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20-40-60 Etiquette: Give them something to talk about

QUESTION: At a recent dinner party, I was seated by two people I did not know. I realize that the host created new opportunities to get acquainted, but it was hard to carry on the conversation. Any ideas on what I should have been talking about?

CALLIE’S ANSWER: People love to talk about themselves. Start there! Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school? How do you know the host? If the conversation goes dry just let some silence happen and start talking about yourself! Ha! Good luck!

LILLIE-BETH’S ANSWER: Just ask them questions about what they do, where they’re from, and then ask how they know the hosts. In turn you can tell them how you know them, too. Sometimes it is hard to carry on a conversation if the people you are talking to don’t lob it back to you, but just do the best you can to be interested in what others are doing. See if you can find common ground — familiar places you have visited or a common hobby and then discuss that, too.

HELEN’S ANSWER: This was a great opportunity to bring forth a reserve stash of questions such as “what do you do?” or “any summer plans?” Or you might have a discussion about the meal and cooking. Try not to leave anyone out of the conversation on either side, particularly if they don’t have anyone to talk to either. If it is hard to start a comfortable conversation, then listen around the table and jump in when you have something to say about the subject.

Your dinner partner has some responsibility also to help with the conversation, so maybe he/she will jump in with some interesting topics.

GUEST’S ANSWER: Christina Nihira, community leader: The situation that you describe is very common and probably gave you a terrible case of anxiety.

The prescription for social angst is simple. Start the evening being an attentive listener first and an interesting person second. People always love to talk about themselves. Skip the typical “What type of work do you do?” and “How are you friends with the host?” questions.

Treat it as an opportunity to examine and delve into various topics. Begin with broad subjects like sports, fashion, movies, books, travel, restaurants (but as my Mama always preached, avoid politics, money, religion and maybe the weather). Don’t incorporate any negative commentary or disparaging remarks. Ask open-ended questions that inspire opportunities for deeper, more thought provoking questions. Give the person a chance to respond imaginatively and honestly.

Ultimately, you may have done very little talking while the other person has shared a lot more during the conversation. They will hopefully leave the feeling that they engaged in a fun and lively conversation.

This easy remedy will undoubtedly prevent most any suffering through future dinners. And bonus, you may just come away with a couple of new friends.

Since 2009 Callie, Lillie-Beth and Helen have written this generational etiquette column. They also include guest responses from a wide range of ages each week. So many years later, Callie is 20-plus; Lillie-Beth, 40-plus and Helen, 60-plus. To ask an etiquette question, email