Re-Up Your Schmooze Game and Have a Plan B

Most of us are out and about these days, eating more in restaurants, getting on planes and trains and even hugging and kissing friends and family at events. However, after spending too much time in our homes during the pandemic, have our conversation chops become rusty and need a good oiling? 

We get together with people we haven’t been around in ages and fumble and fidget about what we should say. We try to remember to ask about the other person and avoid certain hot-button topics. Before Barbara went to a wedding recently, her usually affable beau admitted to her, “I’m hoping I’ll remember how to do this.” He did, but the fact he worried when he had never done so in the past surprised her. 

Others might wonder similarly, and what topics are considered off limits like politics, or too mundane like staying clear of the weather. Well, it depends on whom you’re talking to and sometimes you just don’t know where they’re coming from, so to speak. So, here’s our somewhat irreverent guide to topics and whether they’re safe or too heated, and if so, we recommend aways having a plan B. 

Weather. If you’re talking to someone who’s working to lower global warming, it may not be wise to bring up your very long airplane flight to catch a cruise to head on to Antarctica where too many are going, after seeing South Africa! New Zealand! Italy! All will put a black mark on your carbon footprint. Add in private planes, yachts and even long car rides as bad for the continent and its air. Plan B: Talk about the sky, clouds and stars; far-away galaxies are always safe, too, as are extraterrestrial beings, just in case you’ve encountered any. This will really grab their attention. They may even think you’re such a kook they won’t want to talk to you. 

Politics. Yes, we should be able to trade opinions about why we vote this or that way. But will you really listen to the other person’s point of view? Will you keep silent or engage in respectful discourse or be so riled up you’ll have to offer a point-counterpoint as some TV hosts used to do. Better to keep it light. You might try, “Yes, there are many candidates hoping to run on the Republican ticket.” Or, “Yes, Biden is aging, but he still looks trim and healthy and Jill has stunning taste.” Plan B: Switch to politics abroad or the royal family such as the recent coronation of King Charles. 

Food. Don’t get into criticizing another person’s taste for loving steakhouses, being a pescatarian or going vegan. Food stirs up trouble. Even sweet desserts as a topic may go sour with so many more giving up sugar. Same goes for pastas and bread. Even Chinese food can be a sore subject, given the tension with China these days. Some might think it’s politically incorrect to eat that cuisine. Plan B: Talk about how much you love drinking water and whether you like it with or without ice cubes (ice has become a hot trend of late) and add a twist--lemon or lime. 

Housing. If you bring up that a child has just bought a lovely single-family home on a huge lot in a nice suburb, you might end up in their doghouse. After all, with the huge crisis in housing, why does each person need to buy a house that occupies so much land unless they’re doing so for altruistic reasons such as erecting an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) or two in the backyard to house some immigrants or the homeless. Better they buy a multifamily apartment that uses land better. Also, there’s the question of mowing lawns; many think it’s horrible to do so and pollute the air with noise and gas fumes. Why not let the grass grow au natural? Of course, then, neighbors may be unhappy and start bombarding you with letters to clean up your act. However, truth be told, many neighbors are unhappy with those who live near them—not pruning their trees, having too many people over or their dogs’ poop not picked up. Plan B: Share instead a common gripe about how King Charles now has so many palaces and castles that it’s an insane drain on the lagging British economy. Who could argue with that except Charles and his family. 

Hotels and office buildings. With the downturn in the economy, more of these are empty and how they should be repurposed may be a sore point for many. Both might be used to house immigrants and homeless but converting them is not as easy as some think. The footprints don’t necessarily lend themselves to individual apartments; neither does the fenestration. Also, there are those who don’t want the homeless and immigrants living nearby or to spend taxpayer money to do such conversions that can require huge bucks and lots of time. Plan B: Engage in how remote work has cut the commuting time of many nationwide. No argument here for who would ever think commuting is good? 

