in: People, Podcast, Social Skills

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #406: Why You Need to Embrace Small Talk

If you’re like a lot of people, engaging in small talk can feel awkward and tedious. Consequently, you avoid it as much you can. But my guest today argues that if you want to get ahead both personally and professionally, you need to embrace these little exchanges. Her name is Debra Fine and she’s the author of The Fine Art of Small Talk

Today on the show, Debra explains why small talk is actually a big deal and isn’t just a waste of saliva. She then shares the biggest obstacles people have to engaging in small talk and the two mindset shifts you need to make to get over those obstacles. Debra and I then discuss specific tactics you can start using today to start conversations, keep them going, and end them gracefully. Lots of actionable advice that can immediately improve your day-to-day life, so take notes.

Show Highlights

  • How Debra became interested in the topic of small talk 
  • Why small talk is the appetizer to a good relationship 
  • How avoiding small talk can hamper your career and harm your child’s education
  • How small talk makes you more visible to others 
  • Why don’t people like small talk?
  • Assuming the burden of the other person’s comfort
  • How to take the host mentality during small talk 
  • Why small talk takes real skill and practice 
  • How do you know if someone is approachable?
  • Easy ways to approach people and introduce yourself
  • Go-to conversation starters
  • Why you shouldn’t ask about someone’s family 
  • Keeping the conversation going 
  • Avoiding the stop and chat
  • How much to disclose about yourself in small talk 
  • The FORM acronym 
  • How to gracefully exit a conversation

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

The fine art of small talk by Debra Fine book cover.

Connect With the Debra Fine

Debra’s website

Debra on Facebook

Debra on Twitter

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. If you’re like a lot of people, engaging in small talk can feel awkward and tedious. Consequently, you avoid it as much as you can. My guest today argues that if you want to get ahead both personally and professionally, you need to embrace these little exchanges. Her name is Debra Fine and she’s the author the book The Fine Art of Small Talk. Today on the show, Debra explains why small talk is actually a big deal and isn’t just a waste of saliva. She then shares the biggest obstacles people have in engaging in small talk and the two mindset shifts you need to make to get over those obstacles. Debra and I then discuss specific tactics you can start using today to start conversations, keep them going, and end them gracefully. Lots of actual advice today you can use immediately and improve your day to day life, so take notes. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at Just a quick heads up, Debra works from home and her family just took in a little dog names Gizmo and Gizmo makes a bit of an appearance in the middle of the show. We did her best to minimize him but he’s there. I just want to give you fair warning on it. It doesn’t last for very long. Debra Fine, welcome to the show.

Debra Fine: Well Brett, thank you very much. It’s great to be on.

Brett McKay: You wrote a book that I’m a big fan of because we’ve used it as a resource for some content we’ve written about over the years. It’s The Fine Art of Small Talk. It’s something that I think a lot of people, makes them uncomfortable, feel awkward. I’m curious, were you always an expert in small talk or was this a skill you had to develop as well?

Debra Fine: I was the opposite. I am an engineer by education, I did not choose engineering because I like to chat with people, Brett. Just the opposite, actually, and in addition to that, I had quite the weight problem until I was in my early 30s. Meaning very overweight and so I was excluded from a lot of things. I didn’t have girlfriends when I went to school, I didn’t get asked out for a date until I got out of college. My best friends were books, books came easily. Mingling with people, going to a networking event, which I really didn’t have to do as an engineer but even approaching my boss during a coffee break was completely out of the scope of my ability to do. Of course, if my boss approached me, I would be okay and if he or she managed the conversation, I’d be pretty okay, not great.

I had this epiphany when I lost all this weight, I thought that was so magical, you feel so wow, I finally did this and I thought friends would magically appear and they did not. What I observed is that you really have to know how to at least small talk and by small talk, I used to think what a waste of saliva, Brett. Why would anybody want to learn that? That is not intellectual, that is not for an engineer type but I learned that it’s at least in my mind, it really is the appetizer for a relationship. It’s not the most crucial part in romance, in business, in your social, your close friends, but it’s what starts it. It’s sort of a frame and then you can go further and gain either a closer relationship or business friendship and/or closer relationship romantically, et cetera. I had to learn how to do it and that really was my inspiration was I thought, wow, I learned how to do this, then I labeled it, and I thought maybe there’s other people besides dorks like me that want to learn this. That’s where, truly.

Actually, and this is no diss on engineers at all, I really believed this, I thought only engineers like me would want to learn. They’re the only ones that are struggling and it’s been quite a revelation to learn that even some people that you think are vivacious are struggling as well but all kinds of professions and people and sometimes we go through transitions in our lives that we’re not feeling as confident with our small talk skills. It is amazing, the need out there for labeling what small talk is and making it a tool set that you can use when you need to.

Brett McKay: Are you still an engineer or are you doing the small talk thing, teaching people?

Debra Fine: No, no, no, no, that’s a long time ago. I’m actually a keynote speaker and trainer now.

Brett McKay: Wow.

Debra Fine: I earn a living all over the world.

Brett McKay: That’s fantastic.

Debra Fine: How great is that?

Brett McKay: Yeah, it is and all thanks to small talk because I’m sure small talk plays a huge role in that. I think you made a good point, I think a lot of people they avoid small talk or they think it’s dumb, it’s just a waste of time. But as you said, that’s how you start not only personal relationships, but you give all these examples in your book of how small talk or avoiding small talk can injure you professionally as well.

