By Andy Netzel
The worst part of any holiday party? Arriving and finding no one to talk to.
Even those seemingly naturally adept at making conversation can find themselves in a room full of folks difficult to talk to.
We’ve assembled 10 great conversation starters to help get you through the holiday party season, whether you’re talking to coworkers at a business functions or that rarely seen cousin at a relative’s house.
(Keep reading to find out why you might want to take a completely different approach.)
- What was your favorite gift you received as a kid?
- What was your first job?
- I had the best drink last week. Have you had any good holiday cocktails this year?
- Christmas afternoon is the only time I get to read without any interruptions. I don’t know what I’m going to read this year: Have you read anything I should add to my list?
- Does your family have any holiday traditions?
- Who is hardest to shop for each year?
- Have you ever been the host of the holiday party? (Here are some tips to share about getting your kitchen ready for that big party.)
- How do you keep your home clean for the holidays? Big cleans or lots of little ones?
- Where did you get that outfit?
- What’s the best Christmas cookie you’ve ever tasted and do you have a recipe to share?
These should get your holiday conversations off to a good start. But the conversations will ultimately fall flat if you don’t think about what makes a good conversation in the first place, says Bernie Carducci, a psychologist who studies shyness and wrote the book The Pocket Guide to Making Successful Small Talk: How to Talk to Anyone Anytime Anywhere About Anything.
“You don’t have to be brilliant. You don’t have to be witty. You just have to be nice,” Carducci says. “When you try to start out with a line or conversation starter, it’s too tough. If you start with something really powerful, you have to maintain that level of performance.”
So skip the pat starters.
Carducci has compiled a basic how-to guide to starting conversations. He says everyone can do it. There’s no evidence in his studies that people are naturally good at starting conversations. Practice makes you better at it.
“The difficulty people have with a conversation is they think it happens spontaneously,” he says. “Conversation follows a set formula.”
- Step One
Setting Talk: Getting Started. Pull from the room. All you’re really doing is indicating to the person you want to chat and get a read on if they’re up for it as well. It could be as simple as “These decorations are gorgeous, aren’t they?” This is the key place bad conversationalists get tripped up – they fear they’re not interesting enough to even start the conversation.
- Step Two
- Step 3
- Step Four
- Step Five
The Personal Introduction: Who You Are, Something About You. Talk about yourself briefly. “Think about how you can make it easier for the person to be engaged. Provide a hint or topic they might talk about. Don’t just think about what you’re going to say, but what you’re going to talk about.”
Pre-topical Selection: Fishing for Topics. Many conversations also break down here, Carducci says. “Bad conversationalists often think they need to say something critical or brilliant; unable to do either, they say nothing at all.” It may take a couple tries, but you’ll find something you’re both interested in. It could be one of the topics listed above, but the key is to find a part of their response to build off of – tell a story or ask a question.
Post-topical Elaboration: Expanding the Topic. Now you’re really talking. This is where the conversation grows. It may start on the home you were looking at purchasing, and turn into a conversation about the best way to keep hard floors clean. (Well, we can dream right? But, seriously, try a FloorMate and we dare you not to talk about it.)
Conversation Termination: A Gracious Ending that Creates the Connection. So now that you’re talking, you want to make sure you walk away wanting to continue talking later. “This could be after a few minutes, or after 25 minutes. You let the person know the conversation is going to come to an end. You give them the chance to wrap it up. ‘Oh, there are some other people I want to catch up with, but I really enjoyed talking to you.’ Mention something they said to show you were listening. ’I learned so much from you about world music!’ And then extend the invitation to talk again. ‘Let’s catch up more later!’”
Even if you’re a bad conversationalist, you can get better. Keep practicing! Use the world as your practice field. Chat in a long line at the grocery store. At the printer waiting for documents at work. Anywhere.