‘The best conversationalists, it has been said, are those who are genuinely interested in other people and experience real delight in finding out about their lives’ says Caroline Taggart, author of Her Ladyships Guide to the Art of Conversation. Read on for her tips on how to break the ice in a conversation.
So you’ve said hello and told a stranger who you are. That, in chess terms, is Pawn to King 4. The other player will probably counter with exactly the same move. Her Ladyship – no chess player – suggests that any six-year-old can do that. It’s what you do next that matters.
Throughout the centuries, many people, particularly those who fancy themselves as intellectuals, have claimed to be bad at ‘small talk’. When making this statement, they always manage to imply that small talk is beneath them, that their brains are too lofty to deal with passing the time of day. It may well be that the average particle physicist has little to say that would interest the average sociologist or socialite, but the best conversationalists, it has been said, are those who are genuinely interested in other people and experience real delight in finding out about their lives, rather than imparting their own knowledge of particle physics.
The very name small talk, of course, is disparaging. But the point of it is not to keep conversation on a banal, chit-chatty level. That’s one of the ways in which things have changed since Pygmalion, as mentioned in the introduction, was written a century ago. Then, Professor Higgins’ intention was to keep his unproven protégée away from the dangerous waters of interesting conversation – nowadays, we use small talk as a way to test out those waters and find some solid ground. One twentieth-century philosopher divided communication into five levels, of which ‘cliché conversation’ – small talk on the ‘How are you? How’s the family?’ level – was the lowest. From here, he said, you progressed through reporting facts, expressing opinions and admitting to emotions until you reached ‘peak communication’, by which point you were perfectly in tune with the other person. His thesis was that people keep their exchanges on the clichéd level out of fear of opening up to others. That may well be so, but Her Ladyship views this sort of exchange as a means to an end. She is not suggesting that you will achieve peak communication in every conversation that begins ‘Do you come here often?’; what she is saying is that if you don’t start with questions like that, you will never get anywhere.
Her advice, therefore, is not to despise small talk and not to be afraid of banal questions. ‘How do you know your host?’ or ‘Where do you fit into the organisation?’ acts as a conversational baton; with any luck, the other person will pick it up and run with it. (Those sporting metaphors keep slipping in, she finds.) Questions like this have the advantage of being ‘open’ (or ‘open-ended’) – that is, they require the other person to answer something more than ‘yes’ or ‘no’. A question like ‘Have you had far to come?’ is, strictly speaking, ‘closed’, but a friendly person will recognise it as the gambit it is meant to be and treat it openly. If that person says, ‘No, I live just round the corner’, it enables you to remark that it’s a pleasant neighbourhood and ask if they’ve lived there long. Or, if they have had to come a long way, they can explain the circumstances or ask you if you know their home town.
A less friendly person, of course, can give a monosyllabic answer, so you need to be prepared to follow up your initial question with something more exploratory.
As an alternative opener, don’t be afraid of compliments, particularly woman to woman: very few women are going to be offended if you admire their brooch or their shoes. But content yourself with admiring – leave it to them to decide whether or not to tell you where they bought it (they may not care to admit that it was ludicrously expensive or ludicrously cheap). The idea, as so often, is to open a conversation, not to submit a stranger to the third degree. And beware of gushing: if you tell someone you love her dress, she is likely to be pleased; if she then overhears you saying precisely the same thing to the person standing next to her, she may be less impressed.
Extracted from The Ladyship’s Guide to the Art of Conversation by Caroline Taggart. Available now.