Debra Fine: Well, I think it can. Let’s go back to just my example of me. I don’t know this for a fact but I really believe I became invisible when I was in engineering. If you’re not willing to walk up to the boss, I’m the kind of person that if I was in a classroom style setting where they were going to teach us some skillset or it was some program for the organization, I was the type that didn’t sit down until the meeting began because what if I had to sit next to you, Brett? What was I going to talk about with you? I don’t know you and even if I knew you from projects, we were waiting for the meeting to start so were we going to talk about business? You’d probably say hi Debra, how are you? I’d go, great, how are you, Brett? Then what do you talk about after that?

I think that really harms building rapport with your colleagues, with your boss, et cetera but what I do know now, and I do see the pressure out there because the clients that hire me, you’re expected to have visibility also in a hospitality suite or in an exhibit hall. Even an engineer, forget a lawyer, an architect, teachers. If you sit down with a teacher for your kids conference and that teacher is awkward and/or doesn’t frame what I consider a business conversation, your kids evaluation with some small talk, then you might not like the teacher, Brett. If you don’t like the teacher, it isn’t good for school taxes, we vote no. When we don’t like a teacher, do you know pp actually vote no? Isn’t that crazy? But they do and so I think small talk and not for extended periods of time but should be a picture frame around the selling of a widget, a presentation, a negotiation, a provision of service. Whatever it is that you’re engaging in business, if you put small talk around that, you will develop business friendships and all things being equal, people do business with their friends and all things not being so equal, people still do business with their friends.

Brett McKay: Yeah, despite your confidence, you might be the best whatever but if people don’t like you or feel comfortable around you, they’re not going to do business with you or they’re not going to like working with you.

Debra Fine: Not only that and I couldn’t have said it better, Brett, but there’s another benefit to small talk and that is to gain visibility. What I mean by that is if you’re not a confident networker and you went to, let’s say Stanford Law School and did great on your LSATs and you are currently an attorney for a firm and they’re looking at cutting back, who do you think they’re going to cut back? The person bringing in the billable hours, what they call a rainmaker or their going to look at your GPA from law school and see you went to Stanford so they’re going to keep you on board? There’s so much power to meeting new people, that is how we bring in clients and referrals and I’m not just speaking now to attorneys, I’m speaking to whether you’re an entrepreneur and need angel investors or whether you’re a CPA and need to build your practice. You could be the best CPA and if you’re not willing to go to after hours events and/or civic opportunities or charities and meet new people so they get to find out about what you do, how are you going to build your practice?

I’ll use an anecdote in my personal life, my husband happens to be a periodontist so we don’t want to go into too many details except that that’s a gum surgeon but he’ll tell you that when a patient comes into his office, he’s seen a lot of bad dental work. Whether that be ortho, whether that be cavities, whatever, he doesn’t do that but he’ll see bad work in people’s mouths and more often than not, the bad work that he sees in people’s mouths come from dental practices that are big, that are successful. Why is a dental practice successful and yet just dispensing bad dental work? Because you walk in there as a patient and they may you feel good. Debra, it’s so good to see you. They didn’t call me Debbie, already I love them because a doctor didn’t call be Debbie. Wow, I love you. How have you been? What’s been going on? Bring me up to date about the family. They do all that, of course I’m going to go to that dentist. What about a dentist that does great work but is awkward or uncomfortable with people but he or she just does great work?

Here’s the problem, Brett, you and I don’t know if we’re having good work done. We just know if we feel good when we’re in the chair because they are so likable. That’s the dentist we choose, is the likable dentist and unfortunately, that doesn’t mean he or she does the best work. I hope I’ve illustrated that well. I feel like I went on a little too long but.

Brett McKay: No, no, that was a great example. Small talk, help you with your professional life, also your personal life. It gets you out there, meeting new people, so it’s powerful but what keeps people from doing it then? Why do people not like doing small talk?

Debra Fine: Well, a couple of reasons. Number one, the primary reason in my mind is because we’re not in control. If I’m a fourth grade teacher, I’m in control. I studied my curriculum the night before, I deliver it to the students. If I make a mistake, they have no idea. If I’m an attorney, same thing. I’m a keynote speaker. When I deliver a 45 minute keynote to an audience, they have no idea how many mistakes I’ve made. Only I know but I sit with you for coffee, Brett, because we’re going to meet either on a date, obviously we’re not going to date because as I’ve mentioned, I’m number one, married and number two, not a cougar. But moving on from there, if we go on our first date because we’ve been on Tinder, okay, and it was great on Tinder. I’m funny, you’re savvy, wow, and then we go on that first date and I go so how was your week and you say good, how was yours? Good. Tell me about you. You know, I like to run, how about you? It’s just awkward, we’re not clicking because the small talk is bad. What I’m trying to lead up to is that we have no control when I meet you for coffee on a date or for business and I think that’s why people hate it is we’re in control of our professions.

