How to be a conversational sparkler at all your summer parties

You've got on a killer dress and your best blingy cocktail ring, but when your host greets you at her fourth of July party cookout, you are suddenly seized with panic; not even your chignon can save you. Take a deep breath, remember that everyone feels a little self-conscious at these things sometimes, and then follow some of these tips.

This is the easiest social boon in the world, and one that always works. People feel comfortable talking to someone who is friendly, and a smile with warm eye contact is a wonderfully effective non-verbal opener.

Be General...Or Specific.

Once you've made initial contact with the person you want to talk with through an introduction from your host or just a smile, it's time to start chatting. General topics like the cocktails the host is serving or the weather always get people talking, though they may not lead to the most scintillating talk. Once you feel comfortable, get specific by asking how you each know the host, or compliment a wonderful haircut or sharp pair of shoes. A genuine compliment can establish an instant connection between strangers.

Don't Dominate.
We've all been trapped in a conversation with a long-winded bore who rhapsodizes about his last fishing trip or the intricacies of his workplace dynamics. You can avoid being a dolt by engaging in an even exchange--remember to ask questions, and keep your answers brief while still giving your conversational partner enough to work with. As Shakespeare wrote, "Brevity is the soul of wit."

Ask questions.

Here's a widely agreed on rule of thumb when dealing with strangers: people love talking about themselves. Think of this as your recovery zone--a way for you to store up reserves for your next burst of witty repartee. More likely, though, the speaker with reveal things about herself that will open up more conversational avenues for you to explore.

Keep the Conversation "In the Drawing Room."
This is a tidbit from Emily Post's 1922 volume on etiquette which still rings true. Discussions of bowel movements, personal misfortune, illness, psychotherapy, or childhood grievances have no place in the chatter of a cocktail party or backyard barbecue. This, perhaps, may seem obvious, but sometimes in an effort to be shocking, provocative, or to promote instant intimacy with a stranger we venture into verboten conversation topics. Don't go there. Staving off that third cocktail may be an aid in this matter.

Keep it Fun!
Who wants to go to a party to talk about work? This is, in the words of one very amusing conversationalist I know, pure laziness. Ask people if they've seen the movie everyone's talking about, if they know a story about the host you've never heard, or what websites they go to every day. Remember: this is a party. Keep it light, keep smiling, and you may even surprise yourself by having fun.

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