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Holiday Small Talk: 5 Do's And Don'ts For Awkward Encounters

Holiday Small Talk

First Posted: 11/23/11 02:36 PM ET Updated: 11/25/11 04:58 PM ET

You're home for the holidays. You decide to take a stroll around downtown and wander into a local restaurant or boutique or Blockbuster (do those still exist?). You're minding your own business when out of the corner of your eye you spot a (vaguely) familiar face. Before you have time to quickly look the other way, walk swiftly in the opposite direction or take an imaginary phone call from your mother, you've made eye contact with an old acquaintance. The unique torture of unsolicited small talk commences.

The web is filled with information about how to deal with your family during Thanksgiving and Christmas -- we offered our own here, here and here. And we've come across many an office holiday party etiquette guide. But how do you deal with all of the old, now (or always) not-so-good friends that you inevitably cross paths with when you head back home (or who head back to you if you still live in your hometown)?

This "Socially Awkward Penguin" meme offers one option ...


or you could read on for advice from Debra Fine, author of "The Fine Art of Small Talk."

According to Fine, the key to avoiding those freeze-ups is understanding the art of appropriate and engaging conversation -- and knowing when to suddenly realize that you have a pressing engagement to attend to. Most importantly, said Fine, "Don't let somebody hold you hostage."

In order to avoid a hostage situation and to not wear out your fake smile this holiday season, here are some do's and don'ts for dealing with -- and getting out of -- those all-too-familiar chance meetups.

Have more advice on how to deal with these awkward encounters (or any really fantastic, holiday-fail stories)? Let us know in the comments!

DO: Attempt To String Together Full Sentences
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It's far too easy for conversations that don't involve close friends and family to sound like stilted AIM exchanges, circa 1999:

"Hey, what's up?" "Not much, you?" "Same here." "Cool."

Long, awkward pause ensues, except this time you're standing in front of each other, and you can't put up a Goo Goo Dolls lyric as an away message. To avoid these dynamics altogether, simply give a real answer to a question (while still keeping it short and sweet).

"Most of us are lazy conversationalists," says Fine. "We're on auto-pilot. Give the person you're talking to the benefit of the doubt that they're genuinely interested, and give one full sentence ... Otherwise, conversations are like interviews." So if someone asks how you're doing, instead of just saying "Good," say, "I'm doing well -- I actually just got back from a business trip / moved apartments / started a new job." If the other person is genuinely interested, he or she will respond in kind. If not, you can head on your merry way.