When involved in a group conversation, how do you conduct yourself stylishly through topics you may not be knowledgeable about?

Say I’m at a party or a dinner and I happen to be sitting with a group of disparate people, only some of whom I may know. The topic of conversation may just veer to subjects I may not be knowledgeable about—say art or politics. How can one best work around conversations where they don’t have much to contribute? How does one manage to stay ‘included’ and conduct one’s self styl­ishly without revealing any lack of know-how or making any faux pas?

I know what you mean; nobody would like to get labeled as a dimwit. I cannot but stress enough the importance of communication, whether verbal or non-verbal. Each time you open your mouth, you reveal something about yourself to someone else not just in what you say, but how you say it! A good conversationalist is not one who chatters endlessly or one who pretends to know it all either. Developing effective communication skills would therefore be of primary importance to get you through sticky moments.

Here are a few tips:
First and foremost, your body language should convey confidence. Don’t slouch—keep your head up, shoulders back and sit up straight and tall.

Look directly at the person who is speaking, with spon­taneous and undivided attention; the person who looks happy to see you, who is seemingly enthralled with your conversation is generally good company. Always nod in understanding, even if what is being said is double Dutch to you.

Listen intently without interrupting when a person is speaking, storing all information in the far recesses of your mind for future use. Remember that ‘the sympathetic (not apathetic) listener is the delight of delights’.

Don’t pretend to know more than you do. If you do, but don’t appear to have any understanding or further knowl­edge of the subject, you will you look extremely foolish. ‘Only the very small mind hesitates to say “I don’t know”.’ Besides, when in doubt, silence is golden; chattering inanely will merely reveal a shallow mind.

If ignorant about the current topic of conversation, wait for a lull in the conversation and subtly steer the conver­sation to areas of interest to you.

Contrary to popular belief, ignorance is never bliss.

Though you are not expected to be a walking encyclo­pedia, knowledge is wealth! Read voraciously, especially about art, literature, culture and music. Brush up on cur­rent events.

Introduce your self to the unknown and converse with the person on either side of you. Skillfully manipulate the conversation towards mutually interesting topics. Test a few, until you hit on one which gets you an animated response. Asking a new acquaintance a work related question is a good ‘ice-breaker’. In India, cricket is a sure winner.

Speak softly, clearly and sincerely. Make your self heard without shouting, interrupting, talking over others or being hurtful.

Society is meant to be a pleasant place; being confron­tational or aggressive with people does not make for pleasant company. Politics and religion are taboo topics. Moreover, it is terribly rude to ask personal questions or make personal comments. Those that keep the conversa­tion impersonal, light and happy are normally popular company.

Hogging the conversation, whining or bragging will earn you the tag of a ‘pest’ or a ‘bore’. Besides, preaching should only be done from the pulpit.

Relax. Tension resulting from the feeling of ineptitude or inadequacy can cause a mental block, or even provoke useless chatter. It would be worth remembering that those waxing eloquent may not be Einstein clones.

The first, last and only rule really is to stop and think be­fore you speak! If you “stop” you can’t chatter or expound or flounder ceaselessly, and if you think, you will make conversation that is interesting to your company rather than long-suffering.

I rest my case with this anecdote I heard in passing: An elderly man, in an effort to be communicable, once told a new acquaintance, “Twenty years ago you were the pret­tiest woman in town!” How is that for tact!?

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