You’re in control of this interview right now. You’re going to end it, you’re going to decide what questions to ask, that’s got to be easy, Brett. You’re a pro at this but if you and I go out for lunch and you’re awkward or I’m awkward because we’re not in control, then it stinks. It’s lousy. I think people don’t like it because they’re not in control. They haven’t even labeled it that way, they’ve never looked at it that way. The other reason people hate small talk besides the fact that we’ve, well, we always diss things we don’t do well. When I was really overweight, I thought you runners were just ugh, look at those people. What do they have? OCD, running five days a week? Jeez, I have books to read. Because I hated running. Once you learn how to jog and it takes off a lot of weight, you learn to love running. A lot of us diss things that we’re not comfortable with, that we’re not good at. Lastly, I think there’s a big risk, Brett, in walking up to somebody new at a party, at a business networking event, at the office, there’s a lot of risk because you might reject me. Why would I ever put myself in that risky position? I’ll just hold off and not do that.

Brett McKay: Okay, we just don’t like it so we diss it, we think it’s dumb or bad. It’s risky and we have no control, which I think risk and not having control are related, right? There’s a risk that the conversation’s going to go somewhere that you don’t want it to go.

Debra Fine: Right or just not go well. Don’t you walk into an event and think well, I hope I hit it off with somebody. That’s what I used to do. Now I can hit it off with anybody, Brett, unless they’re a class A jerk.

Brett McKay: What is the mind shift change that needs to, we’ll get into specific tactics but let’s talk about the mind shift change that needs to happen in order for you to start engaging in small talk and getting over those obstacles you might have.

Debra Fine: Well, number one, two things actually but number one is take the risk. Be willing to take the risk to walk up to new people when you are investing in outcomes that are positive. Whether it be business networking, whether it’s you’re single and want to meet people, you’re in transition and just want to build your friendship community because you just moved to New York City. Whatever it may be, you need to go places you want to be at. Whether it’s a spin class or whether it’s an after hours for an association event, whatever it may be, you need to take the risk of not only attending but number two, walking up to new people. I always tell people if you feel overwhelmed by that, turn it into a task. I, when I approach a networking event, tell myself I’ll meet let’s say two new people, Brett, or five new people. I doubt that I would ever pick five but two or three new people. One new person. Make it a task, tell yourself you’re going to do it, and then once you’ve met two new people, you’ve met your task, then you can drink or you can leave or you can go sit in the lobby and wait until it’s time to sit down for dinner. That’s number one, be willing to take the risk to walk up to someone new.

Number two, second primary thing is to assume the burden. Anybody listening right now that’s either shy and/or introverted, two different things, knows what I’m talking about and can relate when I say that we are the nicest people on the planet by far, however, we are so self-centered in social interactions that the only person’s comfort we are concerned with is our own. I identified earlier, if you walked up to me and start a conversation, I was far more comfortable. Now I assume the burden of walking up to you. In addition to that, we’re walking down a long, long hall, Brett, we’re going into a meeting because I’m going to pitch my program to you or my software package or whatever. It’s a long haul from the reception area where you came to get me to your office. Who’s assuming the burden of keeping the conversation going during this long, long walk? If I’m a candidate and you’re interviewing me for a job, who’s assuming the burden? Well, I guarantee you the decision maker isn’t assuming the burden. You need to assume the burden of making that decision maker feel comfortable during that long walk.

If I’m sitting at a table of eight, Brett, I used to hope people like you outgoing, fun people would sit at that table of eight. You’ll keep the conversation going, right? Wrong. It’s now up to me to assume the burden of making everybody at that table of eight feel comfortable. By that, I mean I’ll come up with things to talk about, I’ll include people at the table, I’ll throw the conversation ball to other people at the table and include them. Assume the burden of making people feel comfortable when they’re with you. If you do that, they’ll feel good about you. If they feel good about themselves when they’re with you, they’ll feel good about you.

Brett McKay: Yeah and one of the other things about assuming the burden and just taking that approach is that what I’ve found is most people are waiting for someone else to assume the burden. They’re usually isn’t an extrovert, there’s usually everyone is waiting for someone else to take care of everyone else.

Debra Fine: Absolutely or they just haven’t invested in thinking about being a good conversationalist. I used to hope we would hit it off, Brett. Now I don’t hope, I employ skills to, like I said, I’ll hit it off with anybody unless they’re abusive or a class A jerk. If they’re going to shut me down or interrupt all the time, that’s a different ball game.

Brett McKay: Right. Another thing you talk about in the book, it’s related to assuming the burden that I like that’s helped me a lot with my small talk is think of yourself as a host.

Debra Fine: Exactly.

Brett McKay: Yeah, when I’m a host at my own home, it’s just like yeah, I’m going to take care of everyone no matter what. You can take that mentality outside of your home and just say I’m going to take care of people and make them feel comfortable and good.

Debra Fine: Can I throw out something here, Brett?

Brett McKay: Sure.

Debra Fine: I hope the listeners really heard what you just said. First of all, I’m very flattered that you actually read the book, number one. Number two, they listen to your podcast regularly. You’re a trusted resource, right? I don’t know you but you sound very confident, very comfortable, and very, you’re not assertive, you are assertive. You’re directing this and you’re so good at it.

Brett McKay: Well, thank you.

Debra Fine: You’re welcome but I hope everyone is listening. I’ve been interviewed many times, including on those big shows, The Today Show and everything and this is not always the case. Now we’re listening to somebody who’s really good at what he does, at least when it comes to this, right Brett?

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Debra Fine: Yet you are telling me, I hope everybody heard what Brett just said, he found that if he put on this hat of exhibiting host behavior and assuming the burden that it really helped him in small talk. Just because we’re capable at what we do for work does not mean that it is unmanly to admit that we need some help in small talk in order to just make things work better with people, to build that rapport. I just, I so admire someone that acknowledges that. Just because I know how to do my profession doesn’t mean small talk comes easily to me. You learned it as a craft just like I did, Brett.

