by Ginger Philbrick
When I was your age—a distant but strangely vivid memory—it was popular to say, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Unfortunately, like the existence of the Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy and a luck-bestowing four leaf clover, that has proven to be less than the truth; words actually have great power to hurt us.
However, they can also make us laugh, educate us, and in the case of “Psst, I think you have some vegetable material hanging on your tooth there,” they can save ongoing embarrassment. It is in that vein of words being able to make life better that I want to talk with you about what many call small talk.
Previously, I have written to you about the importance of a smile and eye contact when you meet someone. Once you have wowed the other person with your accomplishments in those areas, you will probably need to speak. This may bring on nervousness and the realization that you have no idea of what to say. It is then time to employ small talk, which is polite conversation about uncontroversial things, usually used in social situations.
Let me share some tips:
• The best questions with which to open a conversation are those with open-ended answers, rather than just yes or no. For instance: “Great music, right?” will probably get you “Yeah” as an answer. “What do you think of the music?” is likely to get you more response. The ever popular opener, “How are you?” will need to be followed by something like “What are you looking forward to today? Or “How about all the rain we’ve been having?” These questions will encourage more of an answer.
• Be alert to clues of what the other person would be interested in talking about.
For instance, if you know the adult you are trying to chat with is a grandparent, ask what their grandchildren are doing this summer. Or if you’ve been introduced to a guy with a Red Sox cap on, ask, “What do you think the chances are for the Red Sox this year?”
• Don’t keep asking questions; let your companion ask some of their own. Too many questions make the situation seem much like an exam or that you really aren’t interested in listening, just in keeping the other person captive.
Of course, if someone gives signals that they aren’t in the mood to talk with you, let it go. “Con,” as in the word conversation means “with, or together” and sometimes the other person is just not with us at that time. End the torture with a polite, “I hope your day goes well,” or just “Well, I’m glad to have met you,” even though the reason might be because you know not to try to engage again!
As in that old saying, sticks and stones (and a poorly pitched baseball) have the power to break our bones. But words can change the world as we know it, and help us become more comfortable in it.
Ginger Philbrick is the owner of Because You Are Polite LLC. You are invited to email your manners questions to her and she will respond as time and space allow. You may contact her at email@example.com.