I've been the painfully shy girl at the party who, too petrified to talk to anyone, stands in the corner alone and wishes that the earth would open up and swallow her (without anyone noticing, of course) so she could be spared further embarrassment.

I've also been the obnoxious, spotlight-craving bore who yammers on and on, oblivious to the glassy-eyed stares of her long-suffering audience.

But I've changed and now (except for the occasional lapse) I am neither of those people. In some circles, I even have a reputation for being a good conversationalist. How did I do it? I renovated my conversation skills.

Put the focus on other people
What do the self-conscious wallflower and the self-obsessed attention addict have in common? Self. Instead of thinking about how boring/fascinating/unworthy/fabulous you are, try walking into the party with the goal of learning something new.

Break the ice

Don't feel you have to be witty. That's too much pressure and it's not necessary. Just introduce yourself and say something. Even a line as basic as "This is some weather we're having, huh?" or "Have you seen any good movies lately?" is enough to get the ball rolling. It's the person's response to your first line, and your response to their response that will move the conversation along.

For example, I was once at a party where I didn't know anyone. Earlier that day, I was talking to a friend about The Simpsons and neither of us could remember the name of the bully. I thought of this unanswered question as I walked over to a friendly-looking guy at the party and said,"Hi, I'm Candice." After he introduced himself, I said,"Nice to meet you. Hey, do you watch The Simpsons? I can't remember the name of the bully that says 'ha-ha!' and it's driving me crazy! Do you know his name?" He said, "Nelson" and I knew he liked The Simpsons.

Actually, the guy loved The Simpsons and we reminisced about hilarious moments in Springfield history and that eventually led to other subjects. But, even if he didn't love The Simpsons, he would still have a response of some kind and that would be all that I needed:

Him: I hate The Simpsons/have never seen The Simpsons/ don't own a TV.

Me: Really? What do you do on Sunday nights?

Voila. The conversation has begun.

Listen
Are you a good listener? If you said yes... are you sure? Most people think they're good listeners but most people aren't. Listening is not just not talking and it's not simply waiting for your turn to talk. Active listening is taking in the other person completely and getting all the information from them that you can. That means no interrupting (you're not getting the full story if you're cutting them off...plus it's rude) and no looking at anything but the person speaking to you (you can't fully take in the person without seeing their facial expressions...plus it's rude). Active listening also involves making sure the person who is speaking knows that you got what they're saying. You can do this by repeating, in your own words, what they said in order to confirm that you understood, and by asking them questions about what they just said.

Ask open ended questions
Once the ice has been broken and the weather has been discussed and agreed upon, the next step is to take the conversation up a notch. You can do this by asking questions that don't have a simple one-word answer. I'm fond of asking questions that require a person to tell a story. My favorite questions fall into the best/worst category: What was the best/worst vacation you've ever taken? The best/worst date you've ever been on? The best/worst advice you've ever received? Or if you don't want to be that fancy, you can just say, "I hear you went to Mardi Gras/ ran a marathon/ made out with Britney Spears at an awards show... What was it like? Tell me about it!"

Learn the art of the anecdote
You know what I said earlier about taking the focus off yourself and putting it on other people? Well, occasionally, you'll have to put it back on yourself. If you just ask question after question, you're not in a conversation; you're leading an interrogation. You need to contribute. A good way to do this is by telling a personal anecdote.

The ideal anecdote is relevant to the conversation, either illustrating a point or shedding new light on the topic. It doesn't have to be funny, but it's better if it is. However, if your anecdote doesn't fit this criteria, tell it anyway. There are no hard and fast rules. If you think it's interesting, it probably is. If it isn't... no harm done.

Telling an anecdote is a lot like telling a joke. It has a set-up and a payoff. And in anecdotes, as in jokes, attention to detail is key. Remember Mr. Orange telling the commode story in Reservoir Dogs? He wasn't watching "a video" when some jerk called him asking for pot, he was watching Lost Boys. Be specific. And, unless you're sure the payoff is worth waiting for, keep the set-up brief.

Know your audience
Most people say that you should avoid discussing politics or religion. I say that's hogwash. There is no topic that can't be discussed, but there is a time and place to discuss them. Open your eyes and ears before you open your mouth, and you'll know whether you're surrounded by people who will be receptive to a chat about these subjects. I can't tell you how to do this. Just use your best judgment, and if you're in doubt, it's best to hold off on telling everyone why you think Bush is a moron or why people who practice Wicca will end up in hell.

Steer clear of conversational land mines
Some people love to argue and will try to draw you in. Others really are just rude and offensive and will try to upset you. Still others are just wackos that are not worth arguing with. Try not to take the bait. You can just come out and say you'd rather not discuss the topic, or you can say something non-committal and vague like, "to each his own." David Sedaris, in his hilarious book Me Talk Pretty One Day, shared his technique for avoiding conflict with people who picked him up when he was hitchhiking. He said if someone said something ridiculous or offensive, he would reply, "I've never thought of it that way. You might be onto something." I think this is brilliant and have used it myself on many occasions. In cases where someone is being truly offensive, a mildly sarcastic, but sweetly delivered, comment like, "Good luck with that" is also effective in letting the person know they crossed a line. It's best used before excusing yourself and heading to the food table for some cocktail weenies.

Be yourself—the most respectful, courteous, open-minded version of yourself
Here's the thing. Not everyone is going to like you and at the risk of sounding like your mom...it's their loss. The good news is: once you accept that, you're free. You don't have to bend yourself into a pretzel trying to be please everyone. Your opinions and insights and experiences are what make you the unique, interesting, fabulous person you are and you should never forget that. However, this doesn't give you license to be rude to people. The golden rule is always applicable and respect for other people's feelings is never out of style. I once heard a wonderful saying at a 12-step: "Mean what you say and say what you mean, but don't say it mean."

Leave them wanting more
And another thing...ooh, are those cocktail weenies? Excuse me. It was great chatting with you!

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