Brett McKay: No, yeah, and going to that idea, I think of small talk as a craft and I’ll even just go to things just to practice small talk because I work from home so it’s just me and my wife and my kids. I don’t get much interaction with other people besides my family so I make it a point to try to, I’m going to have lunch with someone so I can practice the skill of small talk because I know it’s important.

Debra Fine: I agree. I actually joined a civic organization, I won’t mention it, 20 years ago when I first started my business because I was alone all the time and I felt, obviously I’m talking about a topic where I shouldn’t be alone all the time but in addition to that, I needed to constantly practice. I mean, I need anecdotes in that too so it’s once a week and I don’t get there as often as once a week because of my travel schedule but I go and as recently as last Friday I accepted an invitation to some mentoring fundraiser because a colleague bought a table and I went so number one, I drag myself out of the office because there’s a great quote from John le Carré, the author, he says a desk is a dangerous place to view the world. You just said that in your own words and I make myself so I said you’re going to say yes to this luncheon because you can. Then I went and I walked in and I knew I would know people because it’s where I live, in Denver, so I know a lot of people now. I’m very visible here but instead of looking for somebody I knew, I did what I’m going to ask everybody listening do and that is I looked for somebody standing by themselves that I did not know because I wanted to practice small talk.

I don’t mean to sound ungenuine, I was using her as a lab rat, I was using her as a real person because every conversation is an opportunity. You never know. I admire you because it’s very isolating now with technology and a lot of us are entrepreneurs and we are alone but there’s a lot of people listening that are in the corporate world and they’re alone. They’re sitting with headsets on, they eat lunch alone, they go on the subway and they don’t talk to people, and I think it’s a skill that we have to practice in order to be good at.

Brett McKay: Another point you make in the book I thought was really insightful was that because the way we communicate is all online now, text, email, et cetera, the ability to communicate with small talk, conversation, that has become rare and as a consequence, there’s a premium on it. The better you are able to communicate face to face, you’re going to increase your value, not only professionally but also personally as well because everyone else has a hard time doing it.

Debra Fine: I agree and there’s another thing is because face to face interaction isn’t occurring as often as it used to, even you watch Congress, they used to golf together, they used to eat together, they do any of that anymore, which is of course I think why we have so much divisiveness is because if I don’t know you and I don’t know about your kids and your wife, then why do I care about you and you can become my enemy pretty easily. I think if you put yourself out there for face to face interaction, you’re bound to build your business, gain referrals, build your network. The time to build your network isn’t when you lose your job or you’re worried that they’re downsizing. The time to build your network is now and things are going great so that you do have somebody to call on and say who do you know that might be looking for someone with this skillset? Those face to face interactions count. You send me a LinkedIn invitation and I’ve never met you, that counts for nothing in my world. What counts is me meeting you face to face if I possibly can and building relationship where we stay in touch over the course of a year once or twice.

Brett McKay: I love that. Alright, let’s get into some tactics here. Let’s talk about the thing, I think what makes everyone afraid is starting small talk with a stranger and let’s say you’re at an event where it’s not a networking event where there’s an expectation people are going to talk to each other. Let’s say you’re at a wedding or some other or you’re just on the subway. How do you know if someone is even willing to engage in small talk?

Debra Fine: Well, the key is to look for somebody approachable. If I’m on the subway next to you and you’re on your device, then I’m guessing you’re unapproachable because you’re engaged in another activity. Of course, you know a lot of people are pretending to be on their devices. We all know that, right?

Brett McKay: Right, right.

Debra Fine: Whatever, that’s a whole another thing. But what I look for, the subway’s a tough thing, Brett, because people do really wall off there but if you weren’t walled off, I’d say are you from New York City or something like that to somebody that was not with their head in a book or with headphones in their ears. But let’s go back to a party or a wedding. I look for somebody standing by themselves who is not already engaged in another activity. I’ve had so much success with this, I could just go on and on. I mean, I’ve had to go to my husband’s dental reunions at the University of Iowa and when I go, I’m his second wife, he’s my second husband for whatever that’s worth but his first wife was with him when he went to the University of Iowa and became a periodontist. I don’t want to have these reunions to walk around with Steve and have him go yeah, no, this is Debra, it’s not blah blah. That’s just a waste of saliva. I always say during the mingling times, Steve, you do your thing, I’ll do my thing and I look around the room and I look for somebody standing by themselves. It has never backfired because I’ll just walk up to them and say what’s your connection to this? Were you a dental student here? Are you a spouse, a partner, a kid, or whatever and that launches the conversation.

I do the same thing at weddings. How are you connected to the bride or groom? I do it at baby showers, I do it when I got to one of my kids, like this weekend one of my kids is graduating from grad school back east so I will go back east and I guarantee you what I will do at graduation is I’ll walk up to other parents and say tell me about your kid because first of all, because I know my son’s not going to talk to me. He’s going to be all worried about his friends and yada yada. But I just put that hat on like I’m going to talk to new people and I look for somebody standing by themselves that seems approachable. A good place to do that is after services at a church or synagogue. If you’re in a volunteer organization, look for someone that’s not already huddled in a group. That’s the best person to talk to.

