Perfect your holiday party small talk with these expert tips

If you find holiday functions awkward, here are a few expert tips that will help make small talk a breeze.
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You walk into a holiday work party, scan the room and suppress the urge to bolt.

If you find holiday functions awkward, worried you'll make a conversation misstep or have nothing to say at all, don't stress. The experts are here to help. 

We talked to Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, and Celeste Headlee, a Georgia radio host whose TED Talk, '10 ways to have a better conversation', has been viewed more than 5 million times online, about improving small talk, drinking and exiting a boring conversation.

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Set goals

Debra Fine: Approach the work party as you would a work project. Tell yourself, "I'm going to meet five new people tonight." Once you've met five people and engaged them in conversation, then decide if you want to stay or go. Remember, this is your opportunity to say hello to new people. If you hide in the corner, they might think you're aloof, not shy.  

Ask for directions

Celeste Headlee: Use the four magic words: Can you help me? If you don't know anyone at a party, that becomes your introduction: "I just got here and I don't know anyone. Can you help me?" Then, ask that person to tell you who is at the party and go from there. Repeat this interaction with as many people as you want.

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Prepare questions

DF: The worst time to try to come up with something to talk about is when there's nothing to talk about. Prepare general questions in advance, such as: What are you most looking forward to in 2017? What was highlight of your year? What's the best gift you've ever received? If you've met them before, instead of asking, "How are you?" ask, "Catch me up, what's new with your family/work/travels?" This lets the person tell you what they want to tell you, and avoids forcing them into explaining potentially awkward situations, such as a breakup.  

Open up

DF: It's obvious when someone is having a bad time at a party. They might be standing in a corner with their eyes glued to their phone or lingering near the exit with their arms crossed. Don't be that guy! If you don't feel good, fake it. Some easy ways to improve body language include making eye contact, smiling, relaxing your shoulders and uncrossing your arms.

Have political conversations

CH: This doesn't mean, getting in a shouting match. But, it's important to engage in political conversations, perhaps now more than ever. If the conversation becomes heated, say, "Let's take a step back, I'm trying to understand where you're coming from." Don't shy away from political talk. The world is divided because we didn't have these conversations earlier.

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Drink, or don't

DF: When I'm at a work event, I don't drink, but I do carry a drink, because otherwise people make such a darn issue about it. If you feel comfortable drinking, go for it — in moderation. If you don't, don't.

Be honest

CH: If you've exhausted a conversation, say, "It was really great to talk to you, I'm going to go get a drink." Don't lie or make up an excuse for stepping away. Very few of us are good actors — you'll probably get caught if you lie.

Wave the white flag

DF: For those conversations you worry might go on forever, wave the white flag and let the person you're talking to know the conversation is almost over. First, give them a genuine compliment: "Wow, it sounds like you're really proud of your kid." Second, tell them there are other people at the party you want to catch up with. Third, say something along the lines of: "But before I go, tell me, what's the number one challenge of being a parent?" Let them answer, then get out of there.

Katrina Clarke is a Toronto-based journalist who writes about relationships, health, technology and social trends. Find her on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.

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