The Art of Conversation

by Brett & Kate McKay on September 24, 2010 · 67 comments

in A Man's Life, Dating, Fatherhood, Friendship, Marriage, On Etiquette, Relationships & Family

I think we’ve all encountered men who have a knack for good conversation. They can talk to anybody about anything in a laid-back, casual manner that sets people immediately at ease.  A complete stranger can walk away from these conversational maestros feeling like he’s known known them for years.

It’s easy to think that the art of conversation is a skill that the gods bestow on a happy few, while cursing most men with turbid tongues.

While it’s true that some men simply have a greater portion of innate natural charm, the art of conversation is a skill in which all men can become competent. You may never have a silver-tongue, but you can learn to converse in ways that make you a valued party guest, set you apart at company functions, impress the ladies, and win you new friends. Below, we provide some tips and guidelines as an introduction (or reminder) on properly engaging in conversation.

5 Do’s of Conversation

Listen more than you talk. Ironically enough, the key to the art of conversation is not in the talking, but in the listening. Avoid conversational narcism. Ask those you converse with interesting and thoughtful questions. People love to talk about themselves. Don’t ask what someone does and leave it at that. Ask them what the hardest part of their job is, how the future of their profession looks. Then ask follow-up questions to tease out more details. Act genuinely interested by focusing on who’s talking, nodding your head, and adding “hmmm’s” and “uh-huh’s” at appropriate moments.

Come to an occasion armed with topics at the ready. On the way to a party or dinner, I think about the people I will be seeing that night and brainstorm stories I can tell and questions I can ask. “George will like to hear about how the woodshed is coming along. Grace just got back from seeing her folks in Minnesota, so I’ll ask about that, and I’ll see what Tyler thought about that book he just finished.”

If you don’t know the people you will be conversing with, think about the things that will probably interest those you meet. Ask them about the unique aspects of their locale-(“I saw an interesting statue in the way into town. What’s the story behind it?”), read up on the company they work for (“I hear you will be expanding into China soon-when will that be happening?) and ask those who do know the others better for some background information.

Tailor the conversation to the listener. It’s easy to say, “Don’t talk politics, sex, or religion.” And when in any doubt, don’t. But a much better rule is simply to tailor your conversation topics to those you are conversing with. Talking about politics, religion, and sex with new acquaintances can be awkward; arguing with the same buddies you’ve been arguing with for ten years at your weekly poker night can be the highlight of the week. Talking about motorcycles in mixed company will bore half the room; not talking about them with your riding posse would be unthinkable.

Take your turn. A conversation is a group project, with each person weaving in a tidbit here and there. It’s no time for monologues. If you notice that you have talked for a few minutes without any questions, comments, or general signs of life from other people, you are likely sucking up the air in the room. Cede the floor to someone else.

Think before you speak. Most foot-in-mouth moments occur because of a failure to think before speaking. You rant about the war and then remember your friend’s boyfriend just returned from Iraq. To avoid offending, don’t throw out statements laden with value-judgments. For example, instead of saying, “The mayor sure is a moron, huh?” Ask, “What do you think of the mayor’s rebuilding proposal?”

5 Don’ts of Conversation

Don’t interrupt. There are actually two forms of interrupting, as 1954′s Esquire Etiquette explains:

“The obvious one, interrupting the speaker in mid-sentence, is easy to avoid: just wait until the other has stopped talking before you start. (And don’t ever say, “Have you finished?” You might as well say right out that he’s a windy numskull and you thought he’d never run down. ) The other kind of interruption, equally culpable, is often prefaced by “That reminds me…” or “By the way.” Such phrases usually signal a digression or irrelevancy. When you interrupt another’s train of thought, or send a discussion off into a tangent, you indicate that you are either stupid or rude, either unable or unwilling to stick with the speaker’s point.

Even if everyone observed these rules, telephones, doorbells and new arrivals would always conspire to interrupt you in mid-point. When you are interrupted, the politest thing to do is the hardest thing: shut up. Don’t go back and finish a story-don’t excavate a buried point-unless you are asked to do so. If a new listener has come up in mid-story, a polite someone else will brief him on the subject and ask you to go on; the polite newcomer will second the nomination; only then, with the briefest possible synopsis of what you said before, can you go on. If you are not given these cues, it may be because your story is not appropriate for the newcomer’s ears or because the situation gets beyond control; it’s not always because your audience was bored. So, if you get a chance to make your point later on, don’t air your annoyance with a petulant, “As I was trying to say a little earlier…”

Don’t talk to only one person when conversing in a group. This leaves the others dangling and awkward on the periphery. This is not simply a matter of whom you are physically conversing with-you can also ice people out by choosing subjects on which they have no interest or knowledge, such as the intricacies of your job that only your co-worker understands and inside jokes and “remember when’s” with your buddy. Bring up topics on which everyone can chime in.

Don’t engage in “one-upping.” The one upper not only makes a lousy friend, he also makes a highly annoying conversationalist. You say you just bought some new boots; he raises you one by talking about the shoes he cobbled together himself with leather he got by killing a deer with only a bowie knife. The one upper believes that his stories show his superiority; on the contrary, they reveal his naked insecurity.

Don’t overshare. We’ve all met the man who pours out his life story as soon as you meet him. Within two minutes you know why his girlfriend dumped him, how worried he is about losing his hair, and why he’ll never be promoted at work. This instant unburdening reads as desperation and repels people faster than water off a duck’s back. You have to cultivate a little mystery-leave people intrigued and wanting more.

