During the holidays merry-making doesn’t always come so easy when you’re entertaining people you don’t know very well in your home. Like your spouse’s co-workers. Or your new in-laws. Or the neighbors you only really see at Christmas when they come over with a bottle of wine as a sort of unspoken thank you for keeping an eye on their house while they’re on vacation. You can make small talk about the usual suspects — the weather, the price of gas — but then what?
Awkward silences need not ensue. Margaret Shepherd, an etiquette expert and author of “The Art of Civilized Conversation,” says there are five objects you can display in the entertainment area of your home that are surefire ways to jump-start any conversation.
A musical instrument
“Pianos don’t count: People see them as furniture, and furniture is not a lively conversation piece,” Shepherd said. A harp, tuba, cello or other instrument, however, can spark a lively conversation about musical training, tastes and childhood performance experiences.
What if you haven’t played that clarinet since high school band, decades ago? Mention that! And mention why having it around still evokes fond memories. You could say, for example, “I was lousy at math until I learned to read music. And then suddenly it all clicked.”
But what if you DO still play that clarinet, and someone asks you to perform right then and there? “Don’t accept the first invitation to perform, but thank the guest and promise to play later,” Shepherd said. “And then wait to be asked twice! A host’s performance stops the conversation and the party dead, while afterward no one can say anything but compliments.”
A framed photo or a photo album
“The best photos to offer in frames or an album are those of people your guests know, groups that include your guests or you with a celebrity,” Shepherd said. “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.”
Instead, she recommends planning ahead to make sure the photo(s) include your guests in some way — such as your husband in a guest’s own backyard at last year’s neighborhood barbecue, your son wearing a jacket a guest gave him, a famous friend you both admire, or a vacation spot your guest has also been to or plans to visit. “That will launch the conversation AND keep it going,” Shepherd said.
An exotic flower or plant
“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,” Shepherd said. “Don’t just say ‘thank you’ and let it end there.” She suggests such responses as “I got it from Jason’s math teacher who grows them as a hobby” or “I’ve been reading up on it, and it is especially prevalent in the area where you grew up.”
The plant doesn’t even have to be that exotic; “controversial” plants work, too. Shepherd, for example, knows a Southern California hostess who is proud of her backyard garden. This hostess often puts a beautifully thriving cilantro plant on her coffee table.
“Cilantro is one of those herbs that people either absolutely adore or thoroughly loathe,” Shepherd said. Guests either immediately start trading cilantro recipes and new uses, or they talk about why they love it (“It has that mild soapy flavor”) or hate it (“It has that mild soapy flavor”).
A best-selling book
It’s probably not a good idea to display a book that has a political slant in these contentious times, but an extraordinarily good memoir or biography, a spectacular “coffee-table” book (that you’ve actually read!) or a novel that is currently being made into a film are all good choices here.
“Any book that is floating around in popular knowledge is a conversation starter,” Shepherd said. “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.”
In addition, she adds, the next time your guests hear that book talked about, they’ll be able to chime in and quote your opinion.
Cookie jars, Depression glass, salt and pepper shakers, snow globes, autographs — almost everyone collects something. “Display your own collection and you can talk about various aspects of it — 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, and so on,” Shepherd said. She warns against talking about prices.
After you’ve responded to your guests’ questions you should turn the conversation to them and what it is that they collect.
“Everyone collects something!” Shepherd reiterated. “It’s a great uniter.”