Richmond Proper: On Making Conversation

“My idea of good company is the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation.” — Jane Austen

“My idea of good company is the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation.”
— Jane Austen

When we socialize, we want to connect with other people and to attain that feeling of camaraderie and goodwill that happens when you find a common ground. If two people simply grab beverages and turn slightly toward each other, half the work is already done. But in order to really get to know one another, they must navigate that staple of human interaction known as conversation.

The most daunting part of a conversation is starting one. With close friends this is not a problem; you can probably pick right up where you left off the last time. But with strangers or casual acquaintances, how do you get to that level? The standard opener has always been “So, what do you do?” After consulting the usual etiquette tomes, I’ve found that the authorities are as bored with this phrase as I am. Even if you are not obsessed with the workplace and you don’t prescribe the identities of people based on whether they occupy a cubicle or a coal mine, this question can lead into a work-related discussion where both parties are uninterested. And yet, catchy one-line openers like “If you won the lottery, how would you spend the money?” certainly smack of trying too hard. What the experts conclude is that getting to know a stranger takes some work rather than happening instantaneously, and the project must start with a little open-ended, innocuous conversation. While a question about work or family is an appropriate way to start, commenting on the current food or location is better, and perhaps the best method of all is a compliment. As Jerry Durford observes on, “Compliments are one of the best ways to start a conversation with someone because it offers a great way to continue into further conversation, as well as allows that person to realize you’re interested in getting to know them.”

It seems that a lot of people get nervous about jumping into conversation because they’re afraid they’ll come off as awkward or boring. Judith Martin acknowledges this “new reluctance to engage in banal preliminaries for fear of losing a stranger’s attention before a real conversation can begin.” In truth, the other person is not holding a formal try-out, and they’re probably just as bad at starting conversations as everyone else. After a an exchange or two, awkward or not, the talk will most likely begin to hum along healthily. If you listen as much as you speak, and avoid some of the worst conversational pitfalls, both you and your new friend will enjoy the conversation.

Interrupting is a bad habit that is no less annoying when it comes from an interesting grown-up as when it comes from a typical five-year-old. Even if you have something so pertinent and charming to contribute that you feel you will burst if you don’t say it immediately, you must at least wait until the speaker is finished with his or her sentence. “This is part of learning to respect other people’s rights,” says the Emily Post Institute. Constantly interrupting sends the message that you do not value the opinions of those you are speaking with, and that your witty anecdote is infinitely more important than what they have to say.

By the same token, dominating the conversation without letting others get a word in edgewise is just as tiresome. Make sure that there is give and take in the conversation, where you are not the only one volunteering information as those nearby start to yawn. Be a little more self-aware, and if you sense yourself rambling or chattering along with no feedback from others, find a quick end to your lecture and ask someone else what he or she thinks. This will make things more entertaining not just for those around you, but for yourself.

Be careful not to be unfailingly negative about every topic, having a range of emotions that only goes from disdainful to complainy and back again. A few people might find your ill humor titillating at first, but even they will eventually recognize that if you hate everything and everybody so much, you will start criticizing your friends too as soon as they’re out of the room. As Emily Post put it, “You need not be dull because you refrain from the rank habit of a critical attitude, which like a weed will grow all over the place if you let it have half a chance. A very good resolve to make and keep, if you would also keep any friends you make, is never to speak of anyone without, in imagination, having them overhear what you say. One often hears the exclamation ‘I would say it to her face!’ At least be very sure that this is true, and not a braggart’s phrase and then—nine times out of ten think better of it and refrain.”

Don’t let these few cautions put a damper on your conversational courage. Most people find that once they force themselves to conquer those basic fears that everyone has about walking up and saying ‘hello,’ the worst is over. And remember how much you have to gain from the simple pleasure of a good conversation.

“It is impossible, almost, to meet anyone who has not something of interest to tell you if you are but clever enough yourself to find out what it is.”
— Emily Post

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Tess Shebaylo

Tess Shebaylo is a freelance writer, crafter, history geek, and compulsive organizer. She works at Tumblr and lives in Church Hill with her daughter, Morella.

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