Recently I heard from a young lady for whom conversation is far from pleasurable.  This is what she said:

“hi catherine, im a 33 year old woman and i really struggle making conversation, whether it be at a party, one to one, at work with friends, and it seems to affect my life, any advice you could give me would be great, many thanks”

So here, from my article for ES Magazine, are some tips for those of you dreading the mixed blessings of warm cocktails and cold shoulders at those social mixers that abound at this time of year…


Parties are meant to be fun.  Why do they fill us with dread?

                Two words: small talk.

                Even Judy Finnigan, whose cosy sofaside manner has made her a friend to millions of viewers, finds small talk a big deal: ‘The idea of conversation with strangers fills me with horror.  With friends I’m totally relaxed, but with other people…’

                Small talk is mocked as either fake or a waste of time.  But the real reason we hate it is not the bonfire of inanities.  It’s the pressure to perform.  Darting from topic to topic, person to person, can feel bitty, quickfire, demanding disproportionate energy, rather like badminton.   Worse, the less involved we are in what we’re talking about, the less familiar the person we’re talking to, the more self-conscious we feel. 

                So why bother, when you could be at home with some wine and a DVD?

Because when it works, conversation comes close to heaven.  The briefest encounter is an adventure with another mind.  As guests buzz about like bees bumbling flowers, their brains are firing and their hormones fizzing, flexing vital social muscles.  What is more, new acquaintances widen our world – and are far likelier to know of an exciting job, or blind date, than old friends.  

The secret of successful small talk is to reduce performance pressure.  You don’t need to be Stephen Fry.  Great conversationalists get dates, and win contracts, because they know how to listen. 


How to open a conversation with a stranger you like the look of?


The social equivalent of cold calling, this used to bring me out in a sweat.  The exposure!  The cringe factor!  The potential rejection!  Nowadays, rather than worry about me, I focus on the quest: for stimulating common ground.  

First, get your target’s attention in a way that will lower their guard.  If there’s nobody to make introductions, instead of diving in, I prefer oblique tactics.

The handiest ice breaker supplies a topic you can both discuss.  At a house party, hand round food and drink and you’ve a ready-made subject.  Alternatively, place yourself in their earshot.   Catch their eye, smile, then comment on something in the room: the décor, drink, music, guests.  Don’t be too judgmental (inevitably, the man in the mauve catsuit will be his dad).  If they don’t react, tag on a question.  Such as, ‘Beautiful/Delicious/Lively/Busy, isn’t it?’  

Why make heavy weather of a witticism, when you can use a humorous tone, or share a mild confidence (‘Me and crowds of strangers don’t mix’)?  And as we know from psychologists and proverbs, people love to give and receive.  So offer help (‘Need a top up?’) or seek it (‘Where’s the cloakroom/the waiter/the host?’)  Flattery is riskier, since it enhances self-consciousness.  However, this is disarming, and indicates the nature of your interest.  Just tread carefully — admire the blouse, not breasts.

Remember, they won’t walk away dwelling on what you said, but how you made them feel.  So relax and give the most ravishing compliment: your attention.

How do you include another person in a group conversation without ruining the dynamic?


Dynamic is the key word.  Conversation excels, or repels, according to how it flows.  So if talk is merrily bowling, don’t nuke momentum.  Smile, and if possible, lightly touch your friend to signal their inclusion the group.  When a pause arises, bring them into the mix with a nifty lateral introduction:

‘Hi Helen, James here was telling us about Iceland’s elves…’

How to join a fun group, one of whom you know?


If the joint is jumping, don’t step on toes to get your space on the floor.  Smile at the person you know, brush his arm if you can’t catch his eye, perhaps nod a silent greeting (to show you don’t want to interrupt).  If your acquaintance fails to introduce you at a natural break, perhaps he can’t remember your name.  Take the initiative, adding a light comment to what has been discussed, then offer your hand and name to someone you don’t know. 

How do you draw out someone monosyllabic?


Talking to some people is like pushing money into a slot machine that doesn’t even cough up the flashing lights.  On the other hand, Yes and No are answers to direct questions.  Have you been interrogating rather than allowing them to open up?

