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Score With Small Talk At the Holiday Office Party

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah and Good Kwanza. With Turkey Day stuffed behind us, the holiday season is off to a running start, and the official office parties are soon to follow. For many people, the stress of these corporate celebrations is that they require us to talk to customers, co-workers and vendors — about something other than business. But let’s face it, small talk is the stock-in-trade of workplace festivities, and knowing how to do it well can be a boon to your business.

“Most big connections in life start with small talk,” says Connie Dieken, author of the new book “Talk Less, Say More.” And while the point of most holiday parties is not to improve your productivity, knowing how to make a little light and charming chatter can lead to new business, start up relationships and make creative connections.

Even as a kid, I was always an extrovert and a talker (shocking, I know), so as an adult, small talk has never been a big problem for me. But a decade ago, I got a piece of advice I found invaluable. In Susan Roan’s bestselling book “How to Work a Room,”  she says that one of the keys to being comfortable at a party is to practice “host behavior,” rather than “guest behavior.”

In other words, if you were the host of the party, how would you act? What would you say? Whenever I’m at a gathering and at a loss, I simply ask myself, “What would I do if I were the host?”

But beyond this contextual piece of advice, there are a few examples of party small-talk etiquette that Dieken says will both keep you out of trouble and take you through the merrymaking with ease.

Stay away from conversation killers. Are you contemplating having an affair? Do you owe $10,000 in back taxes to the IRS? Getting a mole removed next week? Unless the person you are chatting up at the office soiree is a personal friend, Dieken says it’s best to stay away from taboo topics such as medical, money or marital problems.

Have an exit strategy. If you’re stuck in a conversation going nowhere, Dieken suggests keeping a few handy one-liners lined up that can extricate you efficiently and politely. If you find yourself trapped, use one of these exit lines:

  • “I’ll let you go now so you can continue circulating around the room.”
  • “I’ll stop monopolizing your time so you can meet other people.”
  • “It was great meeting you. I’ll follow up with you on X next week.”

Be on the lookout for boredom cues. Business holiday parties by their nature are flirty affairs. Guests usually flit from person to person, the way a bee flows to different flowers. Stay aware of how much time you’ve spent talking with a particular individual, and be on the lookout for signals that your  conversation  partner is ready to move on, such as looking away, not contributing to the conversation or giving one-line answers to your questions.

Plan your conversation starters. Dieken says that, in general, commonly relatable topics — such as the weather, sports, movies, music, children and food — all make good small-talk openers.

Ask open-ended questions. Open-ended questions by their nature invite your fellow partygoer to go into detail, rather than give you a short, one-sentence answer. They usually begin with words such as how, why, what, who, which, when and where. Examples of good open-ended party phrases include:

  • “Where are you planning on spending the holidays?”
  • “How do you know the host?”
  • “What are your holiday plans?”

If the thought of having to make mini-conversations this holiday season makes you break out in a cold sweat, calm down, come up with a few conversation starters and work the room like a pro.

Share your office party small talk tips below.

6 Responses to “Score With Small Talk At the Holiday Office Party”

  1. As a non-Christian non-Jew I I always get uncomforatable with the questions about my plans for the holiday. It’s similar to the question “Have you put up your tree yet?”. And what do I say when someone wishes me Merry Christmas? I get Happy Holidays might work and let the person know I plan on catching up on my reading over the “forced” vacation.

    @Sandy Jones, isn’t the whole point of the pary not to talk shop?

  2. A new favorite opener of mine is, “What are you working on these days?” because sometimes we have no clue what some of our co-workers are doing, and if you’re at a trade industry event it opens up lots of great conversations about anything from vacation planning for Italy to allowing someone to share that they’re working hard on finding a new job. And, because I’m a believer in the pay-it-forward (PIF) style of networking, my favorite follow-up after they respons is usually, “So, do you need any help with any of that?”

  3. As an european I like to go down the Lord John Marbury (West Wing) route.
    When asked about my plans for the holiday, I usually reply with the truth –

    “Oh you know the usual, get drunk, try and jump the wife, failing that there’s always her sister”

    I find it really works.
    Keeps the party bores at a safe distance so that I can work on bedding one of the waitresses.

    You should try it.

  4. Best advice I ever received on cocktail party small talk is to ask questions. People love talking about themselves, and will use your question as an invitation to do so. They’ll remember that you asked, and that you cared about their response. Great way to make a good first impression.