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​Reviving the lost art of small talk

At a loss for words at that holiday party?
How to make small talk 07:13

At a loss for words at that holiday office party or family gathering? Barry Petersen gets some chit-chat tips:

They can be a cause for merriment ... or a minefield.

One thing's for sure: Holiday parties mean you'll be making "small talk" ... a lot of it. And as we all know, there is a thin line between fun and faux pas.

What questions you do not ask? How about "Where's your wife?"

"Well, what if she left him?" said Debra Fine? "What if she took all the money, took the house, took the kids?"

Small talk is a big deal to Fine. The once-shy child wrote "The Fine Art of Small Talk" (Hachette), full of do's, like checking the guest roster beforehand to learn names; look for someone standing alone, who might be glad to chat; and, like a good boy scout, come prepared with questions.

Such as? "Well, for instance, because this is a holiday party, I would be prepared to ask you, 'What are some of your favorite traditions this time of year?' 'What was the best present you ever got, Barry?' Or, 'What's the best one you've ever given?'"

And don't do all the talking; don't criticize; don't get personal, like asking about a promotion someone maybe didn't get -- or worse.

"I mean, sometimes people at holiday parties will ask questions of the host or hostess: 'So, did you make this or was this store-bought?'"


There are some places where small talk ought to just come naturally, like sitting at the bar. So, Darren, what do you like about being a bartender? "Chatting with people."

Or someplace where NOT making small talk might seem kind of weird, like sitting in a barbershop.

It's questionable trying this in an elevator, because if people don't WANT to talk -- they can't get away.

And there are other places where most of us actively avoid making small talk, like on a city bus or subway. We almost always choose isolation over conversation.

University of Chicago professor Nick Epley, who studies social cognition, wanted to know why, so he started asking people about their commutes. "They actually predicted being the happiest in the solitude condition where they just kept to themselves," said Epley. "And they predicted being the least happy in the connection condition when they engaged in conversation with this person. Their expectations were precisely wrong, precisely backwards.

"They were happier engaging in a conversation with a stranger, but they predicted they would be the least happy doing this."

He found that our lonely morning commutes are missed feel-good opportunities based on a key mis-conception about the other guy.

"As far as we can tell, the actual percentage of people who would be willing to talk to you, is closer to 100 percent," said Epley.

100 percent? "It can't be 100 percent exactly, of course. But we never had anybody in our connection condition send us back a questionnaire saying that they tried to engage in a conversation, but the person wouldn't talk to them."

He was so moved by his finding that he gave up his smartphone. "No, I carry a stupid phone, a phone that just makes calls," Epley said. "It keeps me more connected to folks that are right next to me, and it encourages more conversation that I might not have otherwise. And the fact is, I don't miss a whole lot when I'm not on the phone."

When it comes to talk, the women of "The Talk" -- Julie Chen, Sharon Osborne, Aisha Tyler, Sara Gilbert and Sheryl Underwood -- are television's experts.

"Whether you're doing a television show or hosting a dinner party or meeting someone for drinks, you want to make the other person feel cared for," said Tyler. "And if they feel cared for, they'll feel comfortable and they'll open up to you."

And the key to making people feel "cared for"?

"You guys talk about the art of conversation, but I wonder how much of the art of talking with people is the art of listening?" asked Petersen.

"All of it," replied Tyler.

"100,000 percent," said Chen. "As talk show hosts, we all know at this table the shorter our questions are, the more we can make the guest sitting in that very chair shine, the better we are at our jobs."

A job they says seems particularly hard these days, as conversation itself is fading away.

Sharon Osbourne said the art of conversation is dead. Why? "Especially with the younger generation, because everything is on their phones. Everything. It's a text or an email."

So what does Riley Dunn, a cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy, say about her generation killing the art of conversation? "I would say as a whole, maybe, just because I have encountered people my age that don't like to talk."

So Dunn and her fellow cadets are RE-learning what some fear is fast becoming a lost art, at a formal dinner that is actually a class. Along with learning which fork goes with which course, they are given cue cards to help conversations start.

Example: "Ask the person sitting to your right where they are from. Continue the conversation with others at your table."

"These are absolutely necessary skills to be leaders -- not just in the military," said Heather Buchman, the Academy's director of social decorum. She finds the texting generation is surprisingly hungry to talk face-to-face.

"They're craving this knowledge because they don't get to practice it on a regular basis in day-to-day life," she said.

And at this time of year, day-to-day life can include a holiday party.

It's not about the topic, says Debra Fine, but the approach. "Show a true interest. Let's go back-and-forth and have a real conversation, but i has to be real."

And so does your exit: the best strategy: Just be honest. (Say "I need to meet a friend," or "I need to get some food," or simply, "It's been nice talking to you."

"You don't have to meet everybody," said Fine. "Just get our of the corner for about five minutes, or the buffet table, and talk to somebody new."

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