I thought my social skills were bad until I encountered a woman who asked me, “Do you have mental problems?” (She recognized me from our mutual psychiatrist’s waiting room, but still….)
With practice, however, I have been able to improve my casual conversation skills, at least enough to get by in some situations, as long as they don’t last more than an hour. Here are my secrets. They do take practice. I have been fortunate to have had people to practice with – friends, coworkers, and of course my husband.
Introductions. Actually, I taught this one to my husband. Often when we met someone that he knew, he would fail to introduce me, leaving me standing there like the proverbial bump on a log. He claimed that the problem was that usually he couldn’t remember the person’s name. “Just point to me and say, ‘This is my wife, Janet.'” Then I will stick out my hand to shake and say, “And you are?” That way we both learn the person’s name. It works like a charm, every time.
Very Brief Conversations. Conversation with strangers – just a sentence or two – is also relatively easy to learn. The trick is the innocuous comment and there are two ways to go about it. The first is to make the comment yourself – “Those are great shoes! They make your feet look really small.” “What a lovely handbag. My mother had one that was similar.” Make an observation and then a related remark, usually complimentary. They don’t even have to be true technically. If you can’t think of anything else to say, a comment on the color of an outfit is usually good. There’s hardly any way someone can take offense at “That’s a great shade of blue on you.”
The other side of the equation is to get someone else to make a comment to you. This requires a prop most of the time. I used to carry a purse shaped like an armadillo, and that proved a great conversation starter. I memorized several responses that I could use when the other person said, “Oh, what an unusual purse!” I could say, “My mother gave it to me for Christmas one year” or “A friend found it in some catalog.” The purse went over big, especially if there were children present.
Longer Conversations. These require more practice. Luckily at one of the jobs I had, there were a couple of people that I could invite out to lunch and practice conversation with. (I suspect that they knew what I was doing, but they never mentioned it. In effect, they played along.) Mary, for example, had two adopted children, and questions about them we’re always good for a few minutes of interesting listening. They also had a cat and a snake. Pets and children make good topics.
Sometimes it’s best to steer clear of work-related subjects, but if the person is really understanding, you may be able to vent. You should also be able to listen to the other person too. The secret to that is not to try to fix the problem. Simply listen and validate the person’s feelings. “That sounds awful! Does she do that all the time?”
Formal Settings. Mary also provided me with the opportunity to learn about a sometimes-necessary but difficult situation – funerals. Mary and a few other people invited me to go with them to the viewing of a person that I knew only slightly in a work context, so the stakes were low. From watching Mary and her friends, I learned that the proper procedure is to stand briefly at the coffin looking solemn, then go to the bereaved, shake hands or hug (depending on whether they proffer a hand or two arms), and say, “I’m sorry for your loss” or “My deepest sympathy” and at least one remark about the departed. It can be as simple as “He was a pleasure to work with” or “Everyone at work is going to miss her.”
Not Melting Down. Another important social skill is not having a major meltdown in front of other people. When I first visited my husband’s family, I became very uncomfortable quite often because everyone seemed to be yelling at each other. Loud, angry voices tend to upset me, especially if they continue for any length of time. The technique I developed was to go into the other room and make a cup of tea. Making tea is socially acceptable. (If you’re in the kitchen, go to the bathroom or step outside for fresh air.)
Much later I learned that my husband didn’t realize that his family reacted to even minor questions with argumentative responses in loud voices. To him, and to them, this was simply the normal style of conversation. It wasn’t what was normal in my family, and it triggered my aversion to confrontation. I guess whatever you grow with grow up with seems normal to you.
One other piece of advice: Don’t attempt flirting unless you have a coach. It’s really tricky and possibly dangerous. Not for the novice (especially not the kind of novice who wears a habit).