Data, the android in Star Trek: the Next Generation, had great difficulty mastering the subtleties of human behavior. In one episode he attended a cocktail party and attempted to practice the art of “small talk”. His feeble attempts to engage in dialogue paled before the pontificating politician who could expound at length on the weather and other trivialities. Watching the diplomat babble—and Data’s quizzical expression—was a great comic moment in the series.
I’ve always admired the conversationalist who can come up with interesting things to say about any topic. But the key to small talk proficiency is not the possession of erudition or brilliance but simply the ability to respond as if one had been listening closely to what the other party has been saying. People warm to flattery, and there is nothing more flattering than someone paying attention to what we’re saying.
Sure, one has to perfect a few icebreaking lines, but at a business conference 1) how long have you worked for Acme Corp., 2) did you have a nice flight, or 3) have you always lived in London / New York / Tokyo are usually enough to get the ball rolling.
I was doing well on this trip until I made the mistake of asking a woman about her family (in my defense, in every conversation that I had had during the past few days people talked about their kids), and she, with a pained expression, asked to change the subject. I beat a hasty retreat by turning the conversation to the magnificent city in which we were having our conference. In Florence it’s easy to put aside one’s problems and be swept away by history. © 2005 Stephen Yuen