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How to start conversations without offending/excluding anyone: Top tips from 4 decades of Very Polite Conversations across 4 continents

Back in September, I did a thread on Twitter that a lot of people found helpful about how to start conversations. It was prompted by a couple of senior female academics having been mistaken for guests or administrators, but I have had equally horrific conversations as a guest or administrator.

My worst experience of this was an excruciating exchange with someone who was clearly trying very hard and getting it really wrong. We were both sitting at a Cambridge High Table dinner. I was a PhD student (from another university). My partner had just given an invited talk. I was seated next to a charming young academic, who turned to me and said, “So, what do you do?” [Horrified pause as he realises this may have been insensitive] “Er… if indeed you do … er … do?” [Horrified pause as he realises he’d made it even worse.] Through our shared cringe, I had to smile, and say “Oh, I’m working on my PhD” and the conversation quickly, and with palpable relief, turned to academic chatter.

This may have been an experience you’ve had, from either side, or one you’d like to avoid. Either way, here is the advice!

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Image of coffee cup in foreground and blurry people standing around in groups in the background.

These are my top tips from four decades of Very Polite Conversations across 4 continents. Works for diplomatic shindigs, university drinks, church jam sales and your friend’s BBQ.

This advice promises: No need to guess. No awkward silences. No faux pas. It works for countesses, small children, vice chancellors, stay-at-home mums, barristers, baristas, doctors, retired folk, bishops, other people’s aunts etc etc. (Yes, I have used it on all of these people.) Try it.

 To start:
‘Hi! I’m (introduce self). I don’t think we’ve met.’ Change delivery depending on how sure you are!
Pause, let them introduce themselves.
Choose either: ‘How do you fit into what’s going on here?’ (less formal)
or ‘What’s your role in today’s proceedings?’ (more formal)

Next ask them about their day/find out their job etc.
‘What’s been keeping you busy recently?’
or ‘What have you been up to today?’
They can then chose how to describe themselves and what they want to talk about. They can tell you about their job, but also their kids, their hobbies etc. This avoids so much ‘I’m not working right now’ awkwardness.

Take the conversation deeper.
Either: ‘How interesting. Tell me more.’ (Good if you feel like listening)
or: ‘I know what you mean! [Share equal-length anecdote about yourself in the same vein].’ (If you feel like talking).
Repeat ad infinitum.

Sometimes the person doesn’t want to talk. Maybe they are busy, or hate small talk, or are trying to talk to someone else etc etc. Don’t worry about it, that’s on them.
If they aren’t responding:
Smile, turn to the next person, and start again from the top.

Sometimes you want to escape from a terrible conversation:
Smile, say, ‘Well it was great talking to you.’
Turn to the next person and start again from the top.

If the terrible conversationer tries to come along:
Introduce them into the new conversation.
Wait for a sentence or two.
Smile, say ‘Well, it was great talking to you both.’
Turn to the next person and start again from the top.

***
And there you have it.

I’m not necessarily going to promise you’ll have FUN or even that you will have great conversations, just that it will reduce awkward offensiveness. And considering how many horrible conversations there are, this is a diminution devoutly to be wished. It might feel awkward the first time, but you were having an awkward conversation anyway.

Lots of people said they were going to try this out. Let me know how it went for you!

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