More thoughts about small talk for social occasions

The basics always stand you in good stead.  Always say please and thank you.  Give praise to other people, but don’t overdo it.  Encourage other people.  Never laugh at anybody.  Do not be a snob.  Don’t discuss brand names or the cost of things.  Be broad minded—other people are not required to like the things you like, and your liking something does not make it high class.  Move outside your social group to include others.

Never draw attention to yourself.  Don’t even think about yourself.  Your focus should be on other people.  Let them lead the conversation.  Even if you’re not particularly interested in what they have to say, try to give them a chance.  You may learn something new or be exposed to a new idea.  But on the other hand, you’re not required to torture yourself.  If you really can’t stand listening to them anymore, say “I think I see a friend I haven’t greeted yet”, and leave.

If the conversation veers into territory of disagreement, and the subject is very important to you, be direct and firm and kind—not wishy washy—and express your differing opinion, using a softening phrase such as “It seems to me that…”, or “In my experience…”  And if you find yourself not seeing eye to eye, don’t make assumptions about the other person’s motivations, native intelligence, sanity, past experience, etc.

Be gracious and kind when other people make mistakes.  Don’t take offence—if someone has outright insulted you, you can gently correct them with a phrase like “That wasn’t a nice thing to say.”  If they continue to insist they are right, leave (see above phrase for moving on to a new person).

If other people make mistakes pretend not to see.  If it’s huge, like falling down or breaking something, intervene in the least obtrusive way possible.  If somebody else has already rescued the person, back off.  They’re probably humiliated, and the kindest thing you can do is pretend you didn’t see.

Before you leave, say your goodbyes to your host.

Remember to thank them the next day for inviting you.


How to converse elegantly

This post is about conversation at parties and social occasions where there may be a mix of people you know and people you don’t know.

First, of all, arrive on time, or a little early.  Racing to your rendezvous, out of breath and flustered, is a good way to make sure you say something ridiculous to try to cover being out of breath and flustered.

Make your greetings to your host first, then your friends, then make your greetings to the people you don’t know yet.

Good small talk topics—family, work, travel, news (we have an all-news radio station where I live, and I’ll listen to it as I get ready to go out, to gather ideas for topics to talk about), hobbies, weather, your hometown, arts and entertainment.  Celebrity gossip and sports are two good fall-back ideas, although not my favorite.

But the key here is small talk.  When I advise you to talk about your family, I mean the cute thing your child said today, or the time your grandfather met Elvis in the check-out line at the supermarket.  Do not discuss your father’s alcoholism and your mother’s affair.  When you talk about the news, discuss the new art museum exhibit, or the new playground that’s supposed to be built down the street from you. Don’t discuss the controversial new legislation that’s dividing our country and how sure you are this will hammer the final nail in the coffin of democracy.  Keep it light, keep it friendly.

(On a sidebar note, make sure you do have friends you can talk to about the deep, heavy and controversial.  I have a dear friend who thinks the same was as me politically, and we have a grand old time deploring how everything is going to Hell in a hand-basket and how we could fix everything if they’d just put us in charge.  We discuss this over cup after cup of cheap coffee.  Good times.)

Treat everybody as important.  Because they are.  Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.


Never interrupt.  If you forget this rule in a moment of fluster, apologize immediately, encourage the other person to complete their thought, and make sure you respond to what they tell you.


And about apologizing—women over apologize.  We want to smooth things over, and make it right, make these uncomfortable feelings in our tummy go away.  We fear the other person will remember us as “that insensitive jerk”.  And we over analyze (“they said we were good, but maybe they were lying!!!”).


Here’s a piece of advice from Ma Ingalls of Little House on the Prairie:  Least said, soonest mended.  If you make a mistake, apologize right away.  Once you have their forgiveness (and people will generally forgive a faux pas if your apology is sincere), let it go.  Let the conversation progress, and don’t think about it any more.  They won’t hate you forever.


Be sensitive to the feelings of others.  If they seem embarrassed or uncomfortable, change the subject

…and how close are you, actually?

This post continues on the topic of figuring out who your friends and loved ones really are.  After all, if you are planning out your elegant entertainments, you need to know who the guest list is!

There is a cold-blooded streak in this update, and I won’t apologize for it.  Life is short, there simply isn’t time to do everything you want, and you need to make decisions about how you spend your time and whom you spend it with.

Husband and children are your first priority.  Your children rely on you, and the best thing you can do for them is to make the effort to build a strong family life.

Next come your parents and siblings, followed by other relatives.

Here is the point where I expect to hear “but my relatives are completely nuts”.  I understand all about family dysfunction, truly (in fact, that deserves it’s own separate blog).  But except for the cases of abuse, where you are in danger, or where you have to maintain a distance from them so as not to backslide into helplessness and craziness, I recommend keeping some contact with your extended family.