                There is a world of difference between an open bid for a topic – ‘Have you heard about Harry and the Hell’s angel?’ – and a closed bid – ‘Tell me about Harry?’  With shy coves, this is like prodding a sea anemone. 

Instead, try suggestive remarks, scattering prospective topics like bait.  Faces are instant messaging systems for boredom, so watch for what fires them up, then dig deeper.  Ideally, supply several threads for discussion.  Try the two plus one formula, tacking a question on to two observations.  As in, ‘These shoes are killing me.  I might as well walk in nutcrackers.  What’s the secret of wearing high heels?’

Then they can be sympathetic/discuss their favourite nuts/Tchaikovsky /explain their preference for socks and sandals.


How do you get your shy partner/friend to join in?

A large part of the art of conversation is weaving others in, making discussion relevant.  Otherwise it peters out.   So keep ears and mind open for connections between the discussion and your coy sidekick.  Coax, cajole, tease a little (easy: these are the verbal version of tickles).  But carp and criticise and everyone will feel awkward.   Bear in mind, nobody need hold court.  Only bores think conversation is about dominating.  If your partner/friend makes supportive comments, or looks interested, they’ve earnt their place on the floor.


How do you talk to a celebrity?


Slebs are in the attention-seeking business.  There is nothing sadder than a lonely one, in sunglasses (lest he should not be recognised), doing a star turn for the waiter while everyone else ogles.  Alas, if conversation conjures the everyday magic of intimacy, celebrities labour at a disadvantage.  We think we know them.  They don’t know us from Adam.  So treat them like you would any stranger, and hunt down that neutral common ground.

How do you talk to your boss at a party?


Nightmare.  Any conversation with a boss is warped by what I call status bias.  That is, tomorrow you’ll agonise over every word, but he or she won’t give it a thought.  All the same, don’t underestimate how shy or incompetent they feel (they’re used to everyone hanging on their every word).  So you’ll have to make more effort and ‘manage up’.

To establish a comfort zone, be friendly and avoid work-related subjects, using a confiding, laughing tone, but keeping to safe topics.

Nothing to say?  As the peerless Victorian flirt-politician Benjamin Disraeli said, ‘Talk to a man about himself and he’ll listen for hours.’


How to extricate yourself from a boring conversation – or if you’ve just spent too long talking – and no one is coming to save you?


Too many gatherings lurch from awkward chat to addled oblivion, while hosts revolve the room like circus plate spinners, frantic to keep it moving, their efforts drowned out by the crashing of bores.

If guests don’t circulate, they curdle into cliques.  But knowing when to leave, as French salon favourite La Bruyère remarked, is ‘An art that vain men rarely acquire.’  Anyone’s interest rate will decline with time (even yours).   In short, banish guilt: it’s your duty to get a wiggle on.  

                The easiest small-talk getaway is ‘I must introduce you to X’.  Do so, then move on.   Or suggest ‘Oh look, let’s talk to Y.’ (If Y is across a crowded room, you may shed Z while worming through the mêlée.)  If Z’s a total limpet, spot another guest you must talk to ‘before they leave’. 

You can subtly imply the conversation is entering its final lap.  Use the past tense – ‘It was so lovely to see you’.  Or try a pre-goodbye-goodbye (‘Send my love to your wife’).  If you’re inclined, ask ‘When can we do this again?’

Or simply apologise, delicately alluding to the too-swift passage of time: ‘Lovely seeing you.  I wish we could have spoken longer, but…’  The trick is to mean it. 


Should you say goodbye or not, and if so, for how long?


‘See you later’ is best if the party isn’t over.  But ‘goodbye’ at the point of departure is always nice.  Don’t add ‘We must do lunch’ unless you want to.


How do you repair any damage you’re worried about from the previous night, e.g. not having spoken to someone?


If you know them well enough to send an e mail to say you’re sorry you missed them, fire away.  If you don’t, fuhgeddaboutit.  If you snubbed them, think twice before saying so: they may not have noticed.  Or maybe they snubbed you.  But if you really wanted to talk, you would have, wouldn’t you?

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