There is nothing I loathe more than small talk, and the holidays are just about the worst. Probably like many of you, I find myself attending a lot of holiday functions. I’ll go to several holiday gatherings for various magazines I write for. I’ll attend my husband’s company party. I’ll drop in on a few open houses for area businesses. And ultimately, I’ll find myself running out of things to talk about at every single one of these functions. Like we need more stress this time of year, am I right?
The reality is, I like to talk to people. I’m naturally curious, and I enjoy asking questions. However, oftentimes I ask the wrong questions. You know the ones: those conversation enders instead of conversation starters. There’s the usual, “What do you do? What part of town do you live in? And do you have kids?” And for me, that last one is the ultimate doozy because I, in fact, do not have kids. So ends that conversation. Oops.
The more I think about it, the more I realize I not only hate asking those typical questions but answering them too. It’s difficult to describe my non-traditional career; it’s hurtful to explain why I’m not going home for the holidays, and it’s boring to talk about the same things over and over again. Who’s with me?!
This holiday season, I’m saying enough is enough when it comes to dreaded holiday small talk. Instead of avoiding it, I’m going to embrace it, thanks to the guidance of Erika Preval. Erika is an Atlanta-based etiquette expert who also owns a modern-day charm school. After years working on Wall Street, writing for the likes of Southern Living, and being a personal shopper at Tiffany’s (hello dream job!), Erika knows her stuff when it comes to all things etiquette.
Start with a compliment
Who doesn’t love hearing something positive about themselves? Preval explained that a tried-and-true way to start a conversation and get someone talking is to say something nice about them. “Compliments are great conversation starters, and with everyone dressed in their finest, you’ll likely have many occasions during the holidays to create an instant connection with the recipient when giving them,” she said.
Express interest in someone’s day-to-day life
Recently, a hostess friend of mine said one of her favorite ways to start a conversation is to ask what someone did that day. I love that! Think of all of the answers that will come up in that response. Preval also said to be ready for what’s next. “Be armed with leading follow-up questions,” she explained. “‘Tell me more…’ expresses interest in what you’ve just heard and is a simple way to keep the conversation going.”
Focus on things people enjoy
It’s important to think beyond the weather and focus instead on things people like talking about. “Chatting about upcoming travel plans, new restaurants, or even favorite (non-controversial) podcasts are also ways to keep the conversation going,” Preval added. Plus, this will help you get to know each other better, and you will have someone you can talk to about something interesting the next time you’re at a party together.
Know how to dip out graciously
As a conversation starts to dwindle, it can become clear it’s time to move on. However, doing so without being awkward is, well, awkward. “When the conversation starts to wane and you’re beginning to feel like the rhythm has been lost, it’s time to move on,” Preval said. “You can graciously exit the conversation with, ‘I’ve really enjoyed catching up with you. Please excuse me…’ or by introducing them to another person who might be a better fit.”
Enter new conversations confidently
Leaving a conversation to start a new one can also be a bit tricky, but Preval explained there are ways to do so with confidence. “If the group is open, enter with a simple greeting and introduce yourself,” she noted. “If you’ve overheard the subject matter of their current conversation, add to the discussion with your experiences or inquiries. ‘Did I hear you talking about ____? I’ve always wanted to go there. What is the one thing I shouldn’t miss when I visit?’”
Be yourself (and don’t rely on liquid courage)
It can be tempting to head to the bar as soon as you get to a party, especially to calm your nerves. Avoid the temptation by giving yourself a little confidence-boosting pep-talk. “Often, when you’re employed in an office where co-workers are known to socialize, your interview was likely looking for a fit for both hard and social skills. Find confidence in that and be yourself,” Preval said. Of course, holiday parties are a time for revelry, so imbibing is often expected and anticipated, and that’s OK! However, keep it light, but professional. “If alcohol is present at an event with co-workers, it is OK to join them,” Preval explained, but it’s also OK to not drink at all. Mocktails are just as fun and delicious anyway!
Have fun and be present
Ultimately, have fun! Whether you’re slowly sipping on jingle juice or confidently rocking around the Christmas tree, enjoy yourself. Erika’s final piece of advice? “Please don’t enter the event in search of the WiFi password. Unless you’re expecting a call, your phone should be put away at social events. Connect with the people your feet are facing instead of those you interact with virtually.”