Next are your friends.  How do you decide who to keep contact with and when?  If you did the exercise in the previous post, you already have an idea of who your true friends are.  Here are some more questions to ask yourself.

Who are my oldest friends?  Who knows my deep, dark secrets?  Which people am I comfortable with knowing my deep dark secrets?

Who lives close enough to call for an impromptu lunch or movie date?

Who lives so far away that two or three times a year is a more realistic goal?

Who has kids close to your kids’ ages?

Who has a work schedule compatible with yours?  (I have a close friend who lives far away and for about a year, we worked the same weekends.  For about a year, we kept in contact through phone and email.  She changed jobs and we were able to see each other again face to face)

My problem-solving skills are based on writing the problem out in all it’s aspects, then I can figure out a solution.  I was thinking about this issue of friendship a couple months ago, and came up with…the sliding scale of stranger-to-friends.  Relatives are not on this list, because friendship is a voluntary choice, although you could probably put your family on this scale.


Level 1            I don’t know you

Level 2            I know your name (first name only or Mr. Last Name counts)

Level 3            Acquaintances (from school, church, work,)

Level 4            Business contacts, patients, clients

Level 5            Friendly acquaintances I talk to at a third party sponsored event, but we don’t hang out alone (they might even be a former friend but one of us has moved on in an amiable manner—no rancor)

Level 6            Favor friends (people who are trustworthy and you have a mutual dependence, but you’re not close yet, such as members of your car pool)


* To move up to the next level, conversation with them is not a chore—you get together socially with them—you confide in them*


Level 7            Friends I socialize with and prayer partners

Level 8            Bosom friends (they know my whole life story) and older mentor types

Level 9            Best same-sex Friend

Level 10            Spouse


Just some things to think about.

A former co-worker had an interesting philosophy about making new friends.  She loved to take enrichment classes, and the first day of class she would sit towards the back of class, watch quietly and ask herself “who do I want to be friends with in this class?”  Then she would act on it, organizing going out for drinks afterword, etc.  She had a very wide circle of friends.


Who are your friends, actually?

Most of elegant living involves how we interact with other people.  Sure, you can be elegant all by yourself.  You can live the life of a recluse, still enjoy your china and crystal and music and art, but most of us aren’t ready for the hermit life.  Most of us wouldn’t want it.

When I joined Facebook back in ’09, I realized just how many people I was actually connected to, and although they were all under the label of “friend”, in actual fact, they ran the gamut from my beloved husband to people in my acting network who I haven’t even met yet!  It got me thinking who we call “friend”, and how they actually fit into our lives.

This exercize is a preliminary step to organizing your social life.  Everybody has relatives, school friends, work friends and/or neighbors.  But you can’t rely on every friend for every need.  The neighbor you wave a friendly “hello” to from your driveway in the morning is not in the same category as the friend you giggle and share secrets with.

Ask yourself these questions–Who is your…

Foul weather friend:  Who do you lean on when you have a tragedy in your life?  Who do you feel comfortable sharing the details of your divorce, your job loss, your miscarriage?

Energizer bunny:  Who do you call when life has lost it’s sparkle and you need a self-confidence boost?  Who is your cheerleader?  Who makes you smile for no apparent reason?

Playmate:  Who do you call when you want to go out on the town and try something new and different?  Who shares your geeky interests?  Who likes the music and jokes you like?

911:  Who did you call when you went into labor with your last child but needed babysitting for your other kids?  Who can pick your kid up from the bus stop if you get held up at work?  Who can care for your dog when you get called out of town for a family crisis?  This will probably be somebody who lives in your neighborhood.

Spiritual adviser:  Who shares your beliefs and can talk with you about the search for the ultimate Truth?

Work Buddy:  Who do you sit with in the lunchroom during break?  Who do you trust not to blab your whole life to the entire corporation?  Related:  High school buddy, college buddy

Friend-in-law:  These are the people you became friends with through your family—your spouse’s friends, the parents of your children’s friends.

Naturally, there will be overlap in some of these categories, but it gives you a good sense of the people in your life.  It may also point out areas where you need to strengthen your existing relationships.




Physical Grace

Haven’t been online in quite a while–I was fortunate enough to get a minor acting gig, and there was a lot of memorization involved.

As I’ve mentioned before, I love watching old movies, I love how graceful all the actresses were in the “olden” days.  Of course, part of the acting curriculum involved rather stylized ways of moving and speaking, but it was still lovely (and they were still able to communicate emotional truth).  So I wanted to post about lovely gestures.