And at the same time, you don’t want to dig too deeply into the personal life of other people either. Respect the privacy of others. To avoid inadvertently touching on a sensitive spot, instead of asking someone about X, volunteer that information about yourself. A person who is comfortable talking about X will typically offer up their own experience in turn. If they don’t respond in kind, change the subject.

4 Things Not to Say

“Am I boring you?”

An embarrassing question-the person will never answer no, it comes off a bit accusatory (the person will feel as though they were looking at you with an uninterested expression), and even if you weren’t previously boring them, the power of suggestion will plant the idea in their head that the conversation had been rather tedious after all.

Instead of asking a question like that outright, simply pay attention to the person’s facial expressions and body language. If they look bored, they probably are. Time to switch things up.

“Huh?” “What?” “Say What?” “Eh?” (the latter is okay if you use an ear-horn).

Too abrupt. The speaker will feel awkward. Instead ask, “What was the last thing you said- I didn’t catch it.” And don’t nod and smile when you don’t know what was just said. Sometimes it works; sometimes the person just said, “A dingo made off with my baby last night.”

“Actually, you should say ‘between you and me,” not ‘between you and I.’”

If grammatical mistakes make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, you may find it difficult to restrain yourself from correcting the errors of others. But a conversation is no time to be pedantic. You’ll come off as smug and patronizing and bring any rapport you were building with a person to a screeching halt. Don’t miss the forest for the trees.

Actually, if grammatical mistakes make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, you might want to look into taking up some new hobbies.

“Stop me if I’ve told you this story before…”

No one will ever stop you. So your question just prolongs the time they have to act like they’ve never heard the story of the time you almost ran over Barry Switzer while he was riding his fixed gear bicycle near the OU dorms.

The Number One Rule of Conversation: Be Natural

As with most matters of etiquette and sociality, once you understand the ground rules, stop thinking about them so much and let things flow. You can follow all the above do’s and dont’s, but if it seems to others like your conversating by a checklist, then you might as well be waxing poetic about your butt hair. It doesn’t matter how polite you are if you come off as a phony. Drop the affectations. Talk about things that you’re comfortable talking about; use words that you’re comfortable using. As Esquire Etiquette advises:

“You’ve often heard that what you say and how you say it is a first impression give-away to your character and your background-but there’s a sleeper in that bromide: It’s a bigger give-away to pretend to be something you are not then to be what you are without apology. No matter what the lady-books say about “cultivated speech,” a man’s speech had best not be cultivated; it ought first of all to be natural…The pretty politeness of speech you find in the girls’ books are not for you, sir. If you mean “Sorry,” say “Sorry”-not I’m so sorry,” not “I beg your pardon.” If you mean that the dinner was damned good say so; don’t mince around with uneasy words like “exquisite” or “lovely.” Leave the “my dears” to the aged, and “do comes” to the feminine gender. And forget about the supposedly gallant phrases like “Allow me” and “After you.” It is not etiquette to say things the long way or the fancy way. Be yourself. Be a man.”

Read Part II of the Art of Conversation: How to Avoid Conversational Narcissism

What are your tips for mastering the art of conversation? Share them with us in the comments!

{ 67 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sam September 24, 2010 at 3:13 am

This was a great article. I think that the best advice I have when it comes to conversation is to pay attention to how you normally talk to people. Everyone has a different speaking style some people are direct in their conversations, while others meander around a subject.

Also I think something that is important is recognizing what you are aiming for in the conversation. If it is just a casual chat with your friends then there is really not much pressure, but if you are attempting to network by striking up conversations then it is a whole different game.

I am a college student who for the past 8 years of my life has done competitive speech and debate. One thing that I have noticed when it comes to giving speeches is that sometimes it does not matter what you say, but how you say it. The ability to sit down and have a conversation with someone, and make them feel good about your conversation at the end is a skill that can make your life much easier. In my experience when I am debating I find that it is just as effective to have a conversation (albeit one-sided) with the audience about whatever side I have been tasked with advocating for, than to Orate.

2 David Buck September 24, 2010 at 4:41 am

The main thing is, don’t talk too fast, don’t gabble, speak slowly and deliberately.

3 Prof September 24, 2010 at 6:39 am

I might add two quick points — if meeting a person for the first time, make undeniably sure that you hear, and retain, their name. I am frequently guilty of this; I’m bad with names. I’m concentrating on the handshake, or some other such detail. If you don’t get the name, you spend half the conversation trying to recall it to yourself. It will detract from where your focus should lie. The other point is to display some humility when conversing. If you take pains to make the other person feel important, rather than tooting your own horn, this will leave a very positive and lasting impression.

4 Jeff September 24, 2010 at 7:31 am

Excellent article, and timely for me, as I’m trying to help my son understand that if he yammers on about his favorite video game for minutes on end without pausing for breath, he’s going to bore people to tears. Granted, he’s only 8, and can be forgiven for gushing about his favorite pastimes, but I’m hoping to help him moderate his conversation by the time he hits middle school. When I was young, nobody took the time to explain to me how conversation ought to work, and I didn’t figure it out for myself until after I’d been branded a nerd. I hope to help my son avoid this, as we’re very much alike in many ways. This post will help, I think.

Also, to echo Prof’s comment, I too am bad at remembering folks’ names. I handle it mainly by apologizing for my shortcoming and reintroducing myself when I see someone I’ve met before. (“Forgive me, I know we’ve met more than once, but I’m terrible with names. I’m Jeff.”) I find that either the other person was also trying to recall my name and is thankful that I’ve reminded them, or else my apology has softened the blow of having their name forgotten (it’s not that the person is unmemorable, it’s that I have a bad memory).

