Cocktail Party Conversation: The Etiquette of Small Talk

May, 01, 2010

The definition of small talk includes both light conversation and idle banter. Small talk is what people say to one another to be social. It breaks the ice. By asking general questions and giving answers, people connect. Small talk is not in-depth conversation, but rather an exchange of social niceties. A lot is written about the importance of grooming and proper dress, but if we can’t make intelligent conversation it won’t matter how we look once we open our mouths.
Many people feel right home in the office but are uncomfortable in the social arena for fear of making small talk, especially with potential clients or new friends. If you find small talk a big challenge, it’s important to realize that all it really takes is a little preparation. George Bernard Shaw said, “One way to be popular is to listen attentively to a lot of things you already know.”
What are some ways to make small talk?

  • Be well informed. Read at least one daily newspaper, weekly news magazine, or Internet news page.
  • A good conversation requires more listening than talking. If you forget names, it helps to repeat the person’s name a few times in conversation.
  • If self-confidence is your issue, practice in front of a mirror. Smile, use good eye contact, and imagine Cary Grant staring back at you.
  • Before going to an event, read the headlines of the day, including the sports page. Current events are perfect for small talk.
  • Ask the other person about him- or herself. People are flattered to be asked and love to talk about themselves.
  • Be ready for a conversational pause and be ready to fill the void.
  • Focus on safe topics such as current events, new restaurants, hobbies, movies, mutual family or friends, and sports.
  • Avoid anything personal such as family issues, health issues, gossip, off-color jokes, religion, and the cost of things.
  • Learn when to exit a conversation. You should talk to someone just long enough to be polite and not let a three-minute conversation turn into thirty minutes. When you need to exit, try “Please excuse me” or “It was nice talking with you.” No other explanation is necessary. A successful brief encounter requires a few well-chosen words, good eye contact, and a few minutes of your time. Susan Roane ( author of What Do I Say Next? says: “Your objective in all encounters should be to make a good impression and leave people wanting more.” To do that, she advises: “Be bright. Be brief. Be gone.”
  • If all of the above fails, play the game that Eleanor Roosevelt did while she was First Lady. She went down the alphabet until a subject sparked a listener’s interest, starting with A. For example, A: Airline travel is sure not what it used to be?; B: Have you read Dan Brown’s latest novel?; C: I hope the Chicago Cubs make it to the World Series in 2010? Got the idea? Lisa Mirza Grotts is a recognized etiquette expert, an on-air contributor, and the author of A Traveler’s Passport to Etiquette. She is a former director of protocol for the city and county of San Francisco and the founder and CEO of The AML Group (, certified etiquette and protocol consultants. Her clients range from Stanford Hospital to Cornell University and Levi Strauss. She has been quoted by Condé Nast Traveler, InStyle magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times. To learn more about Lisa, follow her on and

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