Polite conversation or small talk smooths the way when you first meet someone, making it a valuable tool for social interaction.
If you have just been introduced and exchanged ‘How do you dos?’ you will need to think of something to follow it up. It is polite to make your next remark fairly promptly and not leave a silence. If your hostess or the person who has introduced you has given you a helpful clue then follow that up. Otherwise you may want to ask how they know the host or hostess or try an old royal standby, ‘Have you come far?’ You can mention the weather or, if you are at a party or an event, make a general comment about the scene. Sport, or a recent sporting event, is also a good ice-breaker.
‘Where are you from?’, which is standard in America, or ‘What do you do?’ were traditionally seen as too direct in Britain, so it is best to be more circumspect.
Do not be afraid of sounding dull. Good eye contact and a ready smile will enliven any conversation. The key thing is to give the other person an easy opportunity to respond. Once the conversation has got going remember to take turns and to listen. When the conversation is one to one, make sure you pay attention and do not look over the person’s shoulder for more amusing company, however tempting it may be. If you are trapped by a real bore then it is more polite to escape quickly than to look over their shoulder.
When you are participating in a group conversation the rule is to share and make sure everyone is included. If a known raconteur has the floor and you know someone else is shy or a natural listener you might want to include the latter as part of your response: ‘Charlotte, don’t you know southern Spain very well?’
If someone joins you when you are deep in conversation with one other person you must give it up, however annoying and inconvenient it may be. Include the newcomer and make them welcome by changing the subject or making a link. ‘You won’t want to hear about our local dramas. How are things with you?’ It is possible that you should have been keeping your private or serious conversation for a less public or social occasion.
Topics to Avoid
Steer clear of religion and politics and don’t talk shop to people other than colleagues. It is unwise to make assumptions, for example that everyone may have the same background or views as yourself.
Ask questions but try not to interrogate or make it seem as if you are trying to get a fix on the person or pigeonhole them by discovering where they live or what they earn. At the same time, it is not unreasonable to try to find common ground by asking rather indirect questions. People will usually indicate whether or not they have children, or are married, so don’t ask directly.
Small talk can seem like insincerity or a complicated dance but it is tried and tested. Wait until you know someone better before being braver with topics. Trying to be controversial on purpose is really just showing off. One-upmanship is unattractive and can just make you seem insecure rather than impressive. Social interaction is not meant to be a competition.
Avoid catching people out. If someone is talking about a subject you know better than them it is mean, although tempting, to wait until they have finished before saying that you have written ten books about it.
Some gossip can be delightful. Skilled practitioners can make you feel you have heard a wonderful bit of insider scandal, even if it is old news. However, talking about people the others do not know is rude and boring. Name dropping or telling inaccurate stories about celebrities is unattractive and unconvincing. Giving away real secrets is wrong. Discretion is paramount and reveling in bad news is bad manners.
Revealing too much about yourself to a comparative stranger, which is now increasingly common, is not good manners. Do not be in a rush. There may come a time when exchanging confidences is entirely appropriate, but it will not be the first time you meet or sit next to someone at dinner.
If you stick to the above guidelines you should not make too many faux pas but the odd indiscretion cannot be helped. The best way to avoid them is to do twice as much listening as talking (rule of two ears, one mouth) when you first meet someone, so as to get a handle on the situation. You may not realise, for example, that two people are a couple. They may be of the same gender or may have different last names. You may be someone who disdains political correctness, but racist, sexist or homophobic remarks are unacceptable in any circumstances. You may think you are being funny but it is best to keep humour under control.
If you do make a social blunder, apologise as quickly and sincerely as possible, but do not overdo it. A harmless error should be accepted and not regarded as an insult, so do not take offence too easily if you are on the receiving end. Just let the offender know you don’t mind as quickly as possible, then move on, either conversationally or even physically if you are feeling very upset.
It was considered rude in pre-war society to make remarks about food, drink, houses, pictures or furniture. There are very few places where this still applies. On the whole you are now expected to say the food is delicious and the room lovely.
It is fine to pay people compliments but very personal remarks, which could refer to weight or health issues, are best avoided. Try to keep compliments appropriate to the context and remember that specific beats general. A compliment on a haircut or dress will be much more appreciated that a generic and unimaginative ‘You are looking well’.
“It is a great mistake for men to give up paying compliments, for when they give up saying what is charming, they give up thinking what is charming.” Oscar Wilde
If someone pays you a compliment, smile and thank them graciously, and do not demur. Try to avoid the very British ‘Oh this old thing’, a form of self-deprecation that can make the person paying you the compliment feel they have done the wrong thing and dent their confidence.
The key to social tact is to do as you would be done by. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and do not press them too hard for information or ignore them and never ask them a single question about themselves. Try to draw people out, but do not patronise them. Do not interrupt. Try not to get on to your hobby horse, for example the latest health fad, and if they get on theirs, try to move the conversation on.
You may have to learn to let it go if people are being provocative or extreme as it is rude to correct people and unattractive to lecture. If you think what the other person is saying is actually harmful or slanderous then you may need to nip it in the bud by obviously changing the subject.
Learn how to move on without giving offence so that you do not get stuck with people or vice versa. You may be able to say you have not seen your host yet to say hello or that you have just seen someone you have been hoping to catch up with. If you’re at a seated dinner then you may turn to talk to your other neighbour at the end of each course.
Above all, stay alert to people’s signals and what is going on around you. Successful social life can involve concentrating as well as relaxing.