Brett McKay: You just go up and do you start off with that question or do you introduce yourself? What’s the best approach there?

Debra Fine: Well, I introduce myself first, otherwise it’s just too shocking, obviously. Unless of course, you know, Brett, sometimes we’ve met the person. We’ve met them in the office but we’ve never talked to them. You’re at a holiday party, we’ve met them where they’ve been introduced as the woman that heads up IT now and we shook their hand but we’ve never, so then you don’t have to introduce yourself. You introduce yourself and then the best way to launch a conversation in my opinion is to employ free information about occasion or location. An example that I just cited was at a wedding, either they’re wedding crashers, of course I guess that’s possible, or they’re somehow connected to the bride or groom. The free information is we’re at the same occasion, how are you connected to the bride or groom? If I’m at a fundraiser, what gets you involved in this charity? Somebody might say I’m a guest, who’s your guest? How are they involved? Or I got involved in this charity because my mother had cancer. Okay, you’ve launched a conversation.

If I run the Boulder Boulder at the end of this month here in Colorado and I’m standing at the start line waiting for our horn to go off for my section, I can turn to somebody next to me, the free information is we’re at the same location occasion. Is this the first time you’ve run the Boulder Boulder? If I’m at a conference, I’ll ask is this your first time at this conference or what other conferences do you attend that benefit you? What did you think of the keynote speaker this morning? That’s the free information I have. Here’s a real easy one, if I’m Cincinnati, Ohio, I’ll say to somebody next to me are you from Cincinnati? Because they either are or they’re not. If they’re from there, I’ll just say I’m a visitor, what would you say the highlight, if I had time to be a tourist, that I should go visit or I’ll say have you ever lived somewhere else? If they say they’re not from Cincinnati, I’ll ask where they’re from and what brought them there. That’s free information, we’re all in Cincinnati at that moment, are you from Cincinnati?

Brett McKay: Got you.

Debra Fine: That’s the best way to do it.

Brett McKay: No, I think that’s powerful and in the book, you have some other great icebreakers, openers you can use for whatever situation, whether it’s personal or business. I encourage everyone to check that out there. What do you do, I think a lot of people that don’t have a problem starting a conversation but there’s some people who are like, okay, I got the conversation going, how do I keep it going because they’re afraid of those lulls or those silences. What do you do to keep that conversation going?

Debra Fine: Well, I’m going to answer that question in one second. First I’m going to throw out, whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, sometimes people just don’t shut up. Brett, play along with me for a second and we’ve never done this.

Brett McKay: Sure.

Debra Fine: I just met you, let’s say. What do you do for a living, Brett?

Brett McKay: I run a website called the Art of Manliness and a podcast as well.

Debra Fine: Where are you from, Brett, originally?

Brett McKay: I’m from Oklahoma City.

Debra Fine: What you’ve all witnessed, all you listeners, is an FBI agent at work. Did you hear. I mean, literally, like a batting cage just hitting him over the head with question after question that aren’t even related to one another. A lot of people will tell you ask a lot of questions, show an interest, well, you should definitely show a genuine interest in somebody, clearly, but if you want to keep a conversation going, don’t pepper people with questions that are all over the board. The best way I know to start a conversation is let’s go back, do you mind playing with me?

Brett McKay: No, let’s do it, yeah. I think this is really useful.

Debra Fine: Let’s pretend it was appropriate for me to say if we’re in a professional setting and we’re at a networking event, I can say to you so tell me about your work. You tell me that you own this business and there’s right, the way you answered.

Brett McKay: Right.

Debra Fine: What I should’ve said to you is what’s involved on a daily basis? Or how do you monetize that? Or tell me how you came up with that? Or what’s the greatest challenge of doing that as an entrepreneur? Anything to stay on topic. It’s what I call in the book and I call it in real life, digging in deeper. Digging in deeper is staying on the same topic. When I walk in the house tonight because I’m booked this afternoon, when I walk in the house tonight, my husband’s going to say to me, well, probably, I’m guessing, how was your day? Isn’t that what’s going to happen all over America tonight? That’s what our spouses, partners, whatever, how was your day or where’s dinner? No, he better not ask me that, okay. How was your day? Here’s the deal, I’m not sure if Steve means that. We have been married a long time and there’s NBA playoffs on right now, there’s NHL playoffs, that is his life so when he says how was your day, he might probably mean Brett, hello. That’s what, you know. If he would like to indicate to me that he’d like to keep the conversation going, he needs to then say to me, how was your day, Debra? Good. What’d you have on your plate today, tell me about your work today, or something to indicate that he really means it.

When you say to somebody at a networking event how’s the conference going for you and they say great, say what was the highlight? What’d you enjoy the most or what was different than what you expected? Something along those lines. Now I’m on a date, Brett, okay, let’s pretend again that I would be on a date and I would say to you, who you’re not dating either hopefully and say so Brett, how was your week? You say great, thanks, how was yours? Well, Brett, tell me about what projects you’re working on. I’ve let you know, I really want to know, how was your week, right? Dig in deeper to keep the conversation going.