5 Mato Tope September 24, 2010 at 7:37 am

Great article, Brett.
I might add…
Whenever in company it is better to be charmed then charming.
If you forget someone’s name you could make light of it by saying; “I know your name, it’s your face I don’t remember.”
And even with an old friend, meet them as if for the first time. Sometimes we limit the scope of our conversation with the preconceptions we hold about people.

6 Mato Tope September 24, 2010 at 7:39 am

Sorry, should have read; “than charming.”

7 Anthony September 24, 2010 at 9:19 am

Excellent points, thank you! Though I can push myself to be outgoing, I’m naturally introverted; that means I tend to clam up if there’s no need for me to chat, such as at family gatherings with my in-laws. Still, I’d probably enjoy those gatherings more if I more of an effort to converse with all those people I don’t know.

Regarding the remembering-their-name problem, one thing I do that helps is to repeat it immediately: “Hi, I’m George.” “George? Nice to meet you, I’m Anthony.” Helps a bit, though I’ll probably still forget it if any length of time passes before I see them again.

8 Doug September 24, 2010 at 9:27 am

All good points….in the article and comments. I think the most important is “be natural”. If not, it’s too easy to come off obsequious.

Regarding names, this seems to be a common fall back in our society. Everyone seems to be “bad with names”. And I like that, in a way. If someone instantly remembers my name and is too quick to praise me on some topic, perhaps I’m being paranoid, but it might strike me that they have some sort of agenda. I actually like the bloke who don’t remember names (like me and everyone else other than slick folks). That said, it still IS a good idea to remember the name. Just don’t be too quick to use it.

9 Marcus September 24, 2010 at 9:35 am

Great article. I would also recommend to make it a point to look the other person in eye. I have been several conversations where the other person is looking at their shoes or around the room.

10 Susan Woehrle September 24, 2010 at 9:58 am

Ironically, many of my friends who follow this blog enjoy the supposedly feminine old-timey language like “after you” and “do come.” Maybe men shouldn’t look to women’s magazines, but Esquire’s advice shouldn’t necessarily be the paradigm or manly etiquette either. Remember to go easy on asking people about themselves when being a good listener; conversations that feel like twenty questions get boring fast. Don’t ask more than three questions in a row without contributing something to the conversation yourself.

11 S.E. September 24, 2010 at 10:00 am

In every article about having good conversations, the author advises you to ask questions to the other person because “he loves to talk about himself”. We’re also advised not to love to talk about ourselves. So, does that mean that only one of the conversants knows how to have a proper conversation, and the other doesn’t and always commits the mistake of talking about himself?

12 pw September 24, 2010 at 10:53 am

great article!
I recently heard a very talented speaker relate, “It is better to be interested, than interesting.”

13 Kyle F. September 24, 2010 at 11:13 am

S.E., only 10% of people know how to have a good conversation, and that’s being generous. The rest are just pawns to your charm. And when you do meet a rare bird who can also make good conversation, then you simply trade questions back and forth and each person is genuinely interested in the other. You walk away from such conversations abuzz with that special feeling that something wonderful just happened.

Susan, you need to get some less nerdy friends.

14 Bluh September 24, 2010 at 11:23 am

Argh! I hate it when people put apostrophes in dos. It’s a plural; it does not get an apostrophe. Please fix.

15 John Factorial September 24, 2010 at 12:24 pm

Excellent comments, lady and gents! I’m most impressed not only by AoM’s stupendous articles, but by the quality of feedback each piece inevitably gets. Great site.

If you’re ever looking for a good conversation starter, I often find it’s fun to spark a lively yet meaningless debate. Challenge someone to name the best breakfast cereal or candy bar in the world. Everyone has an opinion & they’re all different, but unlike debates about stuff like politics or religion, people tend to actually enjoy arguing about it!

On the subject of remembering names, I have to agree that it’s an important, oft-neglected skill. I used to be “bad with names” too; to correct this, I’ve started using mnemonics. Often I’ll use the repetition of the person’s name as a chance to associate them with a someone who shares their name. “Hi, I’m George.” “George, nice to meet you,” I say while thinking (this guy’s bald like George Costanza) and just like that, I will remember him as George the next time I see him. “Pleasure to meet you, Morgan,” (Morgan, like Morgan Webb the chick from X-Play). Works for me quite nicely.

16 Hugo Stiglitz September 24, 2010 at 1:04 pm

When I was a plebe at the Naval Academy, it was mandated that we read three newspaper articles each morning — two news stories, and another on either sports or entertainment — and be able to talk about each one for five minutes. This requirement served two purposes: 1) it served as training on quicky reading, comprehending and retaining procedures / instructions and translate them into laymen’s terms and 2) helped form us into “officers and gentlemen” who could speak (somewhat) intelligently on topics of which we previously had little knowledge. While I do not embark on this exercise every day, I do make it a point to read a few articles in USA Today before a dinner or meeting with people I don’t know or haven’t seen in a while. This practice gives me several talking points in my back pocket to initiate, continue or join a conversation. While USA Today is not a beacon of high journalism, it does give you the bare-bones information you need to engage in simple, friendly conversation and it contains stories common to everyone in the country. The stories are short and appeal to everyone.

