Plato once said wise folks speak when they have something to say, and fools talk when they have to say something. But, as dozens of events...

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Plato once said wise folks speak when they have something to say, and fools talk when they have to say something.

But, as dozens of events loom on our social calendars, we know there are times when we have to say something, significant or not.

Let’s face it. Plato and the rest of his Greek pals, whose conversations are legendary, never had to master small talk.

Not so for us restless, distracted, overscheduled, road-rage-prone moderns. We have to attend college reunions, schmooze at potluck dinners, appear at art-gallery openings and circulate at graduation parties.

So, how can the socially apprehensive master the art of small talk, a skill some find as difficult as interpreting one of Plato’s weighty philosophical dialogues?

Chill just a little

First of all, relax. Most everyone feels some trepidation in social situations, says Philip Nastasee, a clinical psychologist based in Emmaus, Pa. In the extreme, this condition is called social anxiety, which requires treatment.

OK, so don’t grunt

Want to make new friends or reconnect with old ones? Conversationalist Don Gabor suggests some common blunders to avoid:

• Don’t offer a one- or two-word answer to the question, “What have you been doing all these years?”

• Don’t fold your arms, or exhibit other closed body language.

• Don’t wait for others to be the first to say hello.

• Don’t bring up old arguments or past indiscretions.

• Don’t speak only to friends or your spouse.

• Don’t eat or drink too much.

• Don’t talk too much or too little about yourself.

• Don’t discuss personal problems.

Source: Don Gabor,

“In the right amount, the apprehension keeps us organized and focused,” says Nastasee. “In some ways, it is a prerequisite to success.”

But some of the apprehension is based on false assumptions about social situations, says Don Gabor, who teaches workshops and counsels individuals on communication skills. Gabor has written more than a dozen books, including a recently revised edition of his 1983 book, “How To Start a Conversation and Make Friends,” (Fireside Books, $13).

“If you go to a party and see three people talking to each other, you might make the assumption that they all know each other, which may or may not be true,” Gabor says. “People also assume that the talkers don’t want to have others join their conversation, which, again, may or may not be true.”

Quiet, annoying inner voice!

A person’s internal, or self, talk can also make social situations more stressful than they need to be, says Judith Belmont, an Allentown, Pa.-based licensed professional counselor who specializes in communications issues.

“In social situations, people tend to focus on what they are actually saying, and they’re not focusing on what their internal, self talk, is,” she says. “If your self talk is not so critical, you’ll be much more fluid in social situations. You won’t be comparing yourself to others. You won’t be worrying about what other people are thinking.”

Self talk also can interfere with a critical element in the art of conversation, the ability to listen, says Gabor.

“If a person is just listening to their own self talk, they really aren’t paying attention to what the other person is saying,” Gabor says.

Lemme in that circle!

In his 25 years of teaching people the art of conversation, Gabor says the question he gets asked the most is how to break into an in-progress conversation. People want to find a way to enter a conversation without appearing to be too pushy or forward.

When he walks into a party, the first thing Gabor does is look for a group where there is actually a physical space where a new person can join the conversation. Avoid groups where a heated debate or argument is taking place, Gabor says.

Once you spot a group, try to overhear what they’re talking about, to make sure the topic is of interest.

As you approach, Gabor says, try to make eye contact and smile at one or more of the people in the group. If they smile back or otherwise acknowledge you, move in closer and enter the conversation’s circle.

Once inside the circle, listen carefully to what is being said, and for a way to enter the conversation easily. If the discussion is about a film, for instance, ask an easy-to-answer question — “What’s the name of that film?” — when there is a break in the conversation.

Shortly after you ask the question, and again at another natural break in the conversation, introduce yourself, Gabor says. The setting determines the level of introduction. At informal parties, a first name may be enough. In business settings, a full name and company affiliation might be necessary.

Keep moving, people …

Keeping the conversation moving is another common concern. Gabor suggests conversationalists look for what communication theorists call “free information,” or information speakers reveal about themselves. Let’s say a speaker makes a passing reference to a school he or she attended.

When the current conversational thread appears to be ending, bring up the “free information” element by asking about what it was like attending that particular school, Gabor says.

Mentioning the bit of free information from the previous conversation tells the person you remembered what he said and found it useful in some way. It’s flattering to the person who first mentioned it, Gabor says.

Likewise, the way a person responds to a question also can move a conversation along. Short, one- or two-word answers to questions create stilted conversation.

“If you’re at a party and someone asks you where you live, you might say, ‘I live in New York City.’ But you could also say, ‘I live in New York City, and I’ve been writing books and leading workshops for 25 years.’ The person only asked you where you lived, but you’ve given them free information that they can use to continue the conversation,” Gabor says.

Did ya’ hear the one … ?

Conversationalists should also keep in mind the audience and setting, experts say.

The Rev. Andrew Gerns, a pastor at Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pa., tells a story that shows when the perceived role of the speaker plays a large role.

He was at a social gathering where most of those attending knew he was a pastor. Seeing a man he knew to be an avid skier, Gerns approached the man and asked what he thought was an innocent question.

“I asked him how the skiing was last weekend. I knew he was the kind of skier who would ski both days of the weekend in the winter,” he said. “But I forgot that ‘last weekend’ was Easter weekend. He immediately heard a judgment on my part. He filled in all the blanks and all the expressions and all the attitude. That killed the conversation.”

But Gerns has found one key to conversation: Listen more and talk less. People also enjoy talking about themselves. “You can just open the door and let the person tell their story. Most people are comfortable with this.”

And the comfort level in social situations tends to increase as one gets older, says Bernadine (Sutjak) Schumaker, who coordinator for the 50-year reunion for Allentown Central Catholic’s Class of 1956.

“People who don’t come to the reunions say they have nothing to talk about.” But as time passes, that “just seems to disappear,” says Schumaker. “People are glad to see each other and happy the people are alive.”