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How to Excel at Small Talk

Posted by Peter Post May 28, 2013 07:00 AM

Have you ever noticed how some people seem to be able to strike up a conversation with ease with just about anyone? Marvel at their glib, self-assured way, how they simply seem to make conversation with a stranger such an easy event?

For the rest of us it can be intimidating. You go to a social event and you’re going to have to talk to people who, basically, are strangers. How do you do it?

Here are three tips to make your engagement in small talk a success.

  1. Small talk starts before you ever arrive at the event. Make a conscious effort to become familiar with a variety of subjects: what’s going on currently in the sports world; the latest happenings in the entertainment world; what’s new and talked about on television. To be knowledgeable you will have to read up on current events regularly, either in the paper or online. Watch the latest hit television show, even if it’s only once so you know who the characters are and the basic current plot line. Don’t just read the headline news; peruse the lifestyle pages or the entertainment sections of Google News.
  2. Before you actually go to an event or a cocktail or dinner party, use your newfound knowledge to develop several questions: “I was surprised Candice Glover won American Idol. Do you think she deserved to win?” Or, to be a bit provocative, “What are the chances the Sox will make it this season?” (Lots to interpret by the fact you are even asking the question!)
  3. Then, when you are actually talking with someone at the event, you can pull out one of your questions, ask it, and then sit back and listen. You don’t have to be a great talker. You just need to know how to ask questions that will get the other person doing the talking.

Along with being knowledgeable and asking questions, you should be a good listener. That means paying attention to your conversational partner. Look them in the eye. Smile. Ask a follow-up question occasionally. Nod and utter an “Uh-huh.” You pay a person a great compliment when you make them feel important by being a good listener.

That’s it: Be familiar with current topics, ask questions, and be a good listener. That’s the formula for being successful in situations when you are expected to engage with people you’ve just met.

What Is It About Your Voice That Affects How People Hear You?

Posted by Peter Post May 21, 2013 07:00 AM

“I’m sorry.”

Without some context, the written words fail to convey any sure sense of the meaning behind the words. Did the person who is quoted really mean the sentiment of the words or was he or she flippantly offering an apology just to settle an issue?

But, when we hear those words spoken we immediately understand the meaning and the sincerity or lack thereof. We know what the person means by the way he or she says it—the tone of voice. Tone of voice is an important quality that makes a difference to how people hear you. Here are four more qualities that help you be better understood:

Inflection is also an important voice attribute. Try this: Speak to a group for a couple of minutes in a flat monotone, no inflection at all. It will become painfully obvious that without inflection no one will listen for very long. Inflection keeps the sound of your voice interesting, and it allows you to stress words that carry more importance. Inflection, like tone of voice, is critical to voice communications.

Pronunciation matters as well. When we mispronounce a word, the listener’s focus turns to the mispronunciation rather than the message we are trying to convey. Commonly mispronounced words as identified at alphadictionary.com include: arctic (artic), candidate (cannidate), espresso (expresso), isn’t (idn’t), jewelry (jewlery), nuclear (nucular), and perspire (prespire).

Speed will get you every time, especially on a telelphone where a listener doesn’t have any visual cues to help interpret what you are saying. Slow down to be better understood.

Accent also can be problematic. It’s not just for people who speak English as a second language, accent is also noticeable in different parts of the United States. When speaking English when it’s not your native tongue or with someone outside your general geographic region, slow down and take care to enunciate as best you can.

Want to be really misunderstood? Combine speed with accent and you have a formula for really being unintelligible. The other night, my wife and I were watching a British import on TV and got hung up on an actor’s line. After replaying it several times, and doing our best to lip read, we finally turned on the Closed Captioning. Never would have guessed the fast-spoken phrase in a million years.

What Is It About Your Voice That Affects How People Hear You?

Posted by Peter Post May 21, 2013 07:00 AM

“I’m sorry.”

Without some context, the written words fail to convey any sure sense of the meaning behind the words. Did the person who is quoted really mean the sentiment of the words or was he or she flippantly offering an apology just to settle an issue?

But, when we hear those words spoken we immediately understand the meaning and the sincerity or lack thereof. We know what the person means by the way he or she says it—the tone of voice. Tone of voice is an important quality that makes a difference to how people hear you. Here are four more qualities that help you be better understood:

Inflection is also an important voice attribute. Try this: Speak to a group for a couple of minutes in a flat monotone, no inflection at all. It will become painfully obvious that without inflection no one will listen for very long. Inflection keeps the sound of your voice interesting, and it allows you to stress words that carry more importance. Inflection, like tone of voice, is critical to voice communications.