17 Tired September 24, 2010 at 1:13 pm

I hate small talk. It’s shallow, boring, and drives me nuts. But I do it to fill in the silence, to maintain life within the group, to keep the wheels turning during. I’m a person who LOVES to talk about deep stuff. The futility of money. The power of dreams. The lure of vulgarities. The strength of hunger. I LONG for someone whom I can just talk to about all these things, the first time we meet.

However, it proves extremely difficult, to find anyone at all, who is actually willing to talk about such things AT ALL. Many people say small talk is the most important factor in conversation, but really, there’s only so much I can hear about tv, music, school, work, sports, relationships and money, before I start foaming at the mouth. I shun conversation, because so many people are incapable of having deep ones, that it leaves me tired and parched…but yet I continue to partake of it to fulfil social expectations and my social needs.

Sure I know some people will say you can’t talk deep stuff the first time you meet, but let me ask why not?! Are they afraid of some chilling conviction you have, how twisted your mind is, how incompatible both your beliefs and attitudes are? I say this makes for FANTASTIC AND SCRUMPTIOUS conversation. I do find myself wishing that I could find someone more like minded, or someone with a tad more intelligence, or someone with a little more individuality.

Perhaps this is an elitist attitude of mine. But I never force my opinions on others, I never voice out blatant and heated disagreement, I never change the subject if the person really wants to talk about something badly. But I just suffer trying to pretend to be interested when I actually am very irritated. When I do talk about deep stuff, ***people seem like they want to get to the shallow end of the conversation right away, almost like they can’t stand not having the water at chest level.***

I would like to hear any advice, agreement, comment, or criticism about my predicament. Thank you very much!

18 Matt Moore September 24, 2010 at 1:42 pm

Brett, great post as always. I thought some of the community would be interested in a great book on this subject, “As a Gentleman Would Say” written by John Bridges and Bryan Curtis. It’s an excellent ‘go to’ guide for almost any situation. I believe it’s put out through Brooks Brothers.

19 John September 24, 2010 at 2:29 pm

I don’t know about the listening more suggestion. I think that instead of generally listening more, it should be a situation to situation evaluation. For example, I work in an environment full of incredibly awkward people, and find that to even just have a conversation with a group of them, I kind of have to be the maestro of it. Not that I am talking at them, more so pushing the conversation along by doing most of the talking.

Another thing is to educate yourself. I may not know it all, but I know a little about a lot, so if I can offer my little bit of information into the conversation it allows the other person or people to expand and correct. That works the best more often than not.

20 Jonathan Manor September 24, 2010 at 2:34 pm

Interrupting is an epidemic. I was reading The Tipping Point and there’s a chapter about dissecting the ability of salesman to persuade people, and there was this study of where people nodded when they listened to intervals of music and commercials and just by nodding it made them more prone to buying things at a higher price. Then they talk about ways to get people to nod when you talk. Really interesting, it goes back to how you talked about the whole listening segment.

Another thing that was interesting was how to talked about talking to a group of people instead of just one person. A conversation itself is held up by two people. But I read somewhere on a blog about how you need to win over the whole group before you narrow yourself into a conversation with someone in particular. Very helpful when you’re trying to flirt with women with their friends.

This site is incredible. I’ve been browsing around for the past hour, my two favorite posts so far is the items on Etsy and the Business Startup with minimal funds posts.

21 Nikita September 24, 2010 at 2:40 pm

My pet peeve is when people constantly try to solve other people’s problems in conversation.

22 ARP September 24, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Some of my observations:

1) Actually listen to the person and think about what they say. Don’t listen for a cue or trigger for you to say something else. You’re more likely to interupt and it will rapidly become obvious that you’re self-centered. I struggle with this as I think of something to say and want to get it out before I forget. Then I focus on my point rather than listening.

2) If the conversation is boring, chances are either they can see it in your face, or they think its boring. Politely change topics or perhaps dig a little deeper into your topic, rather than “small talk.” There’s a lot of things to talk about between the weather and the meaning of life. Don’t ask, “Am I boring you,” but you may want to say “I’m sure I’m boring you” if you’re doing the talking and you feel like you’re in a rut, as a segueway to talk about something else

3) This is the most difficult, but the most effective. Be genuinely interested in talking to people. If you approach the party, social event, etc. with dread, you’re not going to have a good conversation. Try to convince yourself that you’re going to meet someone interesting or talk about interesting things and there’s a good chance it will happen.

Tired: I’m the same way. However, you can’t immediately jump into whether there is a God or not. Start small and slowly dig deeper into an issue. If you do, you will look fake (e.g. he just brings up deep topics to make himself seem deep). Talk about going to an art musuem to start a conversation about the nature of art. Talk about their kids soccer game to talk about parenting philosophies or values. You can talk about values without necessarily talking about politics directly.

Hugo: That’s a great idea. One of the best ways to be a good conversationalist is to be well rounded. The ability to talk about football, movies, music, etc. in a single conversation will make the conversation more enjoyable and more likely that everyone can contribute (with a side benefit that you’ll look smart). You just need to know enough to keep things going and interesting, not be an encyclopedia. Unless you’re in a group of experts avoid talking about minute details unless you know that everyone knows what you’re talking about.

23 Hondo September 24, 2010 at 3:51 pm

I do great in conversation generally and being a bit of a dork am versed enough in most subjects that I can converse in them. A good deal of this comes with my job, I train a salesforce, where communication is a must and while I agree with most of what is said I don’t agree with the “ask lots of questions” part. If you are sincerely interested in something of course but it goes against the principle commandment of being natural, conversational hypocrisy if you will, to feign interest in the name of asking questions. Not to mention if they are playing by the same rules as you are well that is going be a pretty pathetic conversation.