Another great way to keep the conversation going is I never walk into an event, a meeting with a client, if I was dating I would definitely do the same, I am always prepared, Brett. I’ve never met you, which is typically the case at a party or a networking event. I’m prepared with things to talk about. Current events, not politics because that’s just too intense now but something relatable. What are you looking forward to the most about summer? We’re all going to experience summer, at least in North America we are, right? Okay. What are you looking forward to about summer? What are you most excited about now, Brett? I’m prepared if I’m going to a charity event to ask certain things like that. If I’ve ever met you before, it was very interesting what you did for me during out interview and that is you disclosed that you had a wife and kids. I didn’t know that because everybody, listen carefully, it is not cool to say to somebody are you married? Because what if they say no? Where are we headed in this conversation? How’s this one? Do you have any kids? No. Well, that’s the end of that conversation.

Let’s move on to another way to start a conversation that keeps a conversation going, okay. If I meet you at a party, Brett, I would never say to you what do you do? Because what if you’re in transition? What if you just stay at home with the kids? What if you, I don’t know, I don’t want to label people, I want to have a decent conversation with you that has nothing to do with work. I would probably say to you and I know I do this with people, I’ll say what keeps you busy? If I met you at a barbecue, I’d say what keeps you busy? Then you’ll tell me something, you’ll tell me about the kids, you’ll tell me about the work, you’ll tell me something.

Now, if I’ve met you and I know you work because you work for my company, we’re at a networking situation, it’s a business class, anything like that or you have a name tag on that identifies that you’re with Wells Fargo, I will say to you Brett, what keeps you busy outside of your work? I think it is one of the best ways to launch a conversation in a professional setting because you’re not talking about, you’ll get to the business. You don’t have to talk about business right away, certainly don’t want to be one of those people that’s identified as someone that only cares about a transaction or is only there to work the room. Instead, I’ll saying something to you at a table of eight, what keeps you busy outside of work or I’ll say what do you do for fun, Brett? You’ll either introduce your kids at that point or you’ll talk about some fitness thing you’re involved with or that you’re into film and now we’re launching a conversation that’s real.

Brett McKay: Yeah and it can go a lot of different places too.

Debra Fine: It can go a lot of different places but I’ll get to know you and that’s my real goal is I want to get to know you. Even if we only have five minutes to get to know the real you instead of saying well, what do you do, what do you do and then we’re just like who cares? Another CPA. But if I get to know you, if I say what keeps you busy outside of work and I find out that you’re into yoga and I ask you how you got into it and what’s the hardest pose, you become more interesting to me and if you’re more interesting to me, I might be more willing to work with you.

Brett McKay: Got you. I imagine during this time too you’re not just asking questions, you need to also provide, say things about yourself because if you don’t, it starts feeling like you’re on Law & Order getting interrogated.

Debra Fine: Absolutely. Let’s talk about that, two things, number one is when someone asks you a question, play the conversation game. If somebody says to you how’s your day, when you say pretty good, you’re not playing the conversation game. You’re nowhere. As a matter of fact, this is a typical conversation, how’s your day? Pretty good. How about you? Pretty good. Well, now we’re still back to square zero. We have not progresses at all. I’m always prepared when I want to talk to someone, when I want to connect with and I have the time. I mean, if I’m passing you down the hall, Brett, and I’ve got a deadline and I don’t have time to chit chat and you say Debra, how was your weekend? I’ll say pretty good and I hope yours was good too and I’ll keep walking, Brett, okay? Because as Larry David on Curb Your Enthusiasm, any fans out there, he has an expression he coined that I love, he’s opposed to the stop and chat. Just because we’re passing each other in the hall does not mean I’m required to stop and chat with you, Brett. Nor are you required to stop and chat with me on elevators, at the hostess stand, et cetera.

But when I’m at a networking event or I go on a date and you say how was your week, Debra? I better have a sentence ready. You say to me how was your week, I’m going to say something along the lines of I had a great week. I was able to get to the gym five times, which is my goal but I don’t always make it because work has been super busy lately. That’s playing the conversation game. You didn’t go on and on Debra, talking about your aches and pains or all those challenges at work or how much you hate your boss. You simply gave a little bit of detail about your week so that he, on this date, would have something to talk with you about. What do you do at the gym or when do you go to the gym or how did you get to be so disciplined? Something along those lines. If you say to me, Debra, how’s your year been because let’s say you and I run into each other twice a year. How’s your year been, Debra? I’m always prepared to give you a good answer. I probably would say my son is graduating from grad school and we’re looking forward to this ordeal for him being over with.

Now if you’re interested in me, you’ll ask about my son or what he studied. If you’re not interested in me, I planted a seed, Brett. You see, people that have sons that are in graduate school are human beings. If you say to me Debra, how’s it going and I say great. I’ve planted my flowers this weekend and we already had hail. I have given you something to talk about with me plus I’ve become three dimensional. People that plant flowers, Brett, even if you don’t plant flowers, people that plant flowers, they are human beings and we are much more relatable to people that are three dimensional. Even if we don’t have the commonality. If I say how’s it going and you say I saw the Avengers movie, I really liked it. I haven’t seen it, Brett, so I’m making this up. I saw the Avengers movie, I really liked it, you’ve given me something to talk about with you plus without even realizing it, you have become three dimensional to me because people that go to movies are three dimensional. They’re not just CPAs or engineers or fourth grade teachers. You must play the conversation game.