Pronunciation matters as well. When we mispronounce a word, the listener’s focus turns to the mispronunciation rather than the message we are trying to convey. Commonly mispronounced words as identified at alphadictionary.com include: arctic (artic), candidate (cannidate), espresso (expresso), isn’t (idn’t), jewelry (jewlery), nuclear (nucular), and perspire (prespire).

Speed will get you every time, especially on a telelphone where a listener doesn’t have any visual cues to help interpret what you are saying. Slow down to be better understood.

Accent also can be problematic. It’s not just for people who speak English as a second language, accent is also noticeable in different parts of the United States. When speaking English when it’s not your native tongue or with someone outside your general geographic region, slow down and take care to enunciate as best you can.

Want to be really misunderstood? Combine speed with accent and you have a formula for really being unintelligible. The other night, my wife and I were watching a British import on TV and got hung up on an actor’s line. After replaying it several times, and doing our best to lip read, we finally turned on the Closed Captioning. Never would have guessed the fast-spoken phrase in a million years.

Summer Clothing That Doesn’t Make the Grade As Business Casual

Posted by Peter Post May 14, 2013 07:00 AM

I live in Vermont. It’s been a long winter. People bundled up in layers of clothing to be warm outside and able to shed layers to remain comfortable inside. Come April (if we’re lucky) and May (like this year) the temperatures shoot up into the 80’s and out comes the summer clothing.

And with that summer clothing comes choices: choices of what is and is not appropriate summer business clothing.

Summer business casual can be tricky for both sexes so here are a few guidelines to help avoid hearing: “I can’t believe he (she) is wearing that!” For every piece of advice I’m about to give, there’s usually an exception. But beware of the exception, especially if it results in opting for more casual attire. Remember, you can always dress your clothing down but dressing it up is much harder. For instance, a guy can wear a tie and then take it off, but if he doesn’t have a tie and discovers he needs one, he’s out of luck.

Regardless of the advice that follows, if your company has a clear policy about what’s acceptable, adhere to that policy. Here are some trouble spots:

For men:

Collarless shirts. Watch out for the tee-shirt, especially anything with a slogan on it. However, a collared golf shirt or polo shirt will usually pass muster.

Shorts. Don’t push the envelope by wearing shorts.

Socks. Wear them at work. Loafers without socks are okay in social settings but not at your job. We all know how sandals look with socks so the advice here is, if socks are a must, then sandals are not for work.

For women:

Spaghetti straps. Michelle Obama has made the sleeveless look okay thanks to her tank dresses with wide “straps,” but narrow straps or spaghetti straps are still not acceptable at work.

Flip-flops. They’re great for summer fun but they are simply not professional so unless you are absolutely sure they are okay, avoid wearing them at work.

Panty hose. They’re no longer required, especially in summer, though if you wouldn’t dream of going without them, by all means wear them. Again, if the occasion is business formal, wearing them gives a more professional look.

Cropped shirts. I hear they are in fashion again, but any clothing that bares the midriff is not appropriate business clothing, even business casual.

Shorts. Stick to skirts or slacks. And while we’re at it, beware of skirts that are too short, either when you are standing or sitting. The definition of too short? “When people notice your skirt rather than you.”

Etiquette Is Alive and Well, At Least When Boarding Airplanes.

Posted by Peter Post May 7, 2013 07:00 AM

Boarding airplanes is one of those unique etiquette/life experiences that reminds me just how civil we all can be toward each other. I fly a lot, both for business and for personal trips, domestically and internationally.

Depending on the airline I might be in boarding group 2 or 3 or 4 or even higher. What’s amazing is how kind and generous people are as their groups are called to join the line to board the plane. For the most part, they don’t push and shove to get ahead of each other (even though it might mean losing the last open spot in the overhead bins for carry-on luggage). More than once I have had the person standing shoulder-to-shoulder with me look me in the eye and motion for me to go first. And that’s what etiquette is all about—showing consideration and respect for the people with whom we interact. Emily Post said it best when she defined etiquette as: “Whenever two people come together and their behavior affects one another, you have etiquette.”

I have experienced this behavior by the flying public so often that I know it’s not an aberration. People are actually showing consideration and respect for the strangers around them, and, in doing so, make the experience just that much more pleasant for all.

So, when people ask me if we, as a people, are ruder now than people were twenty or thirty years ago, I see examples of civility, like boarding airplanes, that belie that perception, in spite of the fact that 69% of Americans think we are ruder today.

My fellow airplane passengers have reminded me that etiquette is alive and well even if 69% of us think we are ruder today than we were twenty or thirty years ago. It’s the little, seemingly inconsequential, everyday interactions with our fellow man that prove that we still care.

About the author

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers' questions in The Boston Sunday Globe's weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. The column is distributed by The New York Times More »

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