Q.  How can I get better at small talk? I never know what to say and end up creating big silent moments that seem awkward. This is especially hard when I’ve just been introduced and don’t know the person.

 

A.  Two great ways to initiate a conversation, or keep one going, even with strangers, are to ask the other person her opinion, and then be a good listener. Think of a few questions you can ask of almost anyone, such as, “I’ve been thinking about adding to my garden — do you know any place to get healthy plants?” or “What did you think of the Olympics coverage last month?” or, “I need to find a new primary care doctor. Do you have one you can recommend?”

Stay away from questions about politics, sex and religion, the traditional topics to avoid because the answers you may get might be too heated and make everyone uncomfortable. Then focus on the person you’ve asked, and listen. When possible, follow-up: “Is there such a thing as a pretty flowering plant for shady spots?” or “Do you prefer the summer or winter Olympics?” or “Does your doctor get back to you pretty promptly if you call with a concern or question?” People love to be asked what they think, and generally love to give advice and be helpful. If you concentrate on them, you won’t feel so self-conscious and can spark some interesting conversations.

 

Q.  I’m always happy to invite my teen son’s friend to stay for dinner when he is at our house, but he is never without his baseball cap. I’ve taught my son that men do not wear hats indoors, and certainly not at the table. Can I say something to his friend?

 

A.  Yes. It is your house, so it’s your rules. Ideally, your son should be the one to say something to him like, “Jeff, my mom doesn’t let us wear hats at the table — just saying, so maybe you should take yours off for dinner.”

If your son doesn’t want to do that, then you can. “Hey, Jeff, our house rule is no hats at the table,” and then change the subject so he doesn’t feel too embarrassed.

If he isn’t embarrassed at all and asks you why that’s your rule, it’s a great time to explain that this has been an etiquette guideline for generations, and that it is part of the “hat” etiquette that calls for men to remove their hats when they enter a building, not just when they are at the table. You can add that speculation is that this came into being for security reasons, because men could hide weapons under their hats, whether velvet berets in medieval times or cowboy hats in the west, and threaten their hosts’ safety.

 

Q.  How do I address a formal invitation envelope to a married couple when both have military rank?

 

A. The higher ranked person is always listed first:

Major Amy Boland and Lieutenant Andrew Boland

 

Wondering what’s the polite way to handle a situation? Please email your question to Catherine Michaels in care of [email protected]