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Small Talk is a Big Help at Party Time

The Toronto Star
December 11, 1989
Frank Jones

Here it is the dinner party season and I'm stuck again: I'm plumb out of small talk.

I know how it's going to be, and it makes me writhe with embarrassment. I'll be sitting next to someone who has probably just returned from climbing Everest and who is about to give birth to triplets, and all I can think to say is: "What about those Leafs, eh?"

I'll probably forget the punchline of the one joke I know right in the middle of telling it and if I start on one of my threadbare anecdotes someone is sure to say, "Oh yes, -- you wrote that in your column, didn't you."

The worst is the way I'm sure to let down anyone unlucky enough to sit next to me at table. I'll thrash my brain, trying to think of an opening. I'll gulp more wine than I should, as I try to think of the magic key to unlock my partner's no doubt fascinating ideas. Finally, my eye will light up with inspiration, I'll turn with a look of keen interest and remark, "Cold winter we've been having." Then blush and stuff a piece of bread in my mouth.

Etiquette teacher

In the course of my work, I've studied some of the giants of small talk. I've noted carefully that at receptions the Queen and all the royals ask questions constantly. Even if some of them sound inane -- "Is that green stuff grass?" -- they keep the conversation going.

And when I go to interview someone, I can babb1e all day. But light the candles and pour the wine, and I dry up like a spring under the desert sun.

Something had to be done. I mean pretty soon word would get around and guests would be nudging up to the hostess before dinner and saying, "Don't seat me next to him. Please!"

It was time for a small talk seminar, so I went to see Adeodata Czink, who teaches etiquette to men and women in the business world. She shows guys whose knowledge of etiquette is limited to catching the hamburger mustard before it splatters on their shirts how to handle an actual knife and fork.

But more than anything, it's the small talk that trips men up. North American men, said Czink, a professional musician who was born in Hungary and grew up in Sweden, just aren't very good at small talk -- and especially at talking to women.

European men, especially those of the older generation, have the knack. Her father, for example, a surgeon in Hungary, always seems to know something about everything. "That generation grew up knowing the different countries, where they are, a bit of their history."

The North American male, stuck with only the stock market and sports as topics of conversation, can get by at a cocktail party, where he can always move on. But dinner parties are his downfall because, if the seating is right, he'll have a woman on either side and one across from him, and he'll be stuck there for two or three hours.

Some bores try to buck the system by talking right across their female companion to the man on her other side. Others -- I shrank into the chair -- will sit in mute embarrassment.

Opening gambits

So what are the opening gambits? "It's always a safe opening to ask the person next to you what their connection is with the host and hostess," said Czink.

Is that all? You mean there's really no need for some devastatingly witty opening remark?

"And people like to talk about their children," she said,"although you have to be careful they aren't recently divorced and feeling badly about it. A woman at home with the children may be wanting to be in touch with the outside world, so ask her if she has any plans for when her children are older.

What else? "Grandchildren are an even better topic," she said. "People love to talk about their grandchildren. And hobby is a good word."

Most of all. said Czink, who was attending diplomatic parties in Stockholm by the time she was 15, people like to talk about themselves. You just have to give them a chance.

I left shaking my head. So that's it? I never realized small talk was so ... well... small.

Would you like to tell me about your children