Originally created 10/15/02

Common ground makes small talk easy



Polish your shoes and get those gowns out of the back of the closet - the party season is upon us.

But getting ready for the galas involves more than getting all those fancy threads dry-cleaned. Some people need to gear up mentally as well.

Nearly half of the adults in the United States report that they are chronically shy, according to The Shyness Clinic in Portola Valley, Calif. And about 90 percent of adults say they have felt shy at some event.

Mingling can be daunting for many, said Susan RoAne, a public speaker and author of How to Work a Room.

"Approaching someone is a huge risk. We fear this rejection," Ms. RoAne said in an interview from her home in San Francisco. "And that's why we love people that are friendly, open, and make us feel comfortable - because they make it easier for us. If we were really smart, we would be the one that makes it easier for others."

Christian Stracke, head of emerging markets research for CreditSights, finds mingling a necessity. Having just moved from New York to Augusta, Mr. Stracke frequently finds himself at parties with people he doesn't know.

"It's usually kind of a random process; you kind of look for people that might be in the same situation as yourself," he said. "Often, I find whoever I am around spatially, I end up talking to."

But for shy party-goers, Ms. RoAne said thinking ahead can lay the groundwork for small talk.

"Think about what you have in common with people at an event before you get there. This is the planning that helps you feel more comfortable and more prepared," she said.

The type of event can give you an immediate common interest with other guests.

"Talk about the food, everybody does. Food is one of the socially connecting aspects of any party, because it's safe," Ms. RoAne said.

What are people talking about - movies, television shows, local events? These are topics you can use.

Jeanne Martinet, author of The Art of Mingling, said the question of what someone does for a living is one to avoid.

"It's a little bit threatening," she said. "And you don't know what you are bringing up."

It also could be interpreted as a question of financial status, she said.

Mr. Stracke said his small talk changes depending on what city he is in.

"You kind of take stabs in the dark until you find something in common or a common interest," he said. "In New York, everyone would talk about the stock market or Wall Street because everyone had a connection to it in some way."

So if you haven't seen the big movie of the week? Use a cheat sheet, Ms. RoAne said; see what others are saying about it.

"I'm a former teacher, and I really believe you've got to read the newspaper every day. The newspaper has all the conversation you're going to want to make," Ms. RoAne said.

THE DOS AND DON'TS OF MINGLING:

DO scan the layout of the party when you arrive. That way, you can are not tempted to look around during a conversation. Wandering eyes make you look bored or uninterested.

DON'T wait for someone else to start a conversation. Initiating makes it easier for others, and they'll appreciate it.

DON'T use whining, complaining or criticism as small talk. People love to talk about others, but keep it nice. Gossip will backfire on you.

DO lock your elbow when shaking hands with a tipsy flirt to establish a boundary on your space.

DON'T hesitate to introduce yourself if your spouse or friend doesn't introduce you to others.

DON'T take an uncomfortable situation too seriously. If two others show up in the same dress you are wearing, adopt a good-hearted attitude. It will work in your benefit.

DO move around. Ideally, you want each conversation to last about 10 minutes for optimum mingling.

Reach Lisa M. Lohr at (706) 823-3332 or lisalohr@augustachronicle.com