An excerpt from Etiquette: Charlotte Ford’s
Beginning A Conversation
There are a lucky few who can walk into a roomful of strangers and effortlessly chat with one person after another, delighting everyone they meet with their lighthearted and amusing conversation. Those people are an enigma to most of us. When asked, “How do you do it?” they are for once left speechless. “Do what?” is their genuine reply. Easy conversation is so natural to them that it remains as undefinable as any other talent. Those who aren’t so blessed might do well to keep on hand some conversational openers that, though they seem contrived or trite, serve their purpose and get a conversation started.
It is commonplace today to open a conversation with the question “What do you do?” This approach may be perceived as too direct for most of us; a more gracious way to begin might be “I work in the clothing industry. We are really beginning to notice the changes in interest rates. Do they affect your business?” In the past, when people spent their lives in the same community, the question “Who are you?” precipitated the answer, “I’m a Greenwald” or “I’m a Meeker.” This simple answer revealed a whole history. Today, most of us settle down in new communities once we are adults. And this has opened the way for judging each other as individuals with specific interests. Learning about these interests-mountain climbing, the PTA, or professional concerns-is the contemporary way to start an acquaintance.
Another icebreaker: compliment the person on something he or she is wearing. Follow up your remark with a comment on current fashion, pro or con- what you’d like to see come back into style or go out of style. A comment relating to any consumer subject is always effective. No matter whom you’re talking to-the president of a corporation or an aspiring assistant-everyone has to live with utility companies, car repairs, and food prices, and I haven’t yet met anyone who hesitated to share his own story.
A Conversation with Someone Older
It’s unfortunate that in our culture a large social gap exists between the very young and the very old. Younger people often find it difficult to converse with someone generations removed from them; they may be uncertain how to initiate a conversation or they may fear that an older person will not be interested in what they have to say. Because extended families are virtually nonexistent in the United States today, and children no longer live in close communities with their grandparents, aunts, and uncles, young people may be unaccustomed to spending time with people in their seventies and eighties.
Older people, simply because of their seniority, should be accorded special consideration: one who is younger must make every effort to be courteous and at the same time must be careful not to become patronizing while merely trying to be respectful. To begin a conversation, you might ask about grandchildren, where the person is living, interests, and hobbies. Once a conversation gets going, an older person loves nothing more than to relay anecdotes from his life ( more often than not a younger person will find himself fascinated). In addition, a younger person should remember to speak clearly and audibly in case the older person has trouble hearing.
When you are introduced to someone who is older, stand to shake hands. A young woman who may prefer to remain seated when introduced to a slightly older man would rise when introduced to a much older man, much as she would stand aside and let an older man go through a door or into an elevator before she does.
@Etiquette: Charlotte Ford’s Guide To Modern Manners
1988, Clarkson N. Potter, Inc. / Publishers.
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