In my line we are trained to drive conversations and to shape a conversation with “the power of personality” if you will (an admittedly more ego hefty term than I like) and I stick to that often driving a conversation to keep it from turning to small talk about weather or idiotic celebrity gossip. Generally within 3 minutes I can figure out exactly who I’m dealing with; personality, political leanings, etc. I don’t remember the last time someone surprised me. They used to teach these skills in school and in the home back in our grandparents day but now these sort of skills are relegated to fields that require conversation such as sales but fact is with a little practice everyone can do it. All do respect to Brett but a great deal of the tips in this article just teach a person to fake a conversation and I don’t know that to be the best way to go about communicating.

24 James September 24, 2010 at 4:35 pm

I’m loving the articles on better social interactions. I’m an introvert mainly because I don’t think I know HOW to have a decent conversation or how to act socially. This article, the one on how to leave appropriately, introductions, and a couple of others I can’t name off the top of my head are really forcing me to change my outlook on gatherings. I have one tomorrow, the first since I started visiting this site. Time to put some of what I’ve learned to the test.

25 Ian September 24, 2010 at 6:07 pm

Did HBO’s new series Boardwalk Empire influence your decision to write this article? I recall a quote the pilot episode which was, “These young fellows, no appreciation for the art of conversation” or something along those lines.

26 Harry September 24, 2010 at 6:12 pm

I really have a problem with the correcting people thing. When I hear anything grammatically incorrect or factually wrong, not correcting it immediately takes a feat of will, and it is obviously visible that I’m very uncomfortable. Think like if you really need to pee, and it’s been half an hour since you noticed it yourself, and you’ve been drinking beer, and you think you might just have an accident. People ask me what’s wrong.

I’ve already got a few of those hobbies, so that’s not the answer. Really, how does one fix this?

27 Thomas September 24, 2010 at 9:17 pm

I’m very guilty of oversharing and talking too much in general. I don’t even realize I’ve said too much until after I’ve already said it. Thing is, I don’t get a lot of opportunities for conversation and I relish the opportunity to interact with people–and then realize, too late, that I’m making myself into a bit of a jerk.

28 Jonathan Manor September 25, 2010 at 7:01 am

@ Nikita

I agree. People who somehow believe they know everything are total losers. I hate it when people start sentences with “Tell me why?” or “Umm f***ing…” I hate it when people end sentences with “Right” that’s a biggie actually. It’s always seems like those people are trying to get the approval of everyone before they could say anything.

29 Chuck September 25, 2010 at 11:06 am

@ Tired

I can fully relate to your predicament. Similar reasons have forced me to resign myself to a select company and pursue my hobbies and career more.

Even with my close friends, we sometimes sit in silence if there is nothing noteworthy to talk about. The testament to good friendship is being able to sit in silence with a close friend and still not feel uncomfortable. But I digress.

I think you will find like minded people on AoM. Just curious, where are you located? You might want to look at meetup.com. They might have relevant groups that adhere to what you are looking for. I’ve met students of philosophy with whom I’ve had some of the most engaging and stimulating conversations. Try to engage with people who are naturally disposed to discuss ‘heavy’ topics or go to events where you might meet those kinds of people – like debating events, toastmasters, business/professional gatherings etc

It’s not easy to find what you are looking for and it really comes down to attrition. You will find more people that DO NOT have much in common vs the ones that do. Just need to keep plugging away. If you succumb, then engage yourself more in hobbies/career/travel/studies etc

Ping me if you are interested in hearing more

30 Adam September 25, 2010 at 6:11 pm

Harry,

I recommend the “You Can’t Win an Argument” chapter in “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” (I think this book should be required reading for everyone.) It starts off with this exact situation. Mr. Carnegie was absolutely correct, and another person was completely wrong, but as it was explained to him later by a friend, it was unwise to correct him in that situation. “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” Really, what do you have to gain in such a situation? The other person will be embarrassed in front of the group; you may be perceived as a know-it-all; it may awkwardly disrupt the conversation; he may begin to argue with you; generally the whole mood will suffer. Both your and his social capital will decrease.

In my opinion, unless it is a major issue, one which is of such great importance that one should strive to set the record straight at every opportunity, one should let it go uncorrected. You might consider mentioning it privately later to the person who said it.

“But then everyone there will learn an untruth!” you might say. Perhaps. Again, is it important enough to matter? It’s not your responsibility to filter other people’s input to prevent them from hearing things you don’t agree with, or even things that are factually incorrect. It’s their responsibility to seek truth for themselves.

As a Christian, I wouldn’t necessarily hold to this view for important matters of religion; but if you can’t let small things go, you will alienate people, and won’t even have an opportunity to speak truth about bigger things.

Tired,

I think much of the problem is simply that most people don’t have very high self-esteem or self-confidence. Small talk is relatively low-risk: the topics aren’t important; there’s not usually a question of right or wrong; it’s not likely to touch a sensitive spot in others; if you disagree on something, so what? I like warm weather, you like cool weather. Who cares?

Deep topics present opportunities to expose one’s depth, or lack thereof. If you appear deep and confident, you likely will intimidate most people, who lack confidence, and don’t want their insecurities or topical ignorances brought to light. If it’s a topic you disagree on, they may not feel like they could defend their viewpoint adequately.

Another thing about small talk is that it provides a low-risk opportunity to sample one another’s personality and demeanor. Some people’s mannerisms or speaking styles just don’t mesh well together. Small talk lets you find people who you would like to talk more deeply with, without risking too much awkwardness or loss of face with people you aren’t interested in.

