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Small Talk: Conversation or Giant Bore?

Andy RooneyIf there has ever been a book written about small talk, and how to conduct it, I've never seen it. During the holiday season is when we need a book like that the most.

A cocktail or dinner party can be a drag if people don't know how to small-talk. "How have you been?" isn't good enough.

"How have you been?" leads inevitably to, "Fine. And yourself?" The person standing in front of you with a glass in his hand has hit the ball back in your court and you're right where you started: in a conversational abyss.

You have to begin again. The worst thing that can happen at a stand-up or sit-down party is to get stuck with someone who doesn't want to talk to you and to whom you have no interest in talking. Until someone else comes along and interrupts your tortured conversation, you have nothing to do but continue with idiotic pleasantries. "Incredible weather for this time of year, isn't it?"

Many holiday parties this past year were lucky to have sub-freezing weather. It's small disasters that bring out the best small talk, and the record-cold Christmas was a conversational blessing.

The situation in Afghanistan was good another good topic of conversation at recent holiday parties. "Do you think we did the right thing in Afghanistan?" A person is flattered to be asked a question with more substance than, "Is it cold enough for you?" and almost everyone has an opinion on the war.

Travel conversation is seldom satisfying banter at parties. People who have been somewhere want to tell everyone else all about the fabulous trip they just took, and the listeners don't want to listen. They can't wait to break in and say, "Did you get to Leningrad? Leningrad is fabulous. We were there in May."

One of the few ways to escape when you're trapped one-on-one with someone at a party, is to say either, "Can I get you a drink?" or "I think I'll freshen this a little."

You then disappear and hope that before you return the person has found someone else to bore. This ploy is from a man's point of view. A woman can hardly break away by asking a man, "Can I get you another drink?" This is one of the unfair things women have to bear in life.

One of the reasons food is important at a party is not for its nutritional value but because it's a source of small talk. If the food is dull, the talk is often dull.

The best thing that can happen to enliven a party is a petty calamity, or, at least, a small, unexpected event. Years ago, we were at a party and, in the middle of it, all the sirens in town went off, and two of the men who were with the volunteer fire department rushed off to the fire.

The fire didn't amount to much, but between the tension over the possibility that someone's house was going up in flames and the question of when the volunteer firemen would return with their stories about it, the party picked up immeasurably.

Even something as simple as a fire in the hostess' kitchen stove is a help. It breaks down any reserve that may have existed between relative strangers at the party.

One strange phenomenon: People who know each other well and don't like each other a lot seldom seem to have any trouble when they're thrown together at parties. Over the years, I've seen people who say terrible things about each other behind their backs, laughing and joking with each other at parties. Maybe that's what small talk is for.

(Write to Andy Rooney at Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207, or via email at aarooney5@yahoo.com)


1 Responses »

  1. Dear Mr. Rooney,

    I read your January 8, 2010 column "Small Talk: Conversation or Giant Bore?" with great interest and was surprised that you said you've never seen a book on the subject.

    Please let me refresh your memory. In the early 1980s on a "60-Minutes" piece on self-help books you held up a copy of my then recently published book, How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends (Simon & Schuster) and quipped, "Hi ya, sailor!"

    Yes, you were making a bit of a joke about the topic, but that was fine with me. I was flattered that my book was on your show. Today 30 years after its publication, I am happy to say that the now revised book continues to help people make small talk and connections at holiday parties, work, home and everywhere else.

    Briefly, small talk is the fastest, easiest and most natural way to connect with strangers in social and business situations. When people ask you obvious questions or make comments about the weather, travel or work, they are really telling you that they want to talk and are willing to open a dialog. Plus, if you listen, you can learn a lot about each other—your likes, dislikes, politics, sense of humor (or lack thereof) and then decide if you want to get to know each other better.

    Finally, a word of caution about those people who say they hate small talk and only like to talk about “deep meaningful” subjects. More than anything else, they are people most interested in getting others to agree with them by acknowledging their beliefs. Sounds harsh, but just ask yourself, when was the last time someone with opposite views to yours changed your mind during a chat at a party? Your time is far better spent exchanging tips for new restaurants, great books, wines or places to visit on your next vacation—and then move on to repeat the whole process again with someone new.

    If you'd like to read take a look at How to Start a Conversation and Make Friends so you'll be ready for the holiday parties in 2010, please let me know. I'd be happy to send you an autographed copy!

    All the best from a big fan!

    Don Gabor