Making successful small talk with someone you've just met isn't rocket science, but it does demand more effort than tossing out a tired opening line. The added pressure of a social situation — a date, a party, an encounter at a singles club — may tie your tongue into knots. The best thing is to ignore what's going on around you and concentrate on the person at hand. If you show that you are interested, you'll be surprised how quickly people open up.
To get the ball rolling, here are five practical principles for starting a conversation when you don't know what to say.
- Flattery will get you everywhere. Make with the compliments to begin on a positive note. People are inclined to think well of you if you indicate you think well of them. The trick is picking out what to compliment without including some kind of sexual connotation.
- Props. Women work hard choosing their accessories, and anyone who notices wins points. "Those shoes are sensational. Are they comfortable?"
Check out a guy's tie, glasses and watch. Look at his feet. I have a mild-mannered cousin who indulges himself by choosing socks with wild patterns. Always carry a book or newspaper. Then, if your new acquaintance doesn't have anything obvious to remark on, you have, "Have you read this?"
- Redirection. People love to share their enthusiasm for their hobbies. If you meet someone jogging, see if you can spark some shoptalk. And vice versa. If you're at work, ask them what they like to do to relax. Try to discover what is not obvious—the mind in the sexy blonde, the animal in the geek.
- Ask more than yes/no questions. A question demands a response, which is the essence of conversational give-and-take. But a yes/no query can bog you down in monosyllables. Think like a reporter: Ask who, what, when, where and why. Instead of, "Did you see the latest Bruce Willis movie?" try, "What did you think of it?"
- Listen, really listen, to the other person. Shy people who have trouble making conversation are so anxious about what they are going to say next that they don't listen to what the other person says. Every answer to your intriguing questions opens up new conversational avenues to explore. Follow up on those leads. As an added bonus, the more you concentrate on the other person, the less your palms will sweat, the fewer words for you to stumble over. And your new acquaintance is bound to be charmed by your astute appreciation of his or her own sterling qualities.
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Marcy Barack is a freelance writer who often covers relationship issues.