31 Mike September 25, 2010 at 10:14 pm

I’m a working journalist (an endangered species these days) so small talk is a big part of my daily life. The best advice I can give is GO WITH THE FLOW. Never try to steer the conversation — just go along with it….

32 doc September 26, 2010 at 12:23 pm

Here’s one of those “if a tree falls in the forest” questions. If everyone listens more than they speak, can a conversation actually take place?

33 Jack Whittington September 26, 2010 at 2:52 pm

Great article as usual! This applies not only in the personal realm, but in the professional as well. I think one of the biggest assets a person can have is tailoring his/her conversations to the group or individuals they are speaking to. People will come away impressed and word of mouth is still the best way to enhance your reputation, especially among your colleagues and peers.

34 ARP September 26, 2010 at 4:41 pm

Harry:

I understand your plight, but I think you need to develop more of a Zen attitude about those sorts of things. What’s the worst that’s going to happen if you don’t correct them? 9/10 times, perhaps some continued ignorance about how to pronounce something, correct word usage, some bit of trivia, etc.

Now for that 1/10 times where their ignorance is insulting, racist, etc., I would suggest that you ask follow up questions about the topic rather than correct them. Here’s a recent example:

Person: Banks were forced to loan money to poor minorities; that’s what caused the financial crises.
Me: I’ve never heard of that [I have, Bachmand and Beck said it]. So the law actually says, “you must loan to minorities, even if they have no money at all?”
Person: Well, I’m not sure it goes that far, but it encourages it.
Me: Interesting, I read an article the other day that talked about how there was a law passed in the 70′s that said that you can’t discriminate against the person based on where they live, because some banks used that as a convenient substitute for race. I wonder if that’s the the the same law.

Perhaps still a bit “agressive,” but by asking questions and refering to some outside source, you can appear less like a know-it-all, while still scratching your mental itch.

35 Harry September 26, 2010 at 4:43 pm

Adam-
I actually took the Dale Carnegie class, read the whole book. I understand the principle, the problem is the visceral, physical reaction I can’t hide. Even if I say nothing, people ask what is wrong because they see the cringe or twitch. It’s not so bad if the speaker is a foreigner and I need to focus on figuring out what they are trying to say.

36 Chez September 26, 2010 at 6:34 pm

I’ve just started working at a call center for online schools and what I learned in training has been extremely valuable in holding conversation. Using open-ended questions (starting with what, when, where, how, etc.) encourages people to respond with more than a yes or no, and once you get their answer you can reply with another open-ended question based upon their last response.

For example, I’d ask “What has got you interested in going back to school?” They might respond “I want to increase my qualifications for promotion at work.” I’d reply “Oh, many of our students pursue online classes for exactly the same reason. Where do you work?”

Utilizing open-ended questions gets people talking about themselves and opens the door for you to get to know them. Make sure not to constantly respond with these types of questions or it will sound like an interrogation more than a relaxed conversation.

37 Vince September 26, 2010 at 8:39 pm

Keep your expectations low. When meeting new people, small talk will most likely be all you get into. It is okay to have mere pleasant conversation. When I left college, I missed intense intellectual debates as I moved into the adult world of “mingling,” moving from one thirty-second mundanity to the next. Do exercises such as writing or talking about whatever you want to when with your closest friends, so that when you are with new people, you’re mind will be clear and you can focus on them. Remember that your old friends care deeply about you, but new people do not. Only by taking a genuine interest in others, including their dumb, superficial trivia, will your relationships grow to the next level. Most people selfishly hide in their comfort zone and wait for others to engage them. These are the people you have to reach out to.

Also, remember to kindly oblige someone if they ask about yo

38 Ryan September 27, 2010 at 4:52 am

My tips for conversation can be found in an article at AlphaMaledom.com, but are brief enough to simply copy and paste in this box:

For years I was baffled by small talk. It seemed to me, like it does to so many people, to be an awkward, unpleasant, contrived, and most importantly useless way to interact.

Counterintuitively, small talk is productive.

By showing that you can interact at length without having any kind of agenda- nothing to ask for, no sales pitch to launch into, nothing to need to get off your chest- Small talk establishes in the mind of whomever you are talking to that you are a person who already has his needs fulfilled, and that by extension, you must be a capable person.

When you’re downtown waiting for a cab, and a homeless person walks up to you and asks you what you think of the weather, she can only go for a minute or two without giving in and asking you for money. You can sense this instinctually, and as such when you see a homeless person approaching you, feel repulsed.

Small talk is like a handshake, not an exchange of overtly meaningful information, but rather a strong, instinctual message that you are solid.

In the following video clip, Marlon Brando’s character asks the woman several questions, most of which are either meaningless or obvious. The purpose of small talk is not, as it seems on the surface, to exchange meaningful information. Brando’s character is establishing alpha maledom over the female character. He is establishing that she reacts to him, and not the other way around. Of course, this is an instinctual behaviour that such a person is usually not consciously aware of, but rather just finds themselves doing naturally.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o_lToyPAUyE

39 Days and Adventures September 27, 2010 at 5:25 am

Loved the article. Thank you :)

It’s a lot of energy focusing on all this when you first learn it, and then it gets easier. That said, refreshers are still always going to be a welcome thing. Thanks for the refocus.

Marc

40 Jon September 27, 2010 at 1:53 pm

As John Wayne said, ” Talk low, talk slow, and don’t say too much.”

