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Small Talk: Think of It as an 'Appetizer' for a Full Meal of Conversation

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: a conversation about small talk.

RS: Our guest is Debra Fine, author of a new book called "The Fine Art of Small Talk."

DEBRA FINE: "It is not the business conversation, not the business discussion, but it is that appetizer that helps develop into something more connected. So sometimes here in the United States you can start a conversation with someone strictly business. But if you intend to grow that into a business friendship, you need to develop that relationship, and the only way to do that is with small talk. And that's what makes it so important here in the United States."

RS: "So what is small talk -- how would you define that?"

DEBRA FINE: "I would define it, Rosanne, as a picture frame around every business conversation. For business that's how I would define it."

RS: "OK, that's business, but it could be more ... "

AA: "Right, I mean, I'm looking at your book here, you say starting with a statement like 'What a beautiful day. What's your favorite season of the year?' Or 'I was truly touched by that movie. How did you like it?' Or, let's see, 'What a great conference! Tell me about the sessions you attended.'"

DEBRA FINE: "Right."

AA: "What are some other examples of small talk?"

DEBRA FINE: "Well, the examples you just cited are showing an interest in other people, taking the risk of being the first to speak, the first to say hello, and then showing an interest. And all those examples you just cited use open-ended questions: tell me, describe for me, what was that like for you, what do you know about this, how did you come up with that idea?

"I might say to someone from a different country than myself or a different culture: 'Tell me about a favorite tradition' or 'Tell me what you enjoy most about visiting here in the Washington, D.C., area?' So the key is to use open-ended questions and to show an interest in others.

"If you are unwilling to talk to me, there is no perfect way to start a conversation because you will reject me no matter what. And that's what we all need to learn is that it is up to us to take the risk of starting a conversation, but to not take it personally if someone just gives us a one-word answer or doesn't help us along in the conversation. It may mean that they have other things on their mind or they're there to meet someone else. Move on to another individual in your party or at this event or at the meeting or conference."

RS: "So you're establishing a connection, a relationship."

DEBRA FINE: "That's the goal."

RS: "Moving on, we've started this conversation even though we didn't think we had anything to say, and now we're to a point where there's like some awkwardness in it. How do you get beyond that, or maybe what we would call a pregnant pause, which is a long pause in the conversation?"

DEBRA FINE: "First and foremost, always be prepared. Before I walk into a situation where I don't know people intimately, I come up with two to three things to talk about. It may be related to the event: 'What got you involved with this charity?' It may be related to current events: 'What do you think of this new Supreme Court nominee?'

"Now, I am prepared that people don't all read the newspapers or listen to the radio, so I will say: 'Have you heard about this new Supreme Court nominee of President Bush's?' 'No, I don't even know what you're talking about, Debra.' 'Well let me fill you in ...' and then ask what their thoughts are about that.

"But be prepared with two to three things to talk about. And if you've ever met with this person before, review in your mind what you know about them before you enter the restaurant, before you go to the party, before you attend the conference, so that when there is that awkward moment, pregnant pause, the worst time to think of something to talk about is when there is absolutely nothing to talk about."

AA: "Now let's talk a little bit more about in American society, what are some lines of small talk to just, you know, completely avoid?"

DEBRA FINE: "Well, I number one don't think it's appropriate to ever say to someone 'are you married?' Because if they say no, where is this conversation headed? Don't ask someone 'do you have any kids?' because, once again, what if they say no?

"I think it is OK when you're waiting for the check, when you're on a date, to say 'tell me about your family.' That's a big question. People can respond any way they like. 'I have a brother in Cincinnati and my folks still live in Ohio as well.' It wasn't pinning them down to 'are you married?'

"Also, don't ask someone 'how's your job at Boeing?' or 'how's your job at I.B.M.?' because what if they lost their job? A better question is 'what's been going on with work?' [or] 'what's been happening with work since the last time I saw you?' So those are some ways to make sure you don't put someone else in an awkward spot."

RS: Debra Fine is a former engineer in Colorado who became interested in small talk as a way to overcome her own social awkwardness. Now she is a motivational speaker and trainer, and has written a book, "The Fine Art of Small Talk."

AA: And that's Wordmaster for this week. Our e-mail address is, and our segments are all posted online at