The 10 Big Rules of Small Talk

Know what to say in a social situation―and when and how to say it.

Photo by Rob Howard

Anyone who‘s been caught at a wedding reception or a cocktail party discussing recent precipitation knows that making small talk isn‘t as easy as it sounds. On the contrary, conversing with strangers can be awkward, stilted, even painful. But there is an art to it, and it can be mastered. “A golden rule is that you don‘t have to be brilliant―just nice,” says Bernardo J. Carducci, Ph.D., director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, in New Albany, Indiana. “If you start with simple, even obvious comments, that makes it easier for others.” Here are 10 rules―gleaned from communication specialists and women whose jobs require extensive networking and party-going―for navigating sticky small-talk situations with style and grace.

1. Do a Little Homework

If your conversational skills are more reminiscent of Oscar the Grouch than Oscar Wilde, a bit of preparation is in order. “As I drive to a party, I try to come up with two or three things to talk about in case the conversation runs dry,” says Debra Fine, lecturer and author of The Fine Art of Small Talk ($17, “If I've met the host before, I try to remember things about her, like her passion for skiing or a charity we're both involved in.” Anne-Marie Fowler, a San Francisco investment adviser and president of the fund-raising group San Francisco Ballet Encore!, attends business and social functions as often as seven nights a week. She says, “I think about the key guests and what I can say to bring them into their element.” For instance, when Fowler attended the party of a recently retired CFO, she remembered that he loves modern art and asked him about his collection. To keep your conversation timely and lively, Carducci suggests scanning newspaper headlines and movie and book reviews. “And I listen to a lot of NPR,” he says.

2. Greet People Appropriately

To kiss or not to kiss? The question is so universal (and, for some, vexing) that Hamlet might have asked it. Generally, a firm handshake is a safe, neutral bet. In social situations where faces are more familiar, the rules soften. “If someone’s a good friend, I kiss, and if someone makes that overture to me, I’ll respond accordingly,” says Barbara Roberts, a board member of the Saint Louis Art Museum who chaired a recent fund-raising gala. Cindy Cawley, an active fund-raiser and volunteer in Omaha, Nebraska, adds, “If you’ve kissed someone before, remember to do it again, or they may feel shunned. And if you’re greeting a husband and wife, peck both, or it will look like you’re picking a favorite.”

3. Remember Names

Introductions tend to pass in a blur, with both parties quickly blurting out names and then taking sips of wine. As a result, no one remembers who anyone is. The solution: Slow down and stay present. “I always repeat a name once or twice after I’ve heard it,” says Cathy Filippini, a governing member of the Chicago Symphony and a sustaining fellow at the Art Institute of Chicago. If someone has an unusual name, take time to learn it, advises Fine. “Don’t just move on,” she says. “Say, ‘I’m sorry. Let me try that. Did I get it right?’ ” Similarly, if someone mumbles, says Fowler, “say, ’Would you kindly repeat your name?’ And when you speak your own name, do so clearly.”
If you forget a name, discreetly ask a third party for help, or listen for it in conversation. If all else fails, come clean. “Don’t panic, and don't feel awful,” says etiquette guru Peggy Post. “Just say, ‘I can’t believe it. I’ve just drawn a blank.’ It’s such a normal, widespread, human happening that most people will understand.”