Social Skills: The art of conversation



 By Susan Evans


How you speak can say a lot about your character and who you are. Are you selfish? Timid? Boring? Others will be able to tell simply by the way you express yourself. On the other hand, do you (or someone you love) have the skills to hold a face-to-face conversation?

When I shared this topic with my father the other day, he told me about a couple of recent experiences he had with mature adults. One was with a gentleman in his seventies who told my father all about his car rebuilding project. My father could not get a word in edgewise. The other was with a woman in her early forties and he learned all about her facelift. She learned nothing about him… These adults are at an age where they should know better. They can certainly express themselves, but the art of conversation is like the tide — some give, some take — and they neglected that fact (and committed a couple of other “faux pas” as well).


Conversation etiquette

The topics of conversation appropriate for a social gathering are many, but topics not to be discussed are almost as abundant:

• Personal lives of others

• Finances

• Personal problems

• It is acceptable to discuss the recent injury or illness of a person, but never at the dinner table. 

Additional topics to avoid are gruesome tales, sex, lengthy spiels about your children or pets, and yourself. It is okay to mention things that are going on in your life, but it's easy to get carried away with that topic and become boring, as noted by my father. 

Great topics of conversation are:

• Recent news events

• Books

• History

• Technology

• Music

• Sports

Try to keep conversation light, humorous or general. Don't hog the conversation, either. If you've been talking for more than 5 minutes straight, it is time to allow another person the spotlight. Do so by asking them a question which will turn the conversation over to them. Being a good conversationalist is not just the ability to speak well, but also the ability to listen well. 


Developing face-to-face skills

But what about those who lack the training to be able to even express themselves? I am fearful for the future of our younger generation. Actual conversation is becoming a thing of the past, as is evident to many who study child development. So many times a young person will reach for a device rather than engage in a conversation.  

Cris Rowan, a pediatric occupational therapist, argues, “They are not entertaining themselves; the device does that for them. So there’s no creative development, no use of imagination, no self-initiation. These things are very, very important for sustainability and your own self-gratification and happiness when you’re older.” 

Kids these days are having trouble handling spontaneous social interactions.

“They don’t know how to handle conflict face-to-face because so many things happen through some sort of technology,” Melissa Ortega, a child psychologist at New York’s Child Mind Institute, said. “Clinically, I’m seeing it in the office. The high school kids who I do see will be checking their phones constantly. They’ll use it as an avoidance strategy. They’ll see if they got a text message in the two minutes they were talking to me.” 

Conversation takes practice, and a dependence on devices can make it that much harder for children who are already struggling socially. Despite the rise of digital communication, Ortega said, adolescents will need to converse. 

“I can’t imagine these kids sitting down in an interview and having a reciprocal conversation easily,” she said. “They haven’t had these years of learning about awkward pauses. Being able to tolerate the discomfort is not something they’re going to be used to, unless their parents make it a priority.”

So Mom and Dad, let’s make it a priority. Limit the time with tech devices so that your child (and you) can recognize when online involvement is interfering with offline existence. And, as I heard on NPR the other day while listening to a conversation about this topic: Have more dinner parties! Invite friends and colleagues of all ages and all walks of life to help your children develop these skills.

Children can benefit by learning the following:

• Preparing for face-to-face teacher meetings, dates, interviews and school events

• Avoiding conversational “faux pas”

• Becoming aware of the importance of body language, eye contact and tone

• Interacting with authority figures and an older, less technology-savvy generation

• Mitigating the susceptibility and trauma of false friendships and bullying

Perhaps the path back to the art of conversation will feel artificial, but I believe that we as individuals and as communities have much to gain by taking small steps toward that achievement. 

As a reminder:

• Be interested (and show that you are) in the person you are talking to.

• Ask questions.

• Be honest (and tactful).

• Listen attentively and build the conversation on answers you receive.

• Have something to say. Learn something about your audience or have something to discuss.

Good luck!




Susan Evans owns Social Essence, an Eagle-based company serving the Treasure Valley. She offers youth culture and adult culture programs designed to help participants improve their professional and personal lives. She may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , 631-0576, or