Art. How can art not be a good topic for conversation? Well, it depends on the art you’re talking about. If it’s European that can be a problem since too many museums have recognized they’ve been too Eurocentric or have collections with too many dead white men. And some of the contemporary artists today stir debate for what they create such as the artist who duct taped a banana to a museum wall. Instead of being considered art, it became a hungry student’s lunch. The purloined banana was replaced. Such art can evoke these thoughts, even if not spoken: “Can you believe that such and such’s piece commands so much money? My kid could have done that!” And so, begins the competition between grandparents one-upping one another. See what we mean? Plan B: Talk about how many museums are adding wonderful restaurants and cafes, some run by famous chefs. Barbara recently heard that the one at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has a two-star Michelin one. 

Kids. Speaking of kids and grandkids, not everyone has one and it can be a sore subject if they don’t talk to them regularly or at all or if they have a child who’s died. Never start a conversation with “How many children do you have?” and never segue to “What do they do?” Avoid the kid and grandkid topic entirely until you know the person well. And don’t talk about your own childhood—almost everyone had a dysfunctional childhood from a narcissistic father to an alcoholic mother. Plan B: Ban this topic entirely and figure out Plan C. Maybe, one type of perennial flowers they love. Again, who can argue with something that smells so sweet? 

Gun control. Many are aghast at how easy it is to buy any gun, even for safety. Others are especially appalled at the idea of A-15 rifles getting into the hands of almost anyone. And you’re heading into treacherous waters if you try to talk about whether schools should allow some teachers to be armed and other such ideas. Plan B: Shoot this one down completely. 

Money. Our mothers taught us never to talk about it, whether we had lots of it or little. And we also were told never to ask how much anything cost since as the adage goes, “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” So, if you love a certain pair of sunglasses and wonder if they’re in your budget, you might say, “I love your shades; do you mind asking me what brand?” Then, you can google and see. And never comment if someone tells you where they live by replying, “Oh my gosh that’s such an expensive hood.” Yes, you can think it but button your lip. If the conversation veers toward, “My, they must have spent a ton on this party with all this food and drink?” You might reply, “Yes, it’s certainly going to be enough to feed me—or a small nation--happily.” Plan B: If the topic comes into the conversation, drop it. And shift to how much you love the color green that is quite in with sustainability and all. 

Schools. We’re long past college and grad schools and decades from high school, so unless the name of your alma mater is really germane to the conversation such as you just donated a building, avoid going there. And even if you did do that, remember Rambam’s rule that it’s better to give anonymously. Also avoid asking anyone about where their grandkids are applying to or which schools they’re attending even if you’re dying to know. Plan B: You can always ask what sport the person you’re talking with played a lot growing up or what was the best sporting even they ever attended. Both are fairly innocuous, we think. 

Travels. We’ve found that many at our age are spending a lot of time traveling and it seems certain destinations are in vogue—Antarctica, Portugal, Croatia, Turkey and the Greek islands except Santorini which is so overrun; go for less trafficked ones. And you can always ask, “Have you been anywhere lately?” but you’ll make yourself open to a list of chic destinations and possibly some braggadocio. Plan B: A better topic is to ask, as Will Schwalbe writes in his book, Books for Living, “What are you reading?” which is generally safe and illuminating. In fact, why not make that question your Plan B or Plan C for any time you get stumped. 

Health. Don’t ask, “How are you?” You know from our prior blogs that the question elicits a flood of ailments, some minor and some major with lots of discussion about new body parts. Better to comment, “You look wonderful,” and let the person segue to “I don’t feel so great,” if they must share. Stop there. Don’t engage for most will hit you with so many procedures and surgeries at this age: new knees, hips, shoulders; cataract surgeries; gallbladder out, eye cancer, horrific allergies; reactions to the second Shingles vaccine or the latest Covid booster (which may lead into a political discussion); long Covid effects, and so on. Plan B: You can try to get off the topic in one of two ways: offer your tale of woe, which we hope is far worse and will make their problems seem paltry, or say, you have a terrible migraine and must leave immediately.

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