I love the holidays, but I don’t love the awkwardness of not knowing what to say when I’m sitting next to Aunt Josephine who I haven’t seen in years. I also don’t thrive during the “mingling” part of holiday parties. I have concluded that small talk truly is an art. Making conversation with people you may be related to or somehow connected with but have very little in common with isn’t always easy. Scroll down for a helpful holiday small talk guide to give you some non-awkward conversation starters for all your holiday gatherings.
Why is small talk important?
Because it shows people we care about them.
When we take a genuine interest in their lives, it communicates that we value them. You have no idea what the rest of someone’s life is like. You have no idea what’s going on in their inner world. While small talk can be inconvenient, it is important. Life is hard and this world can be harsh. We need more people who are willing to sit and make time to connect with other people on a genuine heart level.
Because people have something to offer.
Great Aunt Suzie has seen a lot more life than you have. Sure, maybe you won’t see eye to eye on everything but you can’t live for ninety-five years and not have gained some insight and perspective on life. Even the aimless twenty-something year old who seems to be floundering still has something to offer. I am convinced that we can learn something from everyone. There is something incredibly enriching about talking to someone who has a very different life than you do and getting to see a glimpse of how they perceive the world.
Here are some quick tips to master the art of small talk:
1. Avoid conflict and polarizing topics.
If you’re an enneagram type 8 and you’re talking with another enneagram type 8, you two can debate and argue til the cows come home and feel like you’ve had the time of your lives, but you need to understand that other personality types will not feel the same way.
2. Take a genuine interest in the other person.
If they start to engage with a particular topic, ride it out as long as you can. Continue to ask questions and really listen. You can’t ask intelligent follow up questions if you haven’t really listened. The trick is to figure out what the most significant things are in that person’s life and what they care about the most, and get them talking about that.
Act as if they are the most engaging and entertaining person that you’ve ever interacted with.
3. Make it feel natural.
It’s a conversation. If any of the conversation starters below feel awkward or forced, don’t use them. It’s not going to produce the result you’re looking for. If they suit you, use them. If they don’t, don’t force it.
4. Keep it positive.
If the best content you can find for making small talk is to speak negatively about someone else or poke fun at someone, you need to expand your horizons. Put thought into how the other person will feel walking away from the encounter.
If you are (1) negative, (2) gossiping, (3) critical, (4) judgmental, (5) argumentative that other person is not going to walk away feeling very uplifted. The trick is to find positive topics to discuss that will be mutually edifying to both of you.
5. Be encouraging.
When in doubt, find something to compliment the other person on. People like to be complimented. If you’re giving out genuine compliments, people will instantly feel good about themselves when they’re around you and they will want to be around you more.
6. Take a hint. Know when to move on.
If you are asking questions and the other person is replying with one word answers, you may need to take the hint that they don’t want to talk about that topic.
Or they might not want to talk to you, to be honest.
While asking them questions can be helpful in general, rather than just talking about yourself, If they are clearly sending the signals that they don’t want to elaborate on the topics you’re asking them about, back off.
It’s supposed to be small talk, not an interrogation. Throw in an anecdote about yourself or about the weather and if it’s all still falling flat, move on. Don’t take it personally. You have no idea what is going on in their personal lives and you may be hitting on sore spots unintentionally. Or they may just be a cantankerous person, and that’s okay. It doesn’t have to ruin your day.
7. Have good manners.
Don’t interrupt. Don’t look at your phone or watch while the other person is talking. If your kids need to speak with you say “excuse me” before you switch your attention.
Holiday Small Talk Guide: General Small Talk Conversation Starters
- How has your holiday season been so far?
- How was your travel? (If they traveled there from a distance)
- Do you have big plans for _(Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Years)_____ ?
- What are some of your family’s traditions for _(nearest holiday)____?
- Did you do anything fun for _(most recent holiday)_____?
- Did you do anything fun last weekend?
- This _(name specific food from the gathering)___ is amazing! Have you tried this _(food)_____?
- Have you been to _(local attraction or event)______?
- Do you guys do _(Elf on the shelf, Santa Clause, Christmas Eve Church Service, caroling, gingerbread houses, Black Friday shopping,_Christmas shopping early, etc)_____ ?
- Do you guys watch _(Thanksgiving football, cheesy hallmark Christmas movies, latest hot TV show, etc_)_______?
For the professional…
- How is work going?
- Remind me what you do again?
- How long have you been there?
- Do you enjoy it?
- What have you been working on? (if appropriate)
For the student…
- What’s your major?
- What’s your favorite course so far?
- What has been your hardest course?
- What have you been studying?
- How’s it going?
- Do you enjoy it?
- Are you involved in other on campus activities?
For the reader..
- What have you been reading lately?
- Do you always read _____ (books in that particular genre)?
- I’ve been wanting to read more. Any recommendations? (This is a useful conversation starter even if you know you really won’t read more. Everyone should read more, so you can say it truthfully even if you know you won’t get around to actually reading it).
- Have you read _______ (if you actually are a reader fill in the blank with something you’ve been enjoying).
For the mom…
- How are your kids doing?
- How old are your kids now?
- What grade are they in school?
- Are they into sports?
(Really it shouldn’t take a mom too much to get her talking about her kids. Whatever she starts to talk about, just go with it. If she’s NOT volunteering a lot of information or reciprocating with decent answers, there’s probably a reason. Don’t push it).
For the elderly…
- Tell me what it was like raising _(#)___ kids back then? (listen, engage, and ask follow up questions).
- Tell me what it was like when you were growing up? (listen, engage, and ask follow up questions).
- Ask about their hobbies.
For the traveler…
- What kinds of trips have you taken this year?
- How was that?
- Have you ever been to_____? (Fill in the blank with somewhere you’ve been or somewhere you’d like to go)
- Do you have any other trips planned?
- What has been your favorite location you’ve visited?
For the person that you have no idea what to talk about with…
We all have that person that we just have no idea what kind of topics to talk about with. You may not know them very well. You may sense that there are some land mine topics that you definitely shouldn’t ask about, but you have no idea what topics are safe. For these folks, I like to start with the most basic of the general small talk topics, and see what comes up and where you can go with it. You may have to stay in those general topics for the entire conversation, so really work each one to get the most out of it.
Holiday Small Talk Guide: Tips for ending the conversation and moving on gracefully
Whether you’ve been talking for a while and it’s gone well but you’re ready to move on, or it’s going awkwardly and you’re concluding that it’s not going to get better, you can learn to move on gracefully. Here’s some examples…
“Oh it’s been so nice chatting with you! I saw Susie over there and I wanted to catch her before she left. You guys enjoy the rest of your evening!”
“It’s been so nice visiting with you, but I should go check on my kids and make sure they aren’t getting into any trouble. You enjoy the rest of your evening!”
“This crab cake is amazing, if you’ll excuse me I’m going to see if I can snag one more before they’re all gone.”
“This meal has been so delicious. I better help clean up.”
“If you’ll excuse me, I am going to go freshen my drink.”
Small talk can feel weird, but you don’t have to let it be awkward. Put thought into how you want the other person to feel when they walk away from you. Keep it positive and encouraging. Listen to the person and actively engage with them. Make it feel natural, and you’ll be the favorite guest in no time!
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