Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What to Say (Conversational Skills, Part 7)

In order to be an adept conversationist, you will also need to know how to change the topic of conversation.

The last conversational skill I’m going to write about is how to change the topic, either because the old topic is now dead/boring or because you want to talk about something else for whatever reason. Please note that you should not try to change the topic of conversation if the woman still seems into the old topic. It’s rude and dismissive.

Also note that if you attempt to change the conversation topic by telling a story right after someone else has told an anecdote, make sure that your story relates in some way to the previous one. For example, if she tells about a horrible car accident she was in while driving through Nevada, do *not* follow up with a story about the time you were in Nevada that has nothing to do with a car accient. Her story was about a car accident, not Nevada. Some people seem to be under the misguided assumption that they are cleverly changing the topic by picking up on some tiny irrelevant detail and running with it. Occasionally this works. Most of the time, however, it comes off as a desperate need to be the center of attention. It seems as if you have been breathlessly waiting for something, anything, to come up in her story that you could use to bring the conversation back around to you. And when you change the topic so suddenly from car accidents to Nevada, it seems dismissive of the prior conversation, as if car accidents (and she) so bored you that you had to change the topic to Nevada.

So how do you change the topic of conversation?

Instead of addressing the particular details of a story or a conversation topic, respond with an emotional reaction. Maybe car accidents really do bore you (or make you anxious). You can move the conversation away from car accidents by making a statement about your emotional reaction to something related to car accidents, such as “I would have been so freaked out after that, I don’t know that I would have wanted to drive again.” And then the conversation can flow away from accidents to how people get over traumas. Or maybe it’s not that you’re bored with a conversation but you don’t know anything about the topic of conversation, so you’re stymied for words. Again, bring in an emotional reaction. You may not know details of art history and what movement Matisse was part of and what that meant to the culture at large, but you know what a Matisse looks like and you have an emotional reaction to it--of curiosity, perhaps, or dislike.

Another way of changing the conversation topic is to ask a question and move to a generality. There are questions that will further the conversation on the same topic, and there are questions that will begin to divert it away. Let’s say the conversation is about William Faulkner. You could ask about his influences, or ask her to explain The Sound and the Fury to you. But this would not lead you away from the topic. Instead ask a question that may be wrong (whether it is or not does not matter)--such as “Did Faulkner commit suicide?” She’ll say, “I think you’re thinking of Hemingway,” or “No, he was just a raging alcoholic.” Now you can continue to move the conversation away from Faulkner specifically and talk more broadly about, for example, why artists are so self-destructive. Naturally, you might not want to discuss that, but you get the idea. Use a question to move the conversation to a broader topic you do want to discuss.

A third way to change the topic of conversations is to ask a question and move to a specific topic. Maybe the conversation is a general one about why artists kill themselves, and you just read “The Old Man and the Sea” and you want to talk about that book. Happily for you Hemingway committed suicide, so you’ve got an easy path into talking about his novel.

Now that I’ve discussed coming up with good answers to dull/annoying/embarrassing questions, how to tell an anecdote, and how to change the conversation topic, on Friday I’ll move into discussing how you can compete with specific types of men for the attention of the woman you’re interested in.


  1. Hi Elizabeth,

    I'm enjoying your writing. You have a wonderful turn of phrase and a great sense of attitude. Though this topic has never interested me before, I'm hooked by your unerring confidence. Not only do your solutions seem valid and tangible, but also well researched and human.

    It's a stimulating read, I would think, for anyone who wants to learn to communicate with anyone else, whether or not they believe they are a geek. Well done.

  2. Hi, Sebastian,

    Thanks for the positive feedback! I'm glad your enjoying the blog!