Longform

All Talk, Maybe Some Action

Debra Fine groans when she hears the title of Matt Buschbacher's book: Date the Women of Your Dreams. "I hate that," she says. "We judge people so quickly based on superficial things."

Fine is sitting on an airplane in California, about to return to Denver from one of her many speaking engagements. The former engineer has become a national expert on conversational skills since her book, The Fine Art of Small Talk, was released last year.

Although dating isn't her focus, she believes every conversation is an opportunity for success, even in romance. And like Buschbacher, she encourages people to have conversational topics planned and openers ready before any social event -- but Fine doesn't think an initial line makes much difference in the dating game. "People decide before you open your mouth whether they're going to talk to you or not," she says. "Whether it was a rehearsed line or 'Hi, it's beautiful outside today,' if I decided the man was too short, too tall or didn't like the way he looked, there's no way that line would work. But if he seemed like my type, no matter what, the line would work."

And she doesn't have to look far for proof: Fine admits that she almost didn't go out with her now-husband because he didn't look like her type.

Still, basic pick-up techniques are similar to the skills Fine endorses for getting the conversational ball rolling. "Small talk is not a huge deal," she says. "It's just the appetizer for any connected relationship." Step one: Take the risk of walking up to someone new. Step two: Assume the burden of other's people comfort in social situations. "It's up to you to come up with things to talk about," she points out. "It's up to you to make people feel comfortable."

Here are a few small-talk starters that Fine swears go over big:

"Hello. I wanted to meet you. I'm ______________." (Remember that the person you approach will have already decided if he/she wants to speak with you, Fine advises.)

"What do you enjoy the most about this time/season of the year?"

"Describe your typical day."

"What brought you to this part of the country?"

"What did you enjoy about growing up here?"

"What have you heard about ______________ ?" (Mention a current movie, race, event.)

"Tell me about your family."

"Tell me about your work."

"How do you all know each other?"

Once the small talk has started, she warns, you still must take care to steer clear of conversation-killers. These include bragging about your house, your car, your life, or otherwise monopolizing the conversation. Don't answer a question with a one-word answer; say something that will keep the conversation going. Don't grill your partner like an FBI agent, either; the rhythm of a conversation should be like a tennis game, not a batting cage. And above all, never ask:

"Are those real?" -- Centers