The table is set, guests are around the table, and the food is coming out of the kitchen. That’s everything you need for the perfect holiday dinner, right? Think again. Don’t forget about the dinner conversation, which can easily turn an evening sour with a misspoken word. We turn to Jeanne Martinet again, author of The Art of Mingling (St. Martin’s Griffin), for some helpful tips on the most topical of conversation topics this season: navigating current events.
“Unlike like many conversational experts, I do not advise you to tear desperately through a lot of newspapers and magazines right before the party,” Martinet writes. “My feeling is that you’re either tuned into the world around you or you’re not.” Don’t worry, she advises, before outlining her fool-proof strategies when you find yourself in a scenario where the conversation has taken a turn towards a major event — say, a recent mudslide that’s dominated the news — and you find yourself at a loss, without a clue about the subject.
The Zeitgeist Heist
“The first step in the Zeitgeist Heist is listening — not just to the facts but to the feeling behind the facts,” explains Martinet. “You need to determine the issue or the theme of the conversation. Let’s say in the case of the major mudslide that after a minute of listening to the discussion, you are able to ascertain that the theme of the conversation is not the tragedy itself but the fact that they shouldn’t be allowed to build them. (Good: You’ve identified the conversational Zeitgeist.) Then, at a suitable moment, you offer a remark regarding a residential area you know about in Delaware where they are building homes too close to the ocean, and so have to keep replenishing the sand dunes lest the houses get washed away. In all likelihood, the conversation will grow from there and your ignorance will never be spotlighted. The Zeitgeist Heist differs from a traditional subject change technique because it is a way of joining in rather than distracting from — it’s about keeping in sync with the spirit of the discussion.”
This one is simple. “Throw yourself on the mercy of the court,” Martinet writes. “After the initial embarrassment, you may be able to catch up to everyone. They may even admire your courage in admitting you don’t know what’s going on.”
Proving Your Mettle
“Partially recover your equilibrium, perhaps your dignity, by proving you have some knowledge on another news story. This way people will think you may have a weird lapse in your cultural awareness, but you are not an idiot,” Martinet notes, adding the bonus of introducing a new topic to the group.
And then there’s the tricky subject of politics…. “We’ve all heard the old adage a million times,” writes Martinet. “Never talk politics or religion.” She notes that in Victorian days, there were really only two safe topics: the weather and your health. “Now even these once-benign areas are doorways to talking politics: the hot topic of global warming is a hop, skip and a jump from an innocent comment about how warm the weather has been recently, and a courteous inquiry about someone’s health can easily become a debate about the health care system.” But the author doesn’t recommend avoiding the subjects — “just don’t argue violently about politics and religion.” Here, her outline to keeping the conversation polite.
Know Your Own Boiling Point
“You have to be certain that you can recognize that moment when you are going to go over the edge into anger — a very hard thing to pinpoint when you are in the middle of talking about nuclear proliferation — and stop. It’s a bit like trying to stop drinking before you get drunk…. If you don’t think you can do this (or if all of your friends tell you you can’t) then go back to the original rule: Don’t talk politics.”
Test for Friend, Foe or Fanatic
“While it takes two to argue, I don’t know many people who can stay serene when confronted with a fanatic. These days a lot of people will fall into that category. To help you spot one before it’s too late, you should develop some test questions to administer to the person…. Keep a close watch on facial expression and body language; it can often tell you more than verbal response. The test lines below are just suggestions; this testing device, more than any other, requires your own personal touch.”
1. Did you happen to see the Huffington Post/Wall Street Journal today? (“If the person replies with a simple yes or no, they can be either liberal or conservative but probably not fanatically. If, however, the person answers something like, ‘I never read that piece of crap, ever,’ he is most likely an extremist.”)
2. I just bumped into someone who looked exactly like [name of current political figure].
3. I always wonder why blue is for Democrats and red is for Republicans.
Be a Diplomat
“Imagine that you’re a foreign diplomat at an international cocktail party. Try to remain impersonal and cool…. and don’t let your voice get any louder or faster than it would be if you were talking about glazed ham.”
Learn How to Defuse and Escape
“This is not beginning stuff. Once again, you have to want to stop. (Breathing deeply may help, as will moving to another place in the room, or getting somebody else to join both of you. Remember, change equals movement; movement equals change.)”