The Fine Art Conversation

The Fine Art of Conversation


These days we communicate more with typing fingers than spoken words, and as a result, may need to brush up on face-to-face engagement — without a digital device.

The Fine Art Conversation
Diego Schtutman / 123RF Photo

My darling Singularians, today we tackle a loathsome topic — successful shmoozing — with strangers. Studies show that people are more afraid of speaking in public then their own death (thereby making “the eulogy” one of God’s greatest jokes). And these days, a simple eye-to-eye conversation has gone the way of a hand-written “thank you” note — and texting, ROFLing, tweeting and apping has reduced “Hamlet” to “2B or not 2B.” Not only has the Internet hastened the end of communication as we now know it, our ability to decipher a non-emoticon emotion requires two counselors, eight BFFs, and four Google searches. As a result, perfectly intelligent people feel helpless facing each other with no online profile to palm-check.

Let’s look.


Dear Marnie: I’m a professional woman who works in finance. When it comes to numbers, I’m fine talking to clients. Same with texting because it’s strictly business. But in social situations, for example, at parties, I merge into the wallpaper. I mostly avoid them unless my boss insists I attend. I am 34 and still clueless about how to start a conversation. Any suggestions would be greatly (and desperately) appreciated. – Umming in Laguna

MARNIE SAYS: My poor dear ummer! Just as there’s “The Art of the Deal” so there’s the “Art of the Shmooze.” You have a mouth, so all we need is something to come out of it that doesn’t make you sound like Donald Duck on Benadryl.

Getting It! Your Personal Strategy:

* Some of us are born talking. I was. I came down that birth canal saying: “Whoa! Let’s not do that again!” which is no doubt why I consider tying my shoes an athletic event. Part of it is biological. (My bro didn’t say a word until he announced he was getting married.) For the most part, “ummers” were taught early on to doubt themselves. They heard things from parents/teachers/family such as: “What do YOU know?” “That’s ridiculous.” “People will laugh at you.” “You’re wrong.” So you learned that shutting up and shutting down is safer than risking feeling foolish.

* You were taught a lie. Say it. Write it. Yell it. Assuming it was your family that “telegraphed” this lie, they handed you their legacy — their own lack of verbal skills. You angel, are all grown up. You deal in mega-green (always fascinating), and you don’t hyperventilate like I do when in the presence of a tax form. I love you.


Keep intros simple. Trust me. “I’m Mary. Nice to meet you” beats any attempt to be vague or cutesy.

Notice and be specific. Here’s how. You see someone at the party wearing an antique pin you adore. In fact you’re into vintage/antique jewelry. Say so. Specifically. “I couldn’t help but notice that pin. Beautiful piece.” Done. You not only started a conversation, you slipped in how smart you are for noticing how trendy they are, and a friendship may be born.    

Mirror mirror. If you’re stuck in ummmerland, this is a no-brainer. The stranger’s wearing a golf shirt. “Ah, I see you’re wearing a golf shirt.” And smile. Your work is done. You’ve noticed. You’ve shown interest. Now your only problem may be to get him to shut up when the host shuts off the lights.

*Nervous? Practice. Enlist friends and family in your “noticing” strategy.

The principle behind these tricks is simple. Quit quaking over you and become a star by putting others in the spotlight.


Hi Marnie: I’m a divorced single guy, 45, and recently started dating. I can attract women, but the follow through is often a problem. I’ve been told it’s because I ask too many questions. At my age, I don’t want to waste time, so I believe it’s better to be upfront about what we’re both looking for early on. Obviously my approach isn’t working, so how do I get the information without coming on too strong? – Looking for Answers in L.A.

MARNIE SAYS: Darling, there’s a difference between “we both love Irish coffee” at Starbucks and the interrogation room at Quantico. This isn’t a job interview. Hitting some poor gal with a battery of questions is well, truly scary. The “but” here is … I agree with your motive. It’s your method that stinks.

Getting It! Your Personal Strategy:


— Don’t come on too strong. “Hi. Are you seriously looking for love or just playing games?” See it? That’s all you’ll see as she’ll be halfway to Utah. You want to break the ice – but not with a pick.

— Don’t get up close and personal too soon. Asking embarrassing personal questions about someone’s past, emotional state, problems and so forth assumes rights you don’t have.

— Don’t talk in clichés. Get interesting. The yada yada for example, “How did you make your first million?” to a software genius will put her in a coma. Go with the improbable. Hobbies for example. People adore talking about their Pez collections.

— *QUESTION methodology: Lose the word “Why?”

        Jane: “I enjoy swim meets.”

        YOU:  “Really? Why?”

        Jane: “Because, they’re terrifically fast and exciting.”

        YOU: “Why?”

        Jane: “Because … of the rules. Um … nice talking to you, I see a mushroom cap with my name on it.”

In more obvious terms, suppose you told a therapist: “I’m depressed” and she said: “Why?” Who wouldn’t think, “That’s why I’m here you idiot.” Generally “why” leads to “because” which leads to nowhere. It’s a closed-ended question. 

* Replace “why” with an invitation to tell a story. Here’s how. Simply say: “Tell me a little more about it? What was it like to …?” “What did you enjoy the most during …?” Each of these invites conversation by showing your interest.

Once you leave doors open most will not only walk through them, you’ll both be sharing without scaring. 

Copyright © Marnie Macauley / 2016 Singular Communications, LLC

Marnie Winston-MacauleyAdvice guru Marnie Winston-Macauley — therapist, author, speaker — has been a radio, TV, and syndicated advice columnist and counselor for over 20 years. Witty, wise and totally irreverent with a self-professed loathing for psychobabble, she’s written over 20 books and calendars, along with  hundreds of relationship columns and features for prominent publications.  She has her MS degree from the Columbia University School of Social Work.  In media, her work has garnered her Emmy and Writer’s Guild Best Writing nominations. She is widowed and now living single. For personal advice, you can also find Marnie Macauley on or on Presto Experts. She invites you to join her on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. 

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