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One person on their phone while having a conversation

We’ve all had the experience of starting a conversation only to have it collapse into awkward silence. While any number of things might have gone wrong, there are a few subtle faux pas sure to put an early end to an otherwise pleasant discussion.

Phone-gazing. “The minute you look down at your phone,” says Fine, “it’s as if you’ve said, ‘Shut up!’ If you warn me in advance that you might glance at your phone periodically because you are expecting an important call, I’ll understand. Otherwise, it’s rude.”

Closed-ended personal questions. Avoid potentially touchy queries unless you already know the answer, stresses Fine. For instance, something seemingly innocuous like “Are you married?” is the last thing you want to ask someone in the midst of an ugly separation.

Dwelling on the downside. Negative pronouncements, like “Kids these days!” or “What a terrible sweater the host is wearing,” put you at risk of alienating people, who must either agree or disagree, which could be particularly uncomfortable for someone you’ve just met. What’s more, if the first impression you leave is that of a grump, you might not get a chance to make a second one.

Niche topics. Too much minutiae about an early-American cookie-jar collection can quickly drain the life out of a conversation. Test the waters with a limited revelation of your passions first. If your partner glazes over, change the topic.

Beware the monologue. “If you’re at lunch and everybody else is finished and your plate is still full, it means you’ve been talking too much,” says Shepherd. Or if someone suddenly excuses herself at a party and you realize you don’t know the first thing about her, this can be a good clue about why the conversation died.

This originally appeared as “The Art of Conversation” in the November 2019 issue of Experience Life.

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