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Learning Small Talk

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston has produced some of this country's top minds. But it takes more than just a great intellect to do well in the world.

So, reports The Early Show contributor Debbye Turner, along with physics and engineering, MIT students are now learning how to make pleasant conversation.

Stephanie Wrightman is a student at MIT, in Boston. She's majoring in chemical engineering and has no trouble handling academic challenges. But she says she's an introvert, and that social challenges "are" a problem.

"I don't like talking to people," Wrightman says. "It's like a phobia I guess."

And she says she's not alone.

She notes, "I have a lot of friends who feel the same way; they're all shy; they don't like talking to people."

But even being smart like students at MIT doesn't assure that you are socially savvy. And many of us are uncomfortable in a room full of people we don't know.

According to one expert, knowing how to make small talk is a big deal.

Jodi Smith is an etiquette expert. She tells her class, "I want you to think about what are some of the things we can do so that I can walk into the room feeling more comfortable."

She's been hired by MIT to give this seminar on the art of small talk.

Smith says, "People need to understand that you need all this small talk to step up into the big talk. You have to develop that rapport and that rapport comes from a number of small talk situations."

The seminar provides tips such as how to initiate a conversation by using something called a "tag line."

Smith explains to her class, "The tag line is a snippet of information about yourself that forces the other person to ask you a question. If I say, 'Hi. I'm Jodi Smith. I teach confidence,' what are you forced to do? 'Yeah, how do you do that? Who do you teach confidence to.' By forcing you to ask me a question, I've taken you from being a passive participant in the conversation to being an active participant in the conversation."

But the class is more than a lecture; students also attend a mock cocktail party where they practice making small talk.

Smith explains, "I teach people to how to start a conversation with someone they don't know, and not about the weather."

Are there some things your should not bring up in small talk?

"Well," Smith says, "I tell people there's only one thing that they're never allowed to talk about and that's your own personal failing health. What the real guideline is, is that you're not allowed to get into a contentious debate."

Students also learn how to read body language, how to prepare for a social event, and how to "work a room."

Smith says, "I tell people that what I teach isn't rocket science. If fact, I expect that while I'm talking to people they'll say, 'Oh yeah, I know that.' But what happens is, sometimes we need just a little reminder."

So what does a person who becomes good at small talk get out of life that maybe someone who's not good at it doesn't get?

"A couple of things," Smith says. "First, when they're actually having small talk situations, they enjoy them more. So when they go to functions, they don't dread walking into the room. But also people who are good at small talk find that they make better connections. And the more people interact with and enjoy interacting with you, the more they're going to want to help you."

Stephanie Wrightman says that the seminar didn't cure her shyness. But she feels that she now has the tools and motivation she needs to become a more socially confident person.

She says, "Just knowing about the tag line and being able to start a conversation is something that I didn't know before, and it's something I can use anytime I need to talk to someone I don't know. And then also it's practicing; the best way to get better at something is to just keep on doing it."

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