Don't sweat the small talk — remember, it's all small talk

CAUTION: There is basically nothing in this column about Christmas or other holidays. Maybe you'll find that refreshing. I don't know.

It used to be very hard for me to remember people's names. Only yesterday did I straighten out the difference between Brian Eno and Brian Wilson. And people I met didn't fare much better. I called them "Scott" or "Julia" or "Matt" because they seemed like Scotts or Julias, which didn't work out well.

But when I try, when I work at it, I can remember names pretty well. I have remembered the names of 19 strangers after spending a day with them.

And, similarly, I have to work at making conversation with strangers. I think few people are naturally good at this. A close friend of mine who I'll call Peter absolutely hates talking to strangers. Small talk seems a pointless minefield, so he avoids going to parties if he doesn't already know most of the guests.

Peter finds it hard to make conversation with people who do not already share his specific interests (programming computers, science fiction). And he doesn't see the goal of small talk anyway, and doesn't feel a burning need to make more friends and acquaintances.

To start with: It is easier to see the point of something when you can do it minimally well. So here are the simple tips on talking to strangers at parties.

First: Don't be afraid. Most people are friendly, or at least civil, and simply do not want to be bored. If the conversation turns unpleasant, you can pretend to see someone out of the corner of your eye, and say, "Please excuse me a moment!" and disappear.

Now: How do you start? It is completely fine to start with one of those boring, rote questions, like, "What do you do?" The beginning of the conversation has to include a little artifice, a little conceit to get the juice flowing. The standards (what's your major, where do you work, where do you live) are not simply status signifiers; they are paths to fruitful conversation gardens.

For example, if you ask, "How do you know the host?" then the other person has a chance to tell stories about your mutual acquaintance. If the other guest asks, "Do you live around here?" then you two have a chance to discuss the restaurants you like, and the traffic, which could lead to a mention of where you work, and the challenges your respective industries are facing, and oh, look! You've made a new acquaintance.

You're planting seeds, not just tossing words into a black hole. The people you meet may turn into employees, employers, video game partners or friends. And the next time you see them at a party, they won't be strangers anymore.

Another tip: Bring business cards. It seems silly, but it's the easiest way to give your contact info to someone. It's OK to offer your card even if you're not absolutely sure your new acquaintance wants to stay in touch. What's the worst that can happen? He'll throw it away afterwards, but he'll take it to be polite.

I've mentioned a couple times now that you can count on other people to be reasonably civil. The burden is not all on you to ask questions and find the topic interesting. This is one of the nice things about hanging out with other people: they keep things going if you mess up or add a flavor or detail you hadn't thought of.

And it's OK to cut your losses short when you run into the odd jerk. It's all right to disengage politely if someone's hitting on you or insulting your religion or not being a good partner in the conversational dance. That's what "excuse me" means. And just knowing that you have the power to end the conversation whenever you want can free you to explore it.

One more thing: It's fine to forget people's names. Almost everyone forgets the names of people they've just met. You've probably heard of mnemonic tricks with rhymes and associations, but here's the easiest method: Just repeat the name and use it in the conversation. And if you've forgotten, just ask again and apologize that you've forgotten. The sitcoms lie; unless you've conversed with someone three or four times, people understand.

Once you have the basics of fun small talk down, you can charm the socks off people with your name recall and gossip and wit. But just sharing stories and connections is enough to while away a pleasant hour by the punch bowl.

You can reach columnist Sumana Harihareswara at