Holiday season is winding down. Which means holiday party season is coming to a close. So while the influx of free food and booze is slowing, the season of uncomfortable small talk is drawing to an end as well. The small talk season lasts from Thanksgiving Eve through New Year’s Eve (the same period during which Christmas decorations and music are tasteful). It includes interactions with relatives, high school acquaintances, high school acquaintances’ relatives, cousins’ new boyfriends, best friends’ new girlfriends, and more.
Obviously, you can’t talk about politics or religion. Those topics are bound to incite some sort of animosity in someone. But with vegetarian and vegan lifestyles taking on more prominent political significance, food may also be off limits as a discussion topic. Under the umbrella of the very general heading of “food” fall the subtopics of cooking, baking, restaurants, and bars. Speaking of bars, alcohol can bring up touchy issues of addiction and substance abuse. Better steer clear of that. In fact, stay away from childhood in general unless you’re willing to unearth some sort of repressed trauma. Education, even in one’s adult life, can take on nasty classist undertones. Don’t even think about opening that can of worms. Plus, you don’t want to cause any friction by bringing up sports, music, or film (all potential minefields).
Traditionally, this leaves only the scant categories of weather and widely accepted scientific phenomena as appropriate fodder for discussion with strangers. Certainly, though, there must be a broader spectrum of acceptable material. Fortunately, there is. If you’re looking to expand your palate of small talk over the coming year, try these no-fail conversation starters!
Paint is everywhere! It’s on houses and cars. It’s on toys and in artwork. Talk about it! What is your favorite way to apply paint? Which painters have the most sonorous names to hear spoken aloud? How long do you imagine it would take to watch a coat of paint dry? These are all perfectly acceptable questions for new friends and acquaintances. Do not bring up color or hue! That may inadvertently racialize the discussion, and race is as bad a conversation killer as politics.
While pogs were once numerous and nearly omnipresent, they are now seldom seen. What happened to all the pogs? When was the last time you remember seeing a pog? What is the origin of the word “pog?” Do you think “slammer” referred to the fact that our attentions were held in a prison by our fascination with pogs? Ah, pogs. Those little cardboard discs could hold the key to adding new members to your circle of friends.
Here’s a subject that can really unify people. Pretty much everyone is anti-garbage. And why wouldn’t they be? It smells bad. It’s dirty. Bugs and rodents feed on it. You are unlikely to rock the boat if you bring up garbage. Recycling is a different matter. Stay away from recycling. It’s a gateway to talking about cap-and-trade, renewable energy, and factory farming. And that brings us to food and politics, the twin bathing suit areas of conversation. Don’t touch them!
Birds! Nature’s kites! Who doesn’t enjoy a good bird? There are so many great birds out there. Puffins, macaws, swans, penguins, doves. “What’s your favorite bird?” can break the ice with a new friend very nicely. Unless that person is British. Then bird is slang for a woman. That verges on sexism, which verges on politics, and what have I told you about politics? If you meet a British person, ask instead: “What is your favorite mammal?” If the British person responds by winking and saying “Birds,” then you know he or she is sexist. Stop talking to that person.
From time to time, everyone needs to stick things to other things. Sometimes you even stick things to themselves. Where do you get your adhesives? That’s a fair question to ask. Ditto for: “Do you find double-sided tape efficient or cumbersome?” and “Where do you store your thumb tacks?” Don’t talk about glue. Glue is sometimes made from horses. Big red flag there. No non-bird animals should enter small talk. We’ve already covered this.
Most social interactions begin with a handshake. There are many different kinds. Not to mention secret handshakes, the shakes that dare not speak their names. Come up with a secret handshake with your new friend. Fist pounds and high-fives are fair game too. Go nuts!
So there you have it. Small talk for the modern age. Get out there and make friends instead of alienating them with dumb thoughts and opinions. Thank me later from your party-yacht.