Maureen Pratt

You’re at a social gathering. You meet someone new. And then what? Do you plunge right into conversation or do you stand there, hesitant, tongue-tied, feeling awkward?

Not long ago, you might have asked the other person what he or she did for a living. But with many workers unemployed or underemployed, this can be a sensitive issue.

Food used to be a favorite topic for finding common ground, but you don’t know whether you’re talking with someone who has dietary issues.

You might admire something the person is wearing, a piece of jewelry, for example, or a hairstyle. But, you probably want to shy away from making any comment that might be misconstrued as too personal.

Religion and politics? These are time-honored topics to stay away from. These days, even casual talk about the weather can turn into a heated (no pun intended) argument about climate change. Indeed, the loudest and most prominent voices these days seem to be those of anger, dissent and discord, taking one side or another.

Cutting through the vociferous verbiage, how are we ever supposed to get to know one another and live in harmony if the simple act of making conversation is so rife with pitfalls and potholes? Is there any safe ground?

And when it comes to sharing our faith, how do we communicate Christ when he is so often viewed by society as contentious?

There are no easy answers, but there are small ways to test and smooth the waters. Conveying a feeling of openness and welcome, being genuinely pleased to make someone’s acquaintance is a small but significant start.

If the situation seems awkward, verbally expressing this feeling can be a humbling yet effective way to break the ice. Admitting that it’s hard to know what to talk about with a complete stranger lets the stranger know you’d like to have a conversation.

If you listen carefully to the other person, it might help you “read” areas that are touchy, and it allows you to steer the conversation away from topics that might cause tension. Revealing something personal (but not too personal) can be a good way to gently open up chatter.

Sometimes, our mood or the circumstances around our conversation can bring on strain. It has happened to me, much to my regret. But I find that if I keep in mind that I’m talking with a person, I can often temper my temper, even on the most difficult of days.

Today, I called a newsroom to ask information about a story I’m working on. The person who answered the phone was very nice, and at the end of our conversation, I asked his name. He hesitated, then said, “I don’t think mentioning my name to [the contact] will help.”

I explained that I asked his name because I like to be more personable over the phone, that we live in an impersonal and often rude world. He “melted” a bit, admitting that “when everyone’s acting rude, you sometimes get caught up in it.”

Yes, indeed. We might get caught up in the heat of the moment or caught up in the tangle of what words we should say. But by letting our guard down a little and making a conversation, we might banish inane banter and let in more of Christ’s light.