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 revelling 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.