Making Conversation



Sadly, I'm already there!

I'M not really a party animal but I can shake a tail feather or two should the need arise. I'm not so bothered about making a fool of myself on the dance floor – even if I do look like an arthritic pensioner on speed - as being stuck for conversation with a stranger.

I'm not like the better half who loves talking to people or, more importantly, listening to what they have to say. At the end of any occasion he is full of the stories he has been told and the interesting things he has found out. Just don’t get him started on politics. I’ve seen grown men weep after being cornered and subjected to his forthright views.

I’m not good at small talk and dread a silence descending on a conversation. I cast about for something to chat about as my opposite number throws panic-stricken glances towards the door. Or worse, I start babbling - and eyes glaze over and smiles fix on faces.

As a former newspaper person I tend to fill up the silences by relapsing into interview mode and people can feel like I’m interrogating them rather than chatting. I haven’t yet asked the questions: “Do you mind telling me how old you are?” or “Could you spell your name, please?” but I’m sure they will slip out one day.

Over the years I have tried to soften that approach and I have gathered a mental check-list of things to ask. They are of the "isn’t the weather lovely/dreadful for the time of year, what do you do for a living, where did you grow up, do you have any pets?" variety. I know to steer clear of politics (better half, take note) and religion so I don't ask anyone what they think of a hereditary third chamber or whether transubstantiation is a metaphor or a reality.

But after one recent encounter I considered changing my tactics when it came to the art of conversation. I was approached by a smiling man who said: "I was always told not to speak to strangers but you don't look like a serial killer." It made me laugh and broke the ice and we had a lovely chat about crime channels on TV and then about the beautiful walks in Devon where, hopefully, no serial killers are lurking.

So, I thought, from now on I'm going to ask an ice-breaker question and see where it leads me. The problem would be finding the balance between sounding interesting and humorous or coming across as a complete idiot you would walk naked across Dartmoor in winter to avoid. It's a fine line but I was willing to risk it.

I asked my family for some help in thinking up that icebreaker question and, surprise, surprise, they looked at me as if I were mad (believe me, I'm used to that look) and were less than helpful. One niece said I should start by asking: "If you feed a chicken sausages, will it lay a scotch egg?" I shook my head in despair but she justified it by saying I could then go on to talk about all the people who keep hens in their gardens. Yes, that's if they're still around to talk to and not pretending someone on the other side of the room is waving to them.

Most were total conversation stoppers rather than starters so I won't be asking: "Who do you think is responsible for the blame culture in this country?" Thank you, nephew. And he offered this gem as a way of getting into someone’s good books: "If you were a nose, I would pick you first." And there goes another one making a bolt for freedom.

I read somewhere that words contribute only 10 per cent to a conversation; the rest is made up of tone of voice and body language. So I'm practising not crossing my arms or legs in a defensive pose, relaxing my shoulders, keeping eye contact, nodding while other people talk and using my hands expressively.  I need to talk more slowly and in a slightly deeper voice than normal. All good tips I found on the internet.

This is great, I thought, and at the next family get-together decided to practise on relatives. I approached one likely candidate and clean forgot my "icebreaker" question, but suddenly remembered the one about the chicken and the scotch egg. I blurted out this “hilarious” joke and received a stony stare in return. So I started to babble about hens and gardens - then remembered my internet research and began to talk more slowly and a tone lower. I waved my hands about in what I thought was an expressive manner. I stared her in the eye and unslumped my shoulders so much that they were practically at my knees.

She looked at me unsmilingly for a few seconds as I waited for her response to my scintillating conversation. She finally said: "Are you drunk?" and walked off. That’s the thing about family members, there’s no sugar-coating any pills.

Oh well, the next time I need to talk to someone I will start by commenting on the weather and then ask them what they do for a living. If they tell me how old they are and how they spell their name, so much the better.


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3 comments:

  1. I'm so hopeless at small talk, I spend most of my time avoiding situations where there might be people that need talking to, or want to talk.
    I'm so unused to talking I stumble over the words and people think I stammer.

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  2. I despise small talk too, but I love the opening line about the serial killer. Of course, you have to have the right personality to pull that one off.

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  3. That serial killer line is awesome! I avoid small talk if possible. It helps that most of the people I hang with are fellow authors. Sometimes we rarely talk at all with our noses buried in our writing. Other times we discuss things like... well... how to kill people. ~grin~ Happy New Year!

    ReplyDelete