Mastering the art of small talk

For starters, listen carefully and smile


Plato once said wise people speak when they have something to say and fools talk when they have to say something.

But, as dozens of different events loom on our social calendars, we know there are times when we have to say something, significant or not.

Let's face it. Plato and the rest of his Greek pals, whose conversations are legendary, never had to master small talk.

So, how can the socially apprehensive master the art of small talk, a skill some find as difficult as interpreting one of Plato's weighty philosophical dialogues?

First of all, relax. Most everyone feels some trepidation in social situations, says Philip Nastasee, a clinical psychologist in Emmaus, Pa. In the extreme, this condition is called social anxiety, which requires treatment.

"In the right amount, the apprehension keeps us organized and focused," says Nastasee. "In some ways, it is a prerequisite to success."

But some of the apprehension is based on false assumptions about social situations, says Don Gabor, who teaches workshops and counsels individuals on communication skills. Gabor has written more than a dozen books on communications skills, including a recently revised edition of his 1983 book, How To Start a Conversation and Make Friends (Fireside Books, $13).

"If you go to a party and see three people talking to each other, you might make the assumption that they all know each other, which may or may not be true," Gabor says. "People also assume that the talkers don't want to have others join their conversation, which, again, may or may not be true."

A person's internal, or self, talk can also make social situations more stressful than they need to be, says Judith Belmont, a professional counselor in Allentown, Pa., who specializes in communications issues.

"In social situations, people tend to focus on what they are actually saying, and they're not focusing on what their internal, self talk, is," she says. "If your self talk is not so critical, you'll be much more fluid in social situations. You won't be comparing yourself to others. You won't be worrying about what other people are thinking."

Self talk also can interfere with a critical element in the art of conversation, the ability to listen, says Gabor.

"If a person is just listening to their own self talk, they really aren't paying attention to what the other person is saying," Gabor says.

In his 25 years of teaching people the art of conversation, Gabor says the question he gets asked the most is how to break into an in-progress conversation. People want to find a way to enter a conversation without appearing to be too pushy or forward.

When he walks into a party, the first thing Gabor does is look for a group where there is actually a physical space where a new person can join the conversation. Avoid groups where a heated debate or argument is taking place, Gabor says.

Once you spot a group, try to overhear what they're talking about, to make sure the topic is of interest.

As you approach, Gabor says, try to make eye contact and smile at one or more of the people in the group. If they smile back or otherwise acknowledge your smile, move in closer and enter the conversation's circle.

Once inside the circle, listen carefully to what is being said, and for a way to enter the conversation easily. If the discussion is about a film, for instance, ask an easy-to-answer question -- "What's the name of that film?" -- when there is a break in the conversation.

Shortly after you ask the question, and again at another natural break in the conversation, introduce yourself to the other members of the group, Gabor says. The setting determines the level of introduction. At informal parties, a first name may be enough. In business settings, a full name and company affiliation might be necessary.

Keeping the conversation moving is another common concern. Gabor suggests conversationalists look for what communication theorists call "free information," or information speakers reveal about themselves. Let's say a speaker makes a passing reference to a school they attended.

When the current conversational thread appears to be ending, bring up the "free information" element by asking about what it was like attending that particular school, Gabor says.

Conversationalists should also keep in mind the audience and setting, experts say.

Small talk for professional people, including clergy, doctors and lawyers, has an added layer of difficulty, Gerns says. "People assume you are taking a moral inventory."

But Gerns has found one key to conversation: Listen more and talk less. People also enjoy talking about themselves. "You can just open the door and let the person tell their story. Most people are comfortable with this."

Tim Blangger writes for The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.).


Want to make new friends or reconnect with old ones? Conversationalist Don Gabor suggests some common blunders to avoid:

Don't offer a one- or two-word answer to the question, "What have you been doing all these years?"

Don't fold your arms, or exhibit other closed body language.

Don't wait for others to be the first to say hello.

Don't bring up old arguments or past indiscretions.

Don't speak only to friends or your spouse.

Don't eat or drink too much.

Don't talk too much or too little about yourself.

Don't discuss personal problems.

Source: Don Gabor,

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