THE NAME OF AUTHOR DEBORAH TANNEN WAS MISSPELLED IN A STYLE PLUS ARTICLE TUESDAY. (Published 10/1/87)
A scientist turns down invitations to business dinners because she dreads having to make small talk with colleagues.
Afraid of sounding trite, a businessman clams up at parties and can't concentrate on conversations.
A researcher blows her chance at getting a job because she says the wrong things during the interview.
We've all had moments when we rack our brains for something interesting to say to people standing next to us, whether it be in elevators, cocktail receptions or singles dances. We want to sound original. Refreshing. Spontaneous. Instead we drone on about the weather, grill the other person, plunge into dreadful topics of conversation.
Small talk is a big deal. It makes up most of our daily conversations -- gabbing about produce with the supermarket cashier, extending a welcome to the next-door neighbor, chatting with an office mate on the way to lunch.
Small talk is what people say to each other to be social. Through conditioned behavior -- standard questions and answers, patterned reactions -- people connect without the threat of intimacy and test each other by observing gestures, tone of voice, eloquence and body language. Often, small talk leads to bigger things -- a drink with someone after work, a lunch engagement, a job interview.
Sometimes the verbal exchange involves several words -- "Slow elevator," "No kidding." Other times a nonlinguistic sound, a sigh, "aha," "yeah," "oh?" is all that's needed to keep conversation going.
Some people can chatter about anything to anyone. Viewed by envious peers as "social by nature," they bounce from family picnic to board room making the most mundane details sound interesting.
"You learn a great deal through small talking to someone," says Marion McGrath, a print-shop owner in the District with a flair for socializing. "People are flattered when you talk to them. It's like ants stroking each other. I find that I have something in common with almost everybody."
To most, however, small talking is hard work. Otherwise articulate, intelligent people stammer when casual conversation seems most important. Self-conscious of their clumsiness, they make matters worse by blaming themselves for being sticks-in-the-mud.
"I always feel I should be having more meaningful interactions with people," says Barbara Sosnick, an attorney in private practice in the District. "I'm afraid I'll get caught, someone will say, 'Why did you say that? Why are you being so mundane?' "
Those with rusty social skills may give small talk a bad rap -- calling it superficial, unimportant. But the ability to get along with people is crucial to the success of any job, be it in social service fields or defense contracting.
The need for healthier social interaction among employes is nothing new to profit and nonprofit corporations, many of which routinely hold weekend retreats at ocean resorts or country homes to promote better employe relations.
Lynn Waymon, a management consultant who teaches the art of small talking through adult education courses and also lectures on the subject at corporate seminars and conferences, sees the difference in people's attitudes that such workshops make. The flier she uses to promote her business states: "If you think the 'gift of gab is not your bag,' the technology of how to make it and even enjoy small talk can be learned."
In her workshop, Waymon demystifies the process of small talking by emphasizing the importance of self-confidence and spontaneity, its major components. Through exercises involving on-the-spot reactions and positive reinforcement, the aspiring socialites learn to develop the skill.
"People are afraid to make casual conversation," says Waymon. "When you small talk you take a lot of risks. We have a little voice inside us that says, 'You are not going to say that are you? That sounds stupid.' That's the inner critic yammering away at you when you try to make small talk."
Her advice: Erase the negative self-image. Tense small talkers should use an "affirmative" interior voice such as "I have interesting things to say," "I don't mind making mistakes" or "It's okay if I don't say the most exciting things."
Chitchatting can be especially difficult between people from different cultures and regional backgrounds, says Deborah Tanner, author of That's Not What I Meant. In her cross-cultural research, Tanner found that New Yorkers accustomed to interrupting conversations don't realize why polite southerners walk away from them offended. Similar culture gaps exist in conversations between men and women.
"Men and women grew up with different cultures," adds Tanner, also professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. "They like to talk about different things. Men like to small talk about sports and their purchases -- a new VCR, the latest PC -- while women like to talk about emotional dynamics of relationships and insignificant day-to-day activities, like 'I went shopping and talked to ... and then went into town to grab a bite ...' "
Men also believe that language should be used "to convey information." When asked a question, men tend to respond with direct definite answers -- an attitude women consider rude, impatient. Women, on the other hand, view small talking as a means to make people feel comfortable, to ease the tension. Asking questions is a woman's way of starting a conversation, a process of negotiation.
Joan Cavanaugh, a communications consultant in the District who thinks it's "embarrassing" not to be talking to someone at a reception, always feels responsible for others. At parties, she asks people questions about themselves -- how they're feeling, what they enjoy doing and future plans.
"Women have generically higher levels of need for approval with people, whether they know them or not," she says. "I'm constantly feeling that if conversation lags it's my responsibility whether it's two or 25 people. I figure it's up to me to make sure everybody has a good time. Good small talk means getting away from yourself and keying in on what's important to the other person."
One way to bridge the gap, Tanner suggests, is to learn to be a "style-switcher," adjusting your conversational style to accommodate people with different backgrounds. Merely realizing that there are different styles can prevent frustrating arguments, misperceptions and awkward attempts at small talking.