Also, the second point I wanted to make is when you disclose things about yourself, now it doesn’t have to be TMI, it doesn’t have to be your long lost whatever but when people disclose, when I disclose that I’ve been divorced and I’m on my second marriage, my guess is people in your audience that have been divorced, if we had been one on one, they would’ve been willing to disclose that they had been divorced too. Once you disclose something about yourself, other people are willing to disclose about themselves. It doesn’t have to be that personal about divorce, it could be something as simple as I’m really looking forward to … How are you Debra? Great, I’m really looking forward to summer because I’m going on a cycling vacation. People are more likely to talk about their vacations now or if they cycle or that they were on a vacation last year because I disclosed that I am looking forward to a vacation. That’s why it’s such a critical piece to not give one word answers unless you don’t want to talk to me.

Brett McKay: Right. Another powerful tool that I’ve used in small talk that is from your book is this acronym FORM whenever I’m like how do I keep this conversation going. Briefly, what does that FORM acronym mean and how can that be used to keep conversations going?

Debra Fine: Well, the acronym that I use for FORM is family, talk about someone’s family. Now, remember, I don’t think it’s cool to say are you married, Brett, but I get to ask you, Brett, if we had time to hang out before the interview, tell me about your family, Brett. Everybody’s got a family. All different kinds of families, I’m in a blended one, some people will say when you say tell me about your family, they’ll say I have a sister in Florida and my parents still live in Wisconsin where I’m from. That’s an answer. Okay, that’s number one, F is for family. O is for occupation. Like I said, what keeps you busy? I prefer that but sometimes in a professional setting, I’ll say tell me about your work or what you do for a living. I don’t know if you caught this, when we were play acting, I did not say what do you do because it’s almost so lame these days so I said what do you do for a living because what do you do? I mean, some people have gotten sarcastic with me and said well, what do you mean, what do I do?

Brett McKay: Right.

Debra Fine: What do you do for a living? I like that question a little better if that’s an appropriate setting. R in the word FORM is for recreation. What do you do for fun? What keeps you busy outside of work? Tell me about your hobbies or what interests you outside of your work. Anything like that. Sometimes I’ll ask someone, what are you excited about this year? Now, that can go into recreation. Sometimes people will say I got a promotion so I head back into work. Lastly, M is for motivation. What motivates you, Brett? What is exciting in your life or what motivated you to start this business or what has changed about your motivations since you were in your 20s? Brett, you know I know that you’re not in your 20s, okay, but if I could see you, I mean, Brett looks great but whatever. What’s motivating you now that’s different from what motivated you when you were in your 20s? I could ask anybody and I could ask somebody in their 20s what motivates you now that’s different before you went to college? What’s your motivation? Family, occupation, recreation, motivation.

Brett McKay: I love that. What I usually do is I’ll try to start off with a contextualized breaker to get the ball going and then if things start running out, then I might fall back to the FORM, one of the letters in the FORM.

Debra Fine: Can I make a point about that?

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Debra Fine: Usually, if you assume the burden, the conversation will work as long as you’re prepared with things to talk about, just as you describe with FORM, that you use that as a fallback. But let me just throw out to everybody, when it doesn’t work, when it doesn’t work because somebody’s giving you one word answers, they’re not helping you along in the conversation, please pat yourself on the back for trying and leave them. Unless it’s your mother-in-law, I suppose, or your boss. Not everyone is willing to have a conversation with you. If you approach me at an event and I’m a networker who works rooms, I see your name tag, Brett, and I’m there to sell software to attorneys and I recognize immediately that you’re not an attorney and don’t represent a law firm, then I’m not going to, if I’m one of those people that’s a shallow person, no matter what icebreaker you use, it’s not going to work because I’ve decided based on your name tag that I don’t want to talk to you. I’m going to give you one word answers and I’m not going to help you along in the conversation. I want everybody listening to have the confidence to know that your icebreaker, there is no perfect line. We’re all wishing we had a perfect line but there’s no such thing. People decide before you open your mouth whether they’re willing to talk to you or not.

Brett McKay: Part of the fear of not being in control is, okay, I start this conversation, what if I need to get out of it and how do I do so gracefully? I think that’s a fear that a lot of people have. What’s your tips on bowing out of a conversation gracefully?

Debra Fine: I will answer your question but the other reason that we need to bow out is sometimes you’re easy to talk to, Brett. You’re an entrepreneur, I’m an entrepreneur. You have kids, I have kids. You have a wife, I have a husband. You’re easy to talk to. Why would I ever leave you, Brett, to talk to somebody else at this party? This is easy. I’ll just hang out here but what if I promised myself I’d meet two new people here or what if there’s other people standing alone that I’m really conscious of or what if it’s a business networking event and I really do need to gain some more visibility to gain referrals? That’s another good reason to leave someone is because you are there to make the most of the meeting or the opportunity to meet new people.

How do you leave people? There’s a couple ways. Most of us do this, and there’s nothing wrong with it, they say I need. Brett, I need to get a cup of coffee. I haven’t had enough caffeine today or Brett, I need to take off. I have a deadline at the office, it’s been great talking to you. By the way, if you can show appreciation at the end of each conversation, for instance today if I was exiting you face to face, I would say gosh, it’s really been interesting hearing about your business. If you can say anything nice without going on and on, you’re not paraphrasing, you’re not summarizing, gosh, your son sounds like a lot of fun or wow, that sounds like a really tough challenge that you’re dealing with at work. Okay, show some acknowledgement of the conversation. Now, I need, I need to get some coffee, Brett. I haven’t gotten my fill of caffeine today. On my way to get coffee, you see the coffee station, it’s outside the conference room. It’s out in that reception area but on my way to get the coffee, I run into Andrea. Andrea, oh my gosh, it’s been forever. I haven’t seen you forever, how are you? Brett sees me talking to Andrea or he maybe doesn’t even know who she is, it’s irrelevant, I don’t have coffee in my hand, do I?

