1 Dec 2022

How to avoid a social slip-up

It’s party season and over the next few weeks we’re all likely to find ourselves, glass in hand, making conversation with a stranger. Some people respond to this challenge with ease and panache – they never seem to run out of topics, are excellent at drawing out the shyest people, and spread an atmosphere of enjoyment and conviviality. But even if you’re not the world’s greatest conversationalist, you should be able to cope with the social challenges ahead, if you avoid the following cardinal errors:

• Wandering eyes

People who only half-engage in social conversations, who let their eyes wander around the room or look over the shoulder of the person with whom they are nominally talking, are undoubtedly very rude. We have all felt trapped in party conversations at one time or another, aware that we might miss the opportunity to waylay someone with whom we really want to chat, but it is imperative to suppress these feelings and ruthlessly eliminate any sign that you are anything other than 100 per cent engaged.

You just have to accept that you must let the conversation run its course, until you reach a natural point where you can make your excuses – these can range from refilling your glass to a more generalised statement that you feel you must ‘mingle’. Alternatively, you might see someone you know and introduce them to your conversational partner. If you take this route, stick around for a few moments to ensure the conversation is under way, then mutter a polite excuse and escape.

•Talking, not listening

Many people are over-loquacious – they like the sound of their own voice, have opinions on everything and are not at all inhibited about airing them. They may find that a stranger at a party, especially someone who is a little shy or not particularly assertive, is a perfect target. They can bang on happily about their favourite hobby horse, secure in the knowledge that nobody is going to interrupt them.

In the words of the Greek philosopher Epictetus (c. 60 CE) “we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak”. Good conversationalists are great listeners; they ask open-ended questions (which do not demand simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers), listen carefully to responses, then pick up threads and elaborate on them to create a multi-layered conversation, replete with shared references and a sense of intimacy.

• Boasting

Many people see socialising as primarily a means of self-promotion. They are intent on making an impact, becoming the person at the party that everybody is talking about, and maybe even see this ambitious form of socialising as a way of advancing their reputation or career.

Unfortunately, they all too often use extremely crude methods to get their message across. They boast and brag about their achievements, status, wealth and abilities in the deluded belief that they will sweep all before them. Far from gaining kudos, they rapidly become social pariahs.

• Name dropping

A close relative of boasting, name-dropping is another way of trumpeting your self-importance, by claiming that you are intimately acquainted with famous people. This painfully transparent attempt to coast through life on the coat-tails of more talented individuals is only going to make you look needy and pathetic. It certainly won’t win you any friends.

• Asking intrusive questions

While it is certainly important to listen to your conversational partners and to ask questions, you must be careful about just how probing your interrogation is. We all accept that social chit-chat is a delicate dance that skims the social surface, flirting with intimacy, but moving on. You will be transgressing this social law if you start questioning people about money, salaries, divorce, political allegiance, religion and so on.

Accept that there is no short cut to intimacy and revel in the skill with which seasoned practitioners of the conversational arts can skirt around the big questions, make generalised observations, and obliquely extract all sorts of information from their interlocutors, without once asking an intrusive question.

• Interrupting

Big talkers are often keen interrupters. They are conversationally over-bearing and are therefore quite likely to break into other people’s conversation, stopping them in mid-flow, or talk over them. Obviously, the tendency to interrupt is closely linked to an inability to listen – impatience and frustration build up and the interrupter is filled with an overwhelming desire to butt in.

Interrupting is extremely rude; it devalues what the ‘interuptee’ is saying and belittles them. If it is essential that you should break into a conversation – to relay some important news or to alert people to the fact that dinner is served, for example – establish eye contact with the person who is talking, and then say “Please excuse me for interrupting, but…”

• Making people feel excluded

It is very important at parties to make people feel welcome and included (wallflowers should always be taken under your wing). Sot if you are chatting with a group of friends or colleagues and a stranger is present it is very rude to talk exclusively about people, issues or events that only concern members of the group.

A fundamental rule of social intercourse is that nobody should be made to feel superfluous and irrelevant. So, if you find yourself in this position, do your utmost to lead the conversation into more general areas and if members of the group will not be led, consider addressing the issue directly: “I’m sure Alex doesn’t want to hear about our sales teams’ antics in Abu Dhabi!”


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