“Ethiopians worship turtles shells.” That was the ice breaker one evening long ago when I dined with a young lady and her mother and step-father. The step-father’s simple statement about the religious practices of Ethiopians illustrates one of my life-long struggles: How to successfully chit-chat.
Being a young man at that time and rather unworldly, I had no response. I stared at my plate, briefly glancing at my date and trying to avoid both eye contact and sudden laughter. I must admit, though, that I pondered the possibilities: Do Ethiopians, in fact worship shells? If so, why? How did he come across this information? Had he been to Ethiopia? My poor social skills prevented me from pursuing the topic further. My prospective relationship was no doubt ruined by my inability to engage in stimulating small talk.
In the years since, I have been forced to attend various dinners, gatherings, cocktail parties, receptions, lunches and chance encounters where I have, fortunately, honed my chit-chatting skills to a fine edge. We have all had those painful moments when someone ham-handedly tries to “shoot the breeze” and instead offends or bores those around him. As a service, I offer my pointers on how to approach these most awkward of moments.
WHEN IN DOUBT, LIE
As a general rule, I oppose lying. It’s just not good. Plus, I usually get caught. Chit-chat is an exception. Sometimes, we must—in the name of polite conversation—lie in order to keep the ball rolling. An example: You’re at a cocktail party and a chit-chatter is prattling on about a drunken bender that he was on several years ago:
Chit-chatter: “[blah, blah, blah]… and the next morning who but Peter O’Toole himself had a case of champagne delivered to my room with a note reading: ‘I told you we could have a good time for $50.’”
You haven’t been listening, and the speaker has concluded his story with some outrageous anecdote about noted actor Peter O’Toole (a lie, no doubt). What shall you do in response? You can’t just awkwardly blurt out: “That is a damned lie!” and reveal yourself as a clod. Try this:
You: “I’ve always loved Peter O’Toole’s work. My uncle was his understudy on Broadway several years ago. Fabulous chap.”
You have now commandeered the conversation to your fictional uncle’s acting career. (Note: Don’t say that YOU had an acting career. That’s too easy to expose as a lie). Now, you can regale the listener with your own second-hand stories of Peter O’Toole and any other actor you decide to include in your fantasy world. You are almost as fascinating at the Chit-Chatter, plus you now have common ground on which to bond.
GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT
Most Chit-Chatters enjoy hearing themselves talk. That’s why they are talking. One tried and true method of competing is to simply repeat back to the speaker what he or she has just said with your own spin on it. This is especially helpful when, like me, you’re often in the company of people far more intelligent and well-read than yourself. Example:
Chit Chatter: “I tell you, if we don’t get the Greek government to take a hard-line on its austerity measures, the entire Euro Zone will collapse. The result will be catastrophic. It will make the Icelandic Bank Crisis look like nothing. We’ve already seen the effects in some of the Eastern Bloc countries. Newt Gingrich nailed it in last night’s debate: How do we get these people to the table?”
You are now in deep trouble. You don’t know anything about the Greek government. You didn’t watch the debate. You were watching your backlog of “Hillbilly Handfishing” episodes last night. You thought Newt Gingrich was on Hee Haw. Here’s your response:
You: “Lloyd, no sensible person could argue with you–or Newt–on that point. The Greeks, for all the good they may have done, have not stepped up when it comes to austerity measures. I can’t understand why, when it is so important to the very life of the Euro Zone, that they don’t take a hard-line. You’re right about Iceland. We can’t afford a repeat of that fiasco.”
See what you’ve done? Without a single original thought, you’ve engaged in lively political banter. By merely restating the Chit-Chatter’s banal declaration, you appear to be “with it” and engaged.
Often, the whole point of chit-chat is to impress the listener. This is especially true in business settings. If, like me, you are not very impressive and have a modest list of accomplishments, embellishment or outright fabrication is necessary. While this is closely related to the first point above, the purpose is quite different. Rather than being a response, you can use this to your advantage as your own ice breaker. For example, you are at a dinner seated with several people who are, by their very appearance, superior to you in every way. Try something like this:
“I must share this story. While on vacation, I was strolling the Champs-Élysées when I saw an old friend, Uqba ibn Nafi, whom I met in Morocco several years before. When I asked what he was doing in Paris, he paused, stared me straight in the eye and said: “Rambwa yekh chalyem!” Oh, we both had a good laugh at that.”
This one inane story, made up from whole cloth, makes you appear worldly. The listener, by contrast, is likely to think his own education and, indeed life, are meaningless. Little do they know that you’ve recounted gibberish which roughly translated means “the traffic circle has a hideous beard.” One consideration: Your listeners may have been to Paris. It may be a good idea to read about Paris on Wikipedia or change the location of your story to Qatar or Ethiopia.
Regardless of your nerves, there are three subjects to avoid at all costs. They are summarized below:
Children: If the listener has children, he or she will care nothing about yours. If he or she has no children, it is likely that they hate children or are bitter over their sterility. Think about when a colleague shows you a “drawing” by his 3 year old. “It’s a horse!” you’re told. You say: “Cute.” What you think is: “That ain’t no freakin’ horse. What’s wrong with that kid?” That’s how the listener reacts to small talk about your kids.
Health: There is no way to make your gout or recent colonoscopy interesting unless you embellish them into gun shot wounds. It is best to avoid the topic altogether as you may be in the company of someone with a truly loathsome condition, the details of which will horrify you. The one exception to this is if your audience is all over 70 years old. In that case, it will be the only topic of conversation.
Controversy: Whether it’s as benign as the Designated Hitter or as incendiary as legalizing child pornography, steer clear of controversial topics. If such a topic is introduced, try to direct the conversation elsewhere. This would be the perfect time to refer to item 2 above and dazzle the listeners with your erudition with a “top this” tale.
Had I known these simple rules, imagine how I would have handled the turtle story:
ME: “That is very interesting. My uncle worked in the mission fields of Ethiopia years ago. Turtle shells were known as “ukajobu” or “shell of the Gods.” They would grind them into a fine powder. It was reputed to be an aphrodisiac of sorts.”
There you have it. I have conquered the conversation with my own interesting retort. Perhaps the young lady would have been impressed and changed the course of my life. Then again, my life is pretty fine as it is. Maybe all this small talk is just a load of crap.