People feel like you blew them off. Be really careful when you say I need. When you say you need to get back to the office and you run into Andrea on your way out the door or down the hall, this is what you need to say to Andrea. Andrea, join me, I’m headed back to my office. You’re walking down the hall, join me, because I’m headed back to my office, I have a deadline. People see you’re still walking to your office. If I say I needed coffee, Brett, when I run into Andrea, this is what I’m going to say to Andrea. Andrea, why don’t you join me? I need to get coffee or I’ll say Andrea, I’ll be right back, I’m getting a cup of coffee, I really want to catch up because that’s the deal, Brett. When I say I need to do something, you better see me do it or you’re going to feel like I burnt a bridge with you.

Okay, there’s a couple other ways to get away from people that I know of. Wave the white flag. The white flag is what they use in car racing. It indicates to the drivers that there’s one more lap and then the race is over. Let’s just pretend, Brett, I’m just going to pick on you for a second. You said you had kids, I don’t know how many, but let’s say you’re just going on and on. One is in AP classes already, the other one’s going to be an Olympic superstar and the bragging and the ad nauseam about your kids, I just can’t listen to it anymore so I’m going to exit you. First I’m going to acknowledge it. Gosh, Brett, it sounds like you have great kids. I mean, I can say that. I might think it’s ridiculous but I think it sounds like you have great kids and here’s the white flag, Brett, gosh, you know, things have changed so much raising kids these days. Before I take off, I’d really like to hear, what would you say the number one challenge is?

I’ve let you know I’m about to take off, Brett. You can get out of this with dignity, you really can by wrapping it up and giving me a concise answer and/or you can continue babbling about how amazing your children are and I will then, because I’ve given you the white flag and said I need to take off in a couple of minutes but before I do, what’s the number one challenge in raising kids today? If you keep going on and have a narrative, I’ll say like I said, I really need to take off. When we see this on, you’re going to do it to me, Brett. At one point, you’re going to say, Debra, one last question. I could keep babbling but my guess is you’re turning this off. You’re going to turn me off. In real life, I’m going to do the same thing. Gosh, that project sounds like it’s been really frustrating for you, Brett. I’d like to hear how you combat it, I’ve only got a couple of minutes left before I need to take off because I see there’s other clients here in the room that I need to catch up with. What would you say the number one challenge is for you?

Brett McKay: I like that. Again, you’re assuming the burden of ending the conversation.

Debra Fine: Absolutely. I’m not going to let you hold me hostage and go on about your project or your stories. That’s a big thing now, Brett, since I’ve written that book. Everybody’s supposed to learn how to craft their story and tell their story. I don’t really want to hear a 10 minute story about you unless we become close friends. I want to hear a three or four minute story from you about your kids, your work, whatever. That’s my rule for myself, Brett. I’m not allowed to talk about myself more than three to four minutes. I can talk about my vacation, my kids, my business, my anything and then after three or four minutes, no matter how interested you are in my amazing children, I need to throw the conversation ball back and say tell me about your family, Brett or tell me about your work, how you got into that. See, I know my story. I know all about it, every detail. What I don’t know is about you. Let’s stop giving these narratives that just go on and on only because someone appears to be genuinely interested and they might be genuinely interested because they’re nodding, they’re giving me eye contact, they’re giving verbal cues.

By the way, that’s another way to keep a conversation going, give verbal cues. Oh really, Brett? Well, give me an example of what you mean by that. Gosh, what happened first, Brett? Then what happened? Jeez, you’re kidding. That’s fun. Mm-hmm (affirmative). Give verbal cues that encourages people to keep talking and of course, lets them know that you’re listening. Let’s say I’ve got somebody that’s doing that with me. How’d you lose all that weight, Debra? You’re giving me verbal cues, you’re giving me eye contact, you’re nodding. Well, if I’m not careful, I’m still talking about my weight loss 10 minutes later, that’s not cool, I’ve become a monopolizer. Three minutes into it, I’ll throw the ball back, how do you stay fit, Brett?

Brett McKay: Got you, I love that.

Debra Fine: Thank you.

Brett McKay: Well, waving the white flag here, this has been a great conversation, Debra. Where can people go to learn more about your work?

Debra Fine: Well, thanks for asking, Brett. That’s another thing, issue the invitation. If you’re in a business situation, say I’d like to reach out to you, I’d like to stay in touch, do something, don’t just cold call me three days from now. The same with dating. I’d really like to stay in touch. Don’t just find her on Facebook. Say I’d really like to stay in touch, issue the invitation face to face. It’s so much better and if she declines, she declines. She’s going to decline anyways and ghost you so get it over with. You can learn more about me at, that’s Everything’s there and thank you for asking and my books are there and of course you can go to Amazon as well or any bookstore for this book.

Brett McKay: Well, Debra Fine, thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

Debra Fine: Same here, Brett, honest to goodness, really fun. Thank you.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Debra Fine, she’s the author of the book The Fine Art of Small Talk. It’s available on You can also find out more information about her work at That’s Also, check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at If you enjoyed the show, have gotten something out of it, I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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