Starting and maintaining a good conversation can prove challenging in any language, let alone when attempting to converse in a language you feel you haven’t yet mastered, in an unfamiliar culture on subjects you don’t necessarily know about. Take heart! You can learn some tips that will help you carry on an interesting conversation, and the more conversations you have, the more experience you will get!
Starting a Conversation
Starting a conversation will require some effort on your part, but the more you do it, the more comfortable it becomes. Instead of focusing on how nervous you feel, try to find something around you that you can use as a subject to initiate your conversation. If you find yourself standing in a long line, you could comment about the length of the line, a picture in the room or pick up on something you heard them say. For example, if they make a comment about wishing they were still on vacation, you could ask where they went, how they liked it, etc.
Children also provide good opportunities for broaching a conversation. You can usually begin by talking to the child casually about something they have or did, which can lead to a conversation with their parent.
Staying well-informed on current events can also help you engage someone in conversation by simply referring to a recent event that attracted a lot of interest. People like to talk about themselves, so do not hesitate to ask simple, friendly questions without getting too personal. Make sure to ask open-ended questions that require more than a yes/no answer to stimulate conversation. Pay close attention to the answers, and show your interest by looking the other person in the eye and finding appropriate places to comment.
If you have already met someone and see them again, try to remember something you discussed the last time or a little fact about them that you could use to springboard your new conversation.
Good manners, warmth and a genuine interest in others provide a good foundation for starting a conversation. If you show interest and attention and act with confidence, others will view you positively and enjoy sharing a conversation with you.
Ending a Conversation
Once you have gotten into a conversation, you need to know how to courteously end the dialogue when you need to move on. Be sensitive to the attitude of the other person so that you can tell if their interest has waned or they need to get going. Say something positive and then offer a handshake and excuse yourself. “Thanks for letting me know about that great restaurant downtown. I’ll give it a try. I enjoyed talking with you.” They will know if you lack sincerity, so say it like you mean it.
Never cut someone off in mid-sentence, wait until they take a breath before trying to end the conversation. You can signal your need to conclude your interaction by the body language, tone and inflection you use. Speaking in the past tense, “It’s been nice talking to you,” indicates that the conversation is over, or you can give a reason for your departure, “I’ve got to catch the next bus,” or “I have a class in 10 minutes.” Communicate warmth and sincerity to avoid making them feel brushed off.
Form of Address
Most Americans call one another by their first names, or a nickname, rather than a formal title. Some exceptions would include professors and teachers who usually go by their title (Mr. Smith or Professor Smith), doctors who are addressed as Dr. Smith and possibly religious leaders who use their title as part of their name (Pastor or Reverend Smith, or Brother Smith). Otherwise acquaintances, friends and peers usually address each other informally, using only their first names or nicknames.
A 16th century proverb says “The eyes are the window to the soul.” Truly, eyes can convey many things that we never say in words. In combination with facial expression, we use eye contact to provide important social and emotional information to those around us. In some cultures, direct eye contact communicates rudeness and aggression, while in others it means the complete opposite. In the U.S. we use eye contact to establish interest or attention and to communicate sincerity and authenticity. You might hear a parent say, “Look at me,” to a child, in an effort to establish whether or not he/she has the child’s attention.
In Western cultures, if you cannot look someone in the eye during your interaction with them, they interpret your behavior as shifty and suspicious. However, maintaining eye contact with someone you don’t know for too long a period at a time can also impart a threat or innuendo.
Depending on the situation, different rules apply. For example, in an elevator or on the street, people generally do not make eye contact for more than a second, if at all. When holding a general conversation, make visual contact for a few seconds and then periodically break it. People often look away when gathering their thoughts or thinking about what to say and then re-establish eye contact when they begin to express their thoughts. As a listener, you should maintain more eye contact than you do when talking; it communicates your interest in what the speaker has to say.
When you meet someone, always establish eye contact—both to demonstrate your interest and attention, and to help you commit their name and face to memory.
We define nonverbal communication as the sending or receiving of messages without using words. We also use the term body language to describe this type of silent communication. Some forms of nonverbal communication include expression, posture, gesture or eye contact.
Even the way you dress or walk can convey information about you to those around you. For example, walking with your head up, shoulders back and eyes forward can give others the impression of confidence and self-assurance. Dressing in torn jeans, an old faded t-shirt and untied tennis shoes when attending a social function implies a lack of respect and makes others feel you don’t really care.
People usually interpret the following messages from the physical actions described:
Action: Message conveyed:
Shaking legs Stress
Lack of eye contact Deception or Lack of Confidence
Fidgeting with hands Nervous or Lying
Clenched fists Aggression or Anger
Stiffened posture Aggression or Anger
Tensed muscles Aggression or Anger
Crossed arms Resistance
Hands on hips Frustration or Challenge
Eye contact Sincerity and Openness
Appropriate touching in the U.S. depends upon the subjects involved and the situation. Affection between children and their parents, or close friends allows more intimacy than that considered appropriate between a professor and student, or a waitress and patron. Many other countries consider Americans far less “touchy-feely” than their own cultures. Westerners generally have a larger personal space bubble than people from other parts of the world.
While many parents kiss and hug their children often, they might frown on casual acquaintances who took the same liberties with their children. The degree of affection exhibited should match the level of relationship; a favorite aunt can set a child on her lap and kiss her cheek, but the clerk at the grocery store cannot.
You should refrain from physical contact in business or work relationships. How much physical contact people are comfortable with in non-work settings depends on their upbringing. What one person might intend as an indication of connection or camaraderie might come across to the other as an invasion of space and create discomfort.
Males often engage in touching when shaking hands or exchanging high-fives (slapping palms together). Women sometimes shake hands, hug or kiss in greeting, but men should always let the woman make the first move. Likewise, the closer or more intimate a relationship between adults, the more appropriate physical contact becomes. Touching that has a short duration does not require or imply as much intimacy as touch that lingers.