarding for all involved.
“You like the food here? It’s too spicy for me, but then, no one ever adjusts spices correctly. Who makes spicy food for a crowd, anyway? This snow is such a huge drag. It took me forever to get here.”
To the downer, the world is a dreary place, packed with perpetual injustices. And he or she may be inclined to find the sad or dark in whatever you choose to share, too.
Express empathy and camaraderie where you can (as in, “Wow, it sounds like you’ve had a rough day!”). But avoid getting drawn into the vortex of doom or allowing the conversation to drift too long in a sea of toxicity.
“It’s very easy to build rapport through negativity and gossip, but resist that temptation,” suggests Daniel Post Senning, spokesperson at The Emily Post Institute, and great-great-grandson of the etiquette doyenne. Offer up some reflections on what you’re enjoying about the party instead.
“Sarah, have you met Ian? He was just talking about his sculpture project downtown. Ian, meet Sarah — she loves sculpture. Oh, and there’s Michelle!”
Great connectors create conversational pathways that dispense with small-talk fluff, and their ability to detect common interests is a host’s dream.
Then again, an overeager connector can run you ragged, dragging you from chat to chat before you’ve had a chance to learn much of anything meaningful. They can also make a family gathering feel like a networking event.
Enjoy the fun, but be clear about when you’re ready to settle into one conversation rather than being drawn into the next — and the next.
Express your appreciation, then make a simple request. For example: “You are so kind to offer me all these introductions. I’m completely fascinated by this chat I’m having with Jane just now. Can I come find you when we’re done?”
“So, how is your relationship going? Are you getting married? Why not? Don’t you want kids?”
Showing interest in others is a hallmark of a good conversationalist, but interrogators take it too far.
With questions both numerous and intrusive, the interrogator puts others on defense. She rarely picks up on body language — like crossed arms, lack of eye contact, pressed lips, and furrowed brows — that signals discomfort.
If you’re faced with an interrogator, just smile, take your time responding, and don’t be afraid to decline intrusive questions. It’s fine to say, “Oh, I’m not really discussing that topic right now.” Or, “I’ll have to give that some thought.”
You might also counter with some lighthearted humor: “My goodness, you are curious. Have you gotten all this information out of the other guests?”
“You’ve seen the last season of Downton Abbey, right? Can you believe how closely it parallels what’s happening in the Middle East?”
The know-it-all conducts her conversations assuming that you have seen and read everything she has. This can leave you feeling a little stranded when you have no idea what she’s talking about.
Dismiss any pressure you might feel to know all about something unfamiliar to you, and just start asking questions: “You know, I’ve never seen that show, but everyone seems to love it. What’s it about?” Or, “I’ve spent hardly any time with a newspaper lately. Can you catch me up on that?”
You might end up learning about some current event or cultural Zeitgeist that’s new to you. You may also find it’s a pleasure to just listen to someone else talk while you relax for a while.
“I love that scarf! The colors are gorgeous. Wait, you made it? How fantastic — are you an artist?”
Cheerleaders excel at creating warm connections right from the get-go, and that makes them lovely people to talk to, particularly if you’re at a party where you don’t know anyone. But if they go overboard in their enthusiasm, it can be hard to get a genuine conversation off the ground.
Be gracious. Remember that a stream of admiring remarks can signal that someone is nervous. Focus on putting your conversation partner at ease, perhaps returning a compliment or two and then shifting the topic to less self-conscious territory. You’re both likely to enjoy your chat much more when you feel like you’re standing on equal ground.
How to Be a Great Party Guest
Read our interview with Debra Fine, the author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, for more tips on how to be a great party conversationalist.
Experience Life | What's a good general rule when it comes to party conversation?
Debra Fine | Some people are natural connectors, but we really all can be that way whether you're shy or not. Instead of making a conversation all about you, just see conversation as an opportunity instead of a transaction.
Another good tip is to be genuine, instead of a schmoozer. If you're genuine, people pick up on that. Sometimes, just smiling and being friendly is enough. The way you stand, the way you exude positive energy, can be an opening for someone to strike up a conversation with you.
You might want to give a genuine compliment and follow it up with a detail. Like, "I enjoyed hearing about your trip to Africa because I love how you told that story about the hotel," or "I like your overalls because that color is great on you."
EL | Are there people who tend to stand out most at a party?
DF | There are those who exhibit host behavior, and that's different than a connector. I'm a believer in assuming the burden of other people's comfort, the way a host would. That might sound negative, but it's actually a great thing to do.
Let's say I look across the party at someone who's been quiet and I go up and make conversation, I make that person feel comfortable by asking about what other parties they're hitting up this season. I might include other people in the conversation.
That's showing host behavior, where you make sure everyone is having a good time. Bringing other people into your stories isn't just polite, it's a wonderful way to get to know them. And believe me, hosts really appreciate this because then it's not all up to them.
EL | Should someone prep for a party, in terms of conversation?
DF | Definitely, it pays to be prepared. You should walk in with two or three things to talk about, icebreakers to have in your back pocket. For example, at holiday parties you might ask people about what they enjoy most about this time of year, or any family traditions they enjoy around the holidays. You could ask about what they're looking forward to in the upcoming year. If they're talking about business, you could ask how the holidays might be impacting them.
One thing to keep in mind, though. I don't use the terms "vacation" to strangers, because you don't know if they're in a precarious economic situation. Not everyone can afford to go on vacation. So, it's better to ask what they have planned in the new year, for example, than to ask if they have any vacations coming up. If all else fails, stick with movies or TV as a topic.
Think about what you can talk about, and don't be lazy by giving one-word answers. If you have a few icebreakers in your pocket, you're seen as a good sport and often, a great conversationalist.
EL | Besides mentioning vacations, are there other topics to avoid?
DF | I don't ask people what they do. To me, that seems like something everyone asks and it's boring. Instead, I say, "What keeps you busy?" and they can answer any way they want. Some people do talk about work, but other people might mention volunteering or their kids, and you can take the conversation in whatever direction they choose. Let the other person lead.
EL | What happens if you do happen to stumble?
DF | Acknowledge it. If it's an acquaintance, you might say, "Where's your husband tonight?" in a polite way, and then be told a divorce is in the works. Instead of backpedaling and changing the subject, acknowledge it but don't dwell on it. The other person will let you know through their body language if they want to talk about it. If they don't, you can say, "I'm sorry to hear that," and if they change the subject, take their lead. It's up to you to assume the burden of comfort because you've made the faux pas.
But, in general, I don't ask questions like the one about the husband. Instead, I tend to start with very open questions like, "Catch me up on what you've been up to," since those tend to be very neutral.
EL | What do you think is the most common mistake people make when it comes to party conversation?
DF | Seeing a conversation as a batting cage instead of a tennis match. People can get lazy, and they just stand and answer questions and won't assume any responsibility for keeping the conversation going. Instead, be a good sport, and give me something that will connect us. If I ask how you've been, don't just say, "Great," and wait for the next question. Instead, say, "Great. I've been trying to get in the last episodes of House of Cards before the next season. Do you watch that?" or maybe, "Great. I just finished making jam for all my relatives, so I'm feeling like I'm way ahead." Give people a reason to connect to you.