Awkward conversations are rife during holiday parties, especially at Friendsgivings that include friends of friends or at holiday dinners with family you haven’t seen in years.
“It takes a lot of thought and effort to be a good conversationalist,” said Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert, author of “Modern Etiquette for a Better Life” and founder of the Protocol School of Texas.
“We learn at holiday parties that building relationships and strong communication skills must be honed and practiced,” she told HuffPost.
Ideally, to be prepared, you go in armed with a smattering of conversation starters: “How do you know the host?” “Stream any good TV shows lately?” “Let’s settle this: Is a hot dog a sandwich?”
But that’s factoring in only your side of the conversation. What do you do if someone asks you a prying personal question at Christmas dinner (“So when are you two going to get married?”) or they bring up a polarising topic you’d rather not debate over Little Smokies (“Do you believe a two-state solution is possible?” they say, mid-bite)?
For occasions like this, you need to master the swivel, a technique that experts say can help you avoid almost any incoming awkward conversation.
In 2019, HuffPost senior reporter Monica Torres wrote about how to “swivel” and change the subject during overly personal conversations at work:
“The formula for the swivel is elastic. You acknowledge what the person is saying, showing appreciation and empathy, and then use ‘and’ statements, or ‘while’ statements, or an implied ‘and,’ and then a new topic,” said Rebecca Nellis, the executive director at the Cancer and Careers National Conference.
The same swiveling technique can be employed during dicey holiday banter, said Jeanne Martinet, the author of “The Art of Mingling,” though she calls it “sidestepping.” (Other etiquette and communication experts prefer pivoting or bridging.)
“For example, if you have been out of work for a long time and your uncle asks you how your job search is going when you really don’t want to talk about it, you can say, ‘It’s coming along. But right now I am searching for some of those delicious-looking crab puffs I saw going by on a tray a minute ago! Have you had any?’”
To really reinforce your swivel, Martinet said you might follow quickly with, “What’s your favorite holiday food?”
If someone starts going on about a COVID vaccine conspiracy you’d rather not discuss, take the conversation in a more broad, less contentious direction.
“You can say, ‘I myself haven’t really seen any info on that, but speaking of health, can you believe how well Aunt Maria looks tonight? You would never believe she was 85 years old. It’s amazing,’” Martinet said.
Nick Leighton, an etiquette expert and host of the weekly etiquette podcast “Were You Raised By Wolves?” thinks work office parties are a great place to practice your swivel.
“Let’s say someone asks you, ‘Did you get your bonus yet?’ You can pivot with, ‘Oh, we’re off-duty… it’s a party! What exciting holiday plans do you have in store this year?’”
Just try to remember, he said, that the person you’re talking to is probably well-meaning; people often just have different ideas of what questions might be considered “too personal.”
“It’s best to start from the assumption that those nosy questions are coming from a place of genuine curiosity and interest and aren’t nefarious or malicious,” Leighton said.
What if you’re the person others have to use the swivel technique on?
This brings up an uncomfortable question: What if ― unbeknownst to you ― you’re a person who asks questions that others feel the need to pivot from?
“It’s a much better way to break the ice without risking awkwardness and an even better way to create a good back-and-forth,” she said.
In line with that, she recommends asking questions like:
- “Catch me up on your college search.”
- “What’s new with work since the last time we spoke?”
- “Bring me up to date on your life.”
- “So you two lovebirds, what has been going on for you since the last time we caught up?”
- “This cake is yummy. If you are up for sharing the recipe, let me know.”
“The worst time to come up with something to talk about is when there is nothing to talk about,” Fine said. Having ice breakers like these “helps you avoid any conversation killers.”
Don’t feel bad if you’re bad at small talk. Fine thinks that COVID isolation, spending too much time online and not spending enough time with others have made us all a little less polished and polite.
Plus, culturally we tend to downplay the importance of small talk; we look at it as silly or conversational fluff, when actually it serves an important purpose.
“Small talk is truly the appetiser for any relationship,” Fine said. “It’s an interaction where we lack control, though, so we’re crummy at it.”
In other types of interactions ― delivering a presentation, negotiating a sale or interviewing a job candidate, for instance ― we tend to have a semblance of control. With small talk, we have considerably less. It’s all about spontaneity and “hitting it off.”
“We have no control over that, though, which is why conversation skills and tools come in so handy for the interactions where ‘hitting it off’ does not happen organically,” Fine said.
As conversationalists, we need to prioritise the other person’s comfort, not our own. Having something in common is less important than wanting to learn more about the other person, Fine said.
“Yes, we long for commonality, but what we should long for is to learn about and from others,” she said. “Commonality is the bonus for peeling the layers to learn about others.”