A man telling a woman where he is from might say, according to Tanner: "I was born in a small, rural town in the Midwest. I loved it out there. My father would take me with him to the fields ... " rather than a more precise, mechanical response about his place of birth, which women find uninformative. A woman, on the other hand, should switch her style and give fewer details about her hometown and say: "I was born and raised in the city. Great place," rather than a rambling blow-by-blow account of her childhood memories, which men tend to find boring.
Small talk doesn't require outrageously original or profound conversation, says James Kavanagh, associate director of the Center for Research for Mothers and Children at NIH, who earned a PhD in speech pathology and audiology. An exchange of social niceties is all that's expected.
"When you go to a party, you aren't looking to have serious, long conversations. If you ask someone how they are and they start listing their symptoms, you wonder what's wrong with them, and you try to get away from them. You want to talk to somebody just sane enough to stay in the ballpark.
"Humans are social beings who use a lot of symbols to keep in touch with each other," he says, pointing out that raising an eyebrow and nodding is a way of saying, "I understand what you're saying," and clearing our throat often means we are getting ready to speak. "When you go to a party and hear people going back and forth laughing, talking, nobody cares exactly what is being said. You hear the melody of voices saying, 'We are here in the same room socializing.' "
He bases his theory on studies done by Emanuel Schegloff, a sociologist at UCLA who founded a discipline in the '60s called "conversational analysis," which studies how small-talk works by recording ordinary conversation and examining the information exchange, reactions, pauses as short as 1/10th second and utterances.
Schegloff found that chitchat is a highly organized system, based on rules we know instinctively from living in a socialized culture. Among the findings:
The basic function of conversational rules is to maintain order. In small groups (three to six persons) people ordinarily talk to each other one at a time, one after the other. When their talk becomes disorganized -- several people talk at once -- tension grows. People realize they can't hear what the others are saying and, afraid of missing out, they stop talking to listen. Soon after, the group resumes order, one person speaking at a time.
When nobody in the group says anything, people begin to fidget, shift in place, check their watches until someone breaks the silence by telling a joke or story. Jokes are told more often than stories because stories need to be fitted into a conversation, with introductions like "That reminds me of ... " while jokes can be thrown in.
In addition to restoring order, small talk rules also dictate attempts to avoid rejection. When someone calls to ask a friend to go to dinner or a movie, he usually prefaces the real reason for the call with amiable chatter. But you know the question is coming after the caller utters "ahh" or "hmmmm" -- attempts at stalling possible rejection.
Finding something to talk about isn't difficult, says Waymon. The management consultant suggests people look around the room for something to comment on -- what people are wearing, that lady's tan, the food, the plant in the corner. Suggestions for openers: "I was noticing your nice tan, did you go away?" "Have you seen the food on the table?"
Asking people straight out who they are, where they work, can be "boring," "old hat." Waymon urges people to be more dramatic, inventive. Instead of asking somebody what kind of work they do at the IRS, the person should say, "Tell me what it's like to audit somebody!"
Getting out of the conversation can be just as tricky as getting into one. Charles Goldman, a computer systems consultant, has been practicing different techniques for ending unscintillating conversations.
"If a person is really excited talking and you tell them 'Nice chatting with you' and walk away, it's a put-down. It really wasn't that nice. I usually say I have another engagement to get to. Then the message is I wish I could keep chatting even though the truth is I'm glad I'm going."
It's better to be dishonest about "conversationally abandoning" somebody than it is to be impolite, says Marion McGrath.
"Everybody uses the graceful way out of conversation," she says. "You say 'I need to freshen my drink' and then look around for somebody more interesting to talk to. Or you can opt for the Washington tag line, 'Let's get together for lunch' and never contact them again. People don't question it, they accept it as part of the social etiquette."
Marcela Kogan is a Washington area writer. How to Get Better at It
Suggestions for improving small talk:
Write down topics you are interested in discussing or trivia that could be used as icebreakers and think of different ways to bring them up in conversation.
Identify yourself by adding to your name a catchy phrase explaining the kind of work you do rather than simply naming your profession. ("I'm the one who tries to catch people cheating the government," instead of "I'm an accountant at the IRS.")
Comment on the obvious. Anything on the person or in the room is up for grabs for small talk -- jewelry, hairdos, plants, a broken leg.
Become a good interviewer and a good listener. Follow up ordinary comments with questions about their opinion.
Respond to a mundane question with a dramatic statement that will invite the listener to ask follow-up questions. An answer to a question about where you work could be: "I work at the telephone company and things would be a lot easier if it weren't for the boss!"
Become aware of body language and how it works. For example, turning a shoulder and talking from an angle may suggest "Get away from me"; moving closer, full-front forward and making eye contact may signal "I'd like to get to know you."
Find someone in your life who connects well with other people and use him as your role model.
Make a concerted effort to close the conversation by saying, "It was nice talking to you" and shaking the other person's hand rather than by running away when he isn't looking.