Modern Manners

Dear Thomas
I will be attending a charity dinner in London in November. It’s in aid of Animals Asia. My problem is this: it will be a large group of people, all strangers, but I’m very poor at making conversation with people I don’t know. Any tips you can give me will be gratefully received. Claire Oliver, Hereford

Dear Claire
I do sympathise. But remember you won’t be the only one. More people feel like this than let on. What incredible serendipity that Laura Barton should have broadcast on just this subject last week
(The Confidence Trick: Radio 4).

So don’t be crushed before you’ve even begun by the apparent bold confidence of others. A consolation is that cocky and over- familiar is off-putting. A touch of shyness and hesitancy is far more appealing. There will probably be a reception before the dinner. Don’t hover near a group waiting for them to take notice of you. They never will, although they should. You have to impose yourself a little bit and give your name clearly. Or you could seek out others on their own. Don’t be disheartened if you get rebuffed to begin with. You’re bound to find somebody with some manners who’s friendly – if you keep trying. 

Getting names and making
sure they get yours is a terrific boost. Don’t be afraid to repeat
or ask several times. When it comes to sustaining a conversation, the most common mistake and great inhibitor is to feel that one must say something interesting or, worse still, important. But, recalling encounters with new people, how often do you remember what they actually said? It’s the general impression of either warmth, enthusiasm and humour
or hostility and reluctance that sticks, isn’t it? All the same, you’ll want ‘topics’ of some kind to cling on to. From what little I know of you, I can see that you could talk about the charity, Animals Asia, that the dinner is in aid of (obvious, but nothing wrong with that), your own wonderful county of Herefordshire, and other charities that you 

support. But it’s probably better to keep that in the background at first. The real purpose of meeting people is... well... them. Forget about you. If you take a lively interest, you can’t go wrong. But don’t ask direct questions. Never, ‘What do you do?’ ‘Where do you live?’ Questions requiring only a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer are best; otherwise it feels like an interrogation. Don’t be afraid of really banal inquiries: ‘Did you come far?’ (like HM The Queen). ‘Have you supported the charity for a long time?’ ‘Do you have any pets?’ One thing is bound to lead to another and you’ll be away.

After ‘breaking the ice’ as it were, it’ll much easier to talk to other people. And once you’re seated at the dinner, you’ll really be able to enjoy yourself. I hope you do.

Please send your questions to thomas. or write to him at The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER