I’m headed to Chicago for my college reunion.  Tis’ the season.

Oh okay, it’s my twenty-fifth. I graduated from Northwestern University in 1988. Go Wildcats!

My college friends are among my closest friends today.  We’re scattered throughout Denver, New York City (and the tri-state area), Seattle, Los Angeles, and London.  As you might expect, we’ve experienced breakups, deaths, illness, job changes, parenthood, cross-country and transatlantic moves. Surprisingly, no divorce.

All but two of these college gals will be at the reunion—along with a wider group of friends and ex-boyfriends. This means that I will at least have one or two people to talk to should the events prove awkward.

The Class of 1988 Facebook page is hopping.  The e-mail exchange is in full swing. Excitement, for sure, is building, and yet I find myself wondering about the level of conversation to be had.  With so many people to see, so many lives to catch up on, so many long-ago acquaintances to rekindle if only for the weekend, how exactly does one master the fine art of small talk?

Lucky for me that my friend Debra Fine is THE AUTHORITY on such matters. Debra is an internationally recognized keynote speaker and author of The Fine Art of Small Talk: How to Start a Conversation, Keep it Going, Build Rapport and Leave a Positive Impression.  Trust me…seeing Debra in action is better than any reality television, but what auspicious timing for those among us headed to reunions of any kind.

Let’s begin with conversation killers. According to Debra Fine…

Never ask: Are those real?

Why: It’s obvious you’re talking about someone’s chest or earrings (no further explanation needed).

Never ask: Are you still married to that guy?

What if: The person answers, “who again?”

Never ask: Didn’t we, you know, hook up in college?

You might hear: “I can’t remember.”

Never ask: Aren’t you in advertising?

Oops: I lost my job. Thanks for rubbing it in my face.

Never ask: What happened to your hair?

She says: You have eyes. It turned grey on me.

He says: It’s still here. Look.

Now that we’ve vetted taboo subjects, here are two questions you can pose to spur meaningful dialogue.

Ask: What’s keeping you busy these days?

Why: You might get a thoughtful response, not an insipid, one-word reply like “fine” or “good” that you would certainly hear if you began the conversation with “How are you?” An open-ended question like this one allows people to expand upon their lives without causing you potential embarrassment.

Ask: Tell me about your family?

Why: You might not be married any longer, maybe you never were. Maybe you have two husbands? Ten kids? No kids. Everyone has family. Talk about your niece. Talk about your dog. Talk about your parents. Again, framing the question this way lets responders answer according to their comfort zone.

“You want to exhibit good host behavior,” says Debra.

When it’s your turn to respond, offer concrete information.  Be prepared by having the short elevator pitch in your back pocket. In my case: “I have twins. I have a book coming out. Life is good.”

No sinking ship lines (really, people have their own problems, and unless someone asks, refrain from heavy topics).  Be wary of the opposite as well…”the braggarts,” says Debra, “who talk about their million dollar deals or their newest sports car.” What to do when confronted with this situation? Try: “Gosh it sounds as if you’ve had quite the real estate career. Tell me about Tampa. What do you enjoy most about living there?”

Finally, avoid matching behavior. “Been there, done that!” Or, “you have a daughter? Really, me, too! Your daughter is Captain of her Varsity Basketball team? Really, mine, too!”



I’m concerned that I might not remember people.  Picture the scene: a woman approaches with outstretched arms and you have no idea who she is even as you accept her hug. “You simply have to accept responsibility,” says Debra.  “It’s perfectly okay to say, “what’s your name again? I’m having a brain freeze. Remind me. Were we in class together?”

Above all, Debra offers this sage advice: “Think of every conversation as an opportunity.”

It’s true. Time to go practice.

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