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Interior Design, Architecture, and Landscaping

Five Essential Conversation Pieces

Margaret Shepherd
10/14/2008
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Whether you're hosting a cocktail party, Thanksgiving with the in-laws, or coffee with the new neighbors, what can you do when there are new guests and awkward silences?

These five objects are surefire ways to jumpstart any conversation.

1. A BEST-SELLING BOOK Why It Works:
Not everyone has the chance to sit down and read three books a week. However, any book that is floating around in popular knowledge is a conversation starter. Even if someone hasn't read the book on your table he can then say "Oh, I have heard so much about that book. What's all the hype about?" That's your hook. Now, you or one of your guests can build a valuable conversation with that person. And the next time your guests hear that book talked about, they'll be able to chime in and quote your opinion. 2. A PHOTO ALBUM Why It Works:
The best photos to offer in frames or an album are those of people your guest knows, groups that include your guest, or you with a celebrity. Don't just show off a photo or album (your wonderful kids, your handsome mate, your famous friend, your delightful vacation), to get a conversation started. Plan ahead to make it include your guest in some way; your son wearing a jacket from your guest, your husband in their backyard at last year's barbecue, a famous friend you both admire, a vacation spot your guest has been to or plans to visit. That will launch the conversation AND keep it going. 3. AN EXOTIC FLOWER OR PLANT Why It Works:
If you have any spectacular object like this that is sure to excite curiosity and comment, be ready with a response that takes advantage of the moment. Don't just say "thank you" and let it end there; say, for example "I got it from John's math teacher who grows them as a hobby," or "I've been reading up on it and it originated near where you grew up." 4. AN INSTRUMENT Why It Works:
Pianos don't count; people see them as furniture, and furniture is not a lively conversation piece. But a cello, harp, tuba, or other instrument can spark a lively conversation about your training, performances, taste in music, and childhood experiences. Just have something interesting to say in response to these inquiries. Don't accept the first invitation to perform, but thank the guest and promise to play later. And then wait to be asked twice! A host's performance stops the conversation and the party dead, while afterwards no one can say anything but compliments. 5. A COLLECTION Why It Works:
Everyone collects something: cookie jars, snow globes, Depression glass, salt and pepper shakers, minerals, autographs, etc. You can talk about various aspects of your collection: how you got into it, where you find items, what are your criteria, how happy it makes you, how you find information, how you display it, where your fellow collectors meet, etc. (Don't get into prices.) And after you've responded to your guests' questions, turn the conversation to them and what it is that they collect. Everyone collects something! It's a great uniter.
Margaret Shepherd is an etiquette expert, writer, calligrapher, and teacher. Her latest book is The Art of Civilized Conversation. Each year she speaks at the legendary MIT Charm School about the importance of gracious communication in business and everyday life.


Print Date: 2/21/2020
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