41 Kelly September 28, 2010 at 4:46 pm

@Doc:
“If everyone listens more than they speak, can a conversation actually take place?”

Yes, at least given a minimum of 3 people in conversation. Each person speaks for their portion of the time (say, 1/3 or 33%), and listens for the rest (2/3, or 66%).

It’s also possible (but harder) when in a two-person conversation: assuming that spurts of silence/awkwardness don’t count against neither person’s talking time, but that time does count it towards their listening time, and each person speaks for roughly the same amount of time.

42 drew September 29, 2010 at 10:27 am

best advise i can give is be who you are. too many times we try to keep up a front and this makes for bad, forced conversation.

43 Jay October 2, 2010 at 6:49 pm

Excellent article, and excellent comments too.
Harry, I believe your physical reaction is a habit. I also believe I can correctly assume you are employed? If so, you must have found a way to control your reactions in front of your boss, or else you would have had a series of jobs that ended in your being terminated for some reason or another. Same with romantic relationshipds. If you have a significant other, they will not stick around long with someone who has an obvious, negative, physical reaction to every mis-speak. Simply employ the same methods you use to please your boss and S.O. to those you encounter in your social life. I believe it was Lord Chesterfield who advised his son to wear his learning like his watch, hidden in a vest pocket. If asked the time, by all means answer; but to not go about shouting the hour unasked. Taming your physical response will lessen the likelihood of you’re being percieved as a snob or elitist; as well the unintended misconception that you might be insecure, and looking for an opportunity to correct others to show your superiority.
Tired, Adam has offered some excellent advice. I would only add to it that it may be of benefit for you to consider small talk like one might consider a synopsis found on the inside cover of a books dust jacket. Imagine if one had to read several chapters into a book before discovering if it held any interest. What a tremendous waste of time. Small talk is like that dust jacket. It allows us to invest a small amount of time with that person, before deciding to wade into a larger, deeper conversation with them; only to find that they, or we, cannot hold up the other end.
Brett, kudos as usual. AoM is a fantastic site. It does an excellent job of appealing to a wide range of topics; and to instructing men on how to better themselves. Thanks for all of your hard work.

44 bobo October 3, 2010 at 10:52 pm

This may, or may not have, been said before, but I tend to do this when it’s casual conversation in a group. I tend to butt in to something that I’m not neccessarily involved in. Very rude in my opinion. I guess I’m a hypocrite

45 Jonathan October 14, 2010 at 1:44 pm

The most admirable conversationalists I know are the ones that don’t say much, but when they speak, it’s worth hearing. It’s better to speak less and say more.

46 Jovan Nguyen October 19, 2010 at 9:44 pm

Useful things I do when in a conversation: eye contact, listen, talk humor, smile, be polite, be open-minded, don’t be a douche critic.

A useful thing I do before engaging in conversations at a party: smoke weed.

If I don’t want to talk to mediocre idiots, I walk away. I win.

47 ken September 24, 2012 at 11:38 am

Left out going on about how much something costs. Check out my new sound system, speakers were $900 that cable alone was $150 on an on

48 Joshua Streeter September 24, 2012 at 1:37 pm

Great article. Quite a few pointers to add to my conversational repertoire. One question though, why “Act genuinely interested…”? Why not “Be genuinely interested…”?

I’ll pass this article on, as I’m sure many will find the information very useful. Much more in depth than the simple, “God gave you one mouth and two ears,” that we’ve heard since we were born.

49 Chris Cummins September 24, 2012 at 7:34 pm

That secret of charming people with your words is not use words but silence and questions that build from what they are saying. The greatest conversationalists that charm the most people rarely say much about themselves. Also, practice curiosity as a habit in your private life AND personal life. If something intrigues you, stop and spend some time with it. Read books on a variety of topics, build relationships with people outside of your comfort zone. You build your ability to engage with others by inquisitiveness about life.

50 Jarek September 25, 2012 at 9:39 am

Hey!
That’s my first comment here, although I have read some articles before. This one is truly a great one! The art of conversation is one of the most important, yet one that is quite usually forgotten by many. Reading your post is a great reminder though and following those rules is a great way to enhance your relationships! Thanks for that!

51 Anthony September 25, 2012 at 9:47 am

The article is concise and thoughtful. Additionally when speaking in a small group it is best to make eye contact with everyone occasionally in a manner that is smoothly natural comfortably brief; either from side to side or inside-out and visa versa. Its a great way engage a group or command a presentation.

52 Andrew B. October 13, 2012 at 9:45 pm

I’m only in Junior High and I thought this was a great article. I’m usually not very good at conversation, so this helped me a lot.

53 Stefani March 25, 2013 at 1:24 pm

I personally thought this article was interesting. I seriously feel that women need to read this article to learn how to speak to people. Many women do not know how to start conversations at parties, which makes them look somewhat bitchy. Many men are very good at conversation starters, and do the many “Do’s” in this article. Then again it all depends who you are speaking with. Listening is key when a man is speaking to a woman, but too much listening can get you in trouble. I think sometimes interrupting a women is a good thing, so she knows you are actually paying attention. I believe overall this was a good reading, and also good advice.

54 maia March 29, 2013 at 6:55 pm

you think it’s bad not being able to memorise people’s names? I can’t remember people’s faces – even if i work with them, at most half i will remember! and i’m a bit deaf – saying ‘can you repeat that?’ after ever sentence is a 100% conversation killer, but not hearing half of it is a slower one:( Nor can i be natural – i never feel natural in company, not due to shyness but embarrassment and self-consciousness. And i’m female, so everyone expects me to be good at it – men especially can’t bear talking to me, most women will make the extra effort cos they’re used to it. Which is fine, as i like female friends best, except when it comes to the other half of life, so to speak.