Physical grace begins with posture.  Ballerinas are trained to stand straight (imagine a string pulling you from the head to the ceiling), bottom tucked under and belly button pulled in and up.  Keep your arms and elbows close to your side.  Carry your own weight, don’t lean against walls and counters or use your shopping cart like a walker for impaired mobility.  Walk with energy, don’t shuffle.    Hold your head up high, don’t rest your head on your hands.  If you drop something on the floor, bend from the knees to pick it up, not from the waist.  Keep your knees together when you sit.

Grace also seems to consist of not touching yourself in public.  Don’t nibble on your lip.  Don’t lick your lips or your teeth nervously.

When you dress in the morning, check your appearance before you leave—make sure you don’t have bra straps showing, etc.  Then, forget about your appearance—it’s time to focus on other people and other things.  Don’t touch your clothes or your hair or check your appearance in public.  After lunch or after dinner, you can excuse yourself to the ladies room for inspection and touch-ups.  The only maintenance you may do in public is to reapply lipstick.

Keep your hands off yourself in public.  Don’t pick scabs, don’t pick pimples, don’t pick cuticles don’t bite your nails, don’t fold your arms (this comes across as closed and unfriendly).

Touch others gently.  I was attending a 4h function a few months ago where some of the members brought their animals to display and to teach about pet care.  A mother came and brought her preschool aged children to pet the animals—all three of her children had been taught the two-finger touch for petting small animals and patted the rabbits and guinea pigs gently—no grabbing, no squeezing.  It was wonderful to see.

Staring into space is ungraceful, especially if your mouth is hanging open at the same time.  Remain focused on the person or task at hand.  Be mindful and present-moment oriented

Speak as softly as possible to be heard.  If you are given coffee or tea in a cup with a spoon, learn to stir the drink without clanking against the walls of the cup.  When you eat, bring the food to your mouth, don’t crouch over the plate.

Clap softly if you are in a small group.

And remember to speak softly without nasal or straining, avoid slang and use proper grammar.


Taking the stairs

Walking upstairs

First, of all, you are in no rush.  Stand up straight, bottom tucked under, and keeping the weight on your supporting leg, place the entire sole of your foot on the stair in front of you.  Then shift your weight to that leg.  Watch where you are going, eyes up and in front.  Move slowly.

Walking downstairs

Hold the banister, and use the balls of your feet.  Don’t rush, and make sure you have your balance before attempting the next step.  Keep your toes pointed forward.

Incidentally, I haven’t been able to learn to walk downstairs quietly in strapless mules yet.  When I figure out the trick, I’ll share it.

How to walk

I got a new way to walk

And it makes my spirit shine

–Joe Raposo/Mark Paul Saltzman

The most elegant women I’ve ever seen are royalty.  Think of Princess Diana or Kate Middleton—do you see footage of them them rushing around, looking flustered when attending to all their public duties?  Ha!

Of course it’s easy to be elegant when you have lots of money for gorgeous clothes and servants to clean your toilet and rock your babies and so much fame and influence that people fall over themselves to wait on you.  But that’s why I’m writing this blog—because I think elegance is accessible to everyday women.

But back to the princesses, and back to the basics.  See how they walk.  Back straight, chin level to the floor.  They walk slowly because they know they can—they own the event.  Also, walking slowly gives them time to make eye contact with as many people as possible, and that’s so endearing to the crowd who took time out of their busy schedule to see them.


Walk a straight line, with your shoulders back and down.  Be conscious of your destination—if you know where you are supposed to end up, you’ll walk in a straight line to get there.

As an aside, one of my favorite models for the “shoulders back and down” posture is Carolyn Jones, who played Morticia Addams in “The Addams Family”.  Her posture was exaggerated, of course, to go with the over-the-top character she was portraying, but it gives you an idea to shoot for—she never slouched or hunched.

It’s a cliché, but practicing walking with a book on your head really works—not only does it keep your chin in the right alignment, it forces you to slow down, glide and not clomp.

Princesses own the room—they own their own space and they don’t mince or try to be unobtrusive.  They know they have as much right to be there as anybody else.  You have as much right to be there as anybody else.

Actual gait depends on what shoes you’re wearing.  The heel-ball-toe method is for flat shoes.  High heel shoes require a heel-ball/toe motion, where the ball and toe hit at approximately the same time.  Think ballerina, straighten your spine by imagining a string attached to the top of your head pulling you up to the ceiling.  Use a longer stride with high heels.

One foot should land directly in front of the other.  This is the way models walk, and it is a flirty effect.

I’m personally a barefoot girl, but I need to wear heels when I audition, so I’ve been practicing with my high-heeled shoes to become more graceful.  My biggest problem is with “clomping” in heels—I’m experimenting with ways to walk more quietly.