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Talk This Way

Author Daniel Menaker offers tips on turning irrelevant blather into insightful chatter

The three key ingredients of any good talk, says author Daniel Menaker, are curiosity, humor, and impudence. To sustain a lively exchange—or to escape one that has suddenly or agonizingly turned stale—he offers these tips:

  1. Take a genuine interest in the person you're talking to—regardless of your own agenda.
  2. Feel free to interrupt. Interruptions are "tolerable and work to enliven a conversation…. The exuberance of 'Wait! Wait! I just have to say this one thing!' more often buoys up a conversation than sinks it—so long as the one thing doesn't multiply."
  3. Chill. "Think of crucial social situations as not all that crucial. This is something you learn with age. It doesn't matter that much what you say or don't say. If you're relaxed and seem confident, the conversation will find its own way."
  4. If you're not ready to talk about yourself or the other person, settle on a "Third Thing"—an aspect of the landscape, a crossword puzzle the person is struggling to solve, a nice end table. Just make sure it's not the weather—that's "poisonous"—unless your conversational sally is, "Oh my god, look at you—you're dripping wet!"
  5. It's fine to get people talking about themselves, but be an interlocutor, not an interrogator. How do you tell them apart? If you find yourself "reel[ing] off questions like an immigration official or a doctor's assistant," you're the latter.
  6. Resist making jokes—even good ones, paradoxically, can be conversational dead ends. (They leave the listener no option but to reply with one of his own; he or she may not have any, or may not be able to tell one.) Bad jokes are "culs-de-sac with mud puddles at the end."
  7. If you need a handy breakaway excuse at a party, carry a mostly empty wine glass with just some ice cubes in it. You can excuse yourself to refresh your "drink." If that seems subterfugic, take the direct route: simply say, "You know, it's really been fun talking to you, but I've got to talk to so-and-so and I'm afraid they're about to leave."
  8. Most mistakes made on first encounters stem from trying too hard—to impress, to be original, to be honest. "It's good to meet you" is a perfectly functional start.
  9. Switching subjects unexpectedly is rude. To change channels painlessly, try doing it with some finesse. Pick up a thread—a conversational handkerchief—from earlier in the exchange and return it, with interest, to your listener.
  10. Information about family matters and finances should be donated, not solicited.
  11. If you suspect you're being boring, you almost certainly are—and you almost certainly have been for longer than you suspect. The simple, effective solution: stop blathering on. Start asking questions. And listen to the answers.