This story is part of How to Talk to Anyone, Forge’s guide to moving past the chitchat and truly connecting.
It’s all about the first five minutes. This conversation is going to go a lot more smoothly if you treat your second cousin Jenna’s boyfriend as the most important person in the world for exactly that length of time. It’s long enough to take small talk to medium talk (holiday gatherings are festivals of medium talk), but not long enough to exhaust either you or Jenna’s boyfriend (it’s Kyle, right?).
Because, pace yourself. Holiday gatherings are marathons. They are rooms full of people you must talk to but aren’t necessarily equipped to talk to and maybe don’t even want to talk to. “How are you?” won’t get you far.
Awkwardness is a guarantee. And moving past it is going to require more than just warmth and cheer (and spiked punch). It’s going to require curiosity about whoever you encounter: your political opposite, the person four times your age, the painfully shy college student, that seven-year-old over there who has stared at you for easily 10 minutes straight. Easily.
These principles work anywhere: on a plane, at the grocery store checkout, in a waiting room. But they are crucial around the holidays, where you find yourself mingling with a group of people who would never otherwise end up at a party together.
It might help to approach the task like an interview. At first, your conversational partner should feel like a subject. Something to understand, to investigate. Put them in the spotlight and give them the space to spool out their own narrative.
You don’t have to be a particularly rigorous interviewer. Ask a question, and only follow up if they seem eager to keep going. Relate an anecdote about your own life for every two you draw out of them. Let any harmless mistruths slide by without comment. If you get stuck, triangulate! What is the deal with that painting over there, anyway?
Your job is to move past what you see in front of you: clothing, age, festive sweater, Manischewitz overconsumption. Don’t get hung up on those things, but don’t ignore them, either. They’re often clues to something way more interesting.
Those are the basics. Forge’s How to Talk to Anyone guide has more advanced advice for the toughest conversational challenges:
- Is the person shy? Jessica Pan says it’s all about commitment — you’re going to have to make the first move. The good news is that shy people often just need help with the first stage. They’ll take it from there.
- Has the person recently dealt with a difficult life event? A scary medical situation, maybe? Drew Magary, who has a lot of recent experience with scary medical situations, says you should fight the impulse to give advice. Instead, take your conversational cues from them.
- Does the person not know many people? When faced with a “rando,” Duncan Birmingham says your job is to be the conduit. Your conversation should create other conversations.
- Is the person six years old? Eight? Twelve? Two? Michelle Woo advises treating their ideas and interests with the same respect you would an adult’s.
- Is the person a teenager? Zachary Maxwell, a high school senior, acknowledges that his cohort are notoriously bad at talking with their mouths. But, he points out, adults can ask some truly terrible questions.
- Is the person your dad? Tom Chiarella says that the way to navigate the sometimes treacherous landscape of the parent-child relationship is to understand that a parent is so much more than what they are to you. (Tom gave us the interviewer idea.)
- Is the person much older than you? Sara Davidson says to keep in mind that everyone has an interior age that doesn’t match their chronological age and that the older person may actually be younger than you.
- Does the person have opinions you can’t stand? Whether the topic at hand is politics, religion, or Succession, Saul Austerlitz wants you to remember that you’re not going to convert anyone over the creamed corn.
- Have you not seen this person in a long time because of an estrangement? Keep the expectations low, Harriet Brown says, and don’t relitigate old wrongs.
And whoever you’re talking to, get past those first five minutes and things will get easier. The roles will reverse. Reciprocation will occur. And you’ll have become important to Jenna’s boyfriend (Kyle!) — if not the most important person in the world, at least the most important person in the room. Because you tried.
And then you can stop trying. Anyway, can I get you some nog?