55 sarah May 25, 2013 at 6:49 pm

I totally agree with “Tired” comment #17.
Yet I am only a teenager I think small talk is useless and has no point. I would love to have a deep conversation about a thought provoking subject with one of my fellow students what I say just goes over their heads. It is so frustrating. Even my friends don’t enjoy my conversation topics. It is hard to find interest in small talk when it has no meaning. Why talk about the clothes someone just got then something that will actually bring about something. Just to let you know, you are not alone I too agree with you. Tips anyone?

56 SPHYNX June 16, 2013 at 7:18 am

If u do forget the name of the person you are conversing with,just ask him/her the name and if they do give you that name just tell them you meant their lastname,this actually hides the fact that you had forgotten the name totally by reassuring the person that you may have many friends with the same first name,so you needed the lastname of this one to be able to identify them quickly.

57 Bill June 18, 2013 at 8:56 pm

Question: There are three people in a room; the second is a brother and guest to the first, and the thirsd is the son-inlae to the second and a guest as well. The brothers have been talking for a while as the third sat and listened. eventually the conversation turned to politice; a topic dear and well known to the third person. At an appropriate time, the third person interjext a valid thought into the conversation. The brothers sit in silence for about 20 seconds before resumin thier conversation without any acknowledgement that the third was even in the room. whoes manners were worse in this scenario?

58 Ceasar June 20, 2013 at 2:27 am

I am genuinely curious as to what a deaf man like myself can do in a room full of hearing people. I have many opinions and thoughts, but I am not too sure of the patience of others when I whip out my cell phone to tap away what I wish to say to them. It, at most times, creates an awkward atmosphere.

59 Lasercannon June 20, 2013 at 6:23 pm

“This instant unburdening reads as desperation and repels people faster than water off a duck’s back. You have to cultivate a little mystery-leave people intrigued and wanting more.”

I like this passage, I like it when people speak for others.

“Leave the “my dears” to the aged, and “do comes” to the feminine gender”

This also makes a lot of sense, I sometimes feel like old people and women are crippling my style.

So I was wondering, about etiquette rules, can we make it into a science. Like a real science and possibly quantify the consequences of these rules the same way we quantify the consequences of the generalizable laws of nature, like Newtonian mechanics. This will establish physical boundaries of what is appropriate with little or no ambiguity.

60 B.P.Pereira August 9, 2013 at 10:44 am

The explanations given on manners and etiquette are very informative and apt to adapt for better habit formation and become a good human being and to live value and respect in all walks of life.

61 Kelsie Oakley August 21, 2013 at 1:10 pm

Did the Jonathan Ames letter come yet? I signed up in January and i genuinely definitely hope I didn’t skip it. Is there a way I’m able to read through it if it did already come?

62 Rita November 2, 2013 at 12:54 pm

I also completely relate to “Tired”, and Sarah. Unfortunately, I love deep conversation and my husband stays up-to-the-knees shallow. It’s infuriating, but mainly it’s lonely. I found this website while googling “the art of conversation”, wondering if it’s possible to teach him (although I don’t think he wants to learn). I was feeling generous, as in “maybe he just doesn’t know how”. I somewhat agree with the post above by Adam (to Tired). Maybe it’s genetic — or our culture — that there are so few people who hate chitchat and crave deep conversation. The Meet-up group idea may be the way to go.

63 Sue November 5, 2013 at 1:03 pm

What can be done with a husband who gets the art and the rules of conversation with others but just doesn’t want to when ‘talking’ to me. He either talks at me or interrupts. Even better, he interrupts, adds his own end to what I was about to say, often changing it, then he ‘corrects’ me saying I’m wrong even when it was his words!
He takes being controlling to a wholde new level. His mother is just the same. My way of dealing with it. Haven’t spoken to her in 3 years and am about to resort to not talking to husband. Hardly worth talking if it’s barely a conversation

64 Alex November 23, 2013 at 11:59 pm

I do tend to correct people on scientific matters, because it is one of my most deeply held convictions that misinformation about these issues causes real and lasting harm. People in the third world are dying because of anti-GMO activists burning golden rice fields.

That said, I’m very careful about how I approach the correction. Often, I’ll say something like, “You know, it’s interesting you brought that up because I just read an article the other day that said they’re starting to question that view.” This way, I don’t make it out as if it’s something they should’ve known. After all, I just learned it the other day myself, and so the information may have come out recently. Often this is effective, at least in not offending them, and often I’ve had people be open to the new information – and it also suggests there might be similar topics of mutual interest on which we both agree.

TL;DR – I think corrections can be OK as long as they’re approached without making the person feel stupid.

65 Dean December 25, 2013 at 4:53 am

I agree absolutely Alex. Treat it like information sharing instead of a debate and taking stances/sides. You don’t come off as confrontational and it is easy to diffuse the situation if they double down and get defensive. “Well that information is wrong.” “Maybe I should double check that again.”

66 Joseph Jes April 18, 2014 at 1:27 pm

My rule is to speak selflessly and only speak in value. If you’re rational, and if you only speak with value, then “natural” is inevitable, etiquette is preserved, and people will always be willing to listen.

67 Joseph Atiyeh April 18, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Speak only to “give”, when you have something valuable to send. Rationally, if you were to only give when it was something valuable, then all etiquette falls together and “natural” becomes inevitable.

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