‘Bout time we had a little talk.
Want to make sure that your fête tête-à-têtes flow as easily as the Champagne this holiday season? Let’s get tipsy with a few of our favorite conversationalists to find out how they break the ice when seated next to a shy guest at a dinner party. Read on, and make sure to keep a few of these inspired conversation-starters up your sequined sleeve.
Ken Downing (center) with Justin Kern, Stephanie Danan, and Marisa Tomei. Photo: Getty
Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus
I will say, “Beyoncé or Rihanna? Who would be most fun to join us for dinner?!” Or I might offer a choice between Tom Ford and Karl Lagerfeld.
Lynn Wyatt, socialite, philanthropist, and member of The Salonniere 100
Whenever I’m seated next to a shy person—and it’s usually a gentleman—whether I know him or not, I ask the question, “What is it that interests you the most at this time?”
Lela Rose, fashion designer, author and member of The Salonniere 100
I always ask “How do I know you?”, even if it’s the first time I’m meeting someone. It just opens up the conversation for them to say whatever they feel comfortable starting with.
Juju Chang (left) at the recent Front Page Awards, where she received the Lifetime Achievement Award
Juju Chang, co-anchor of ABC’s “Nightline”
I try to Google my seatmate when I can so I can ask an informed icebreaker. When that doesn’t work, I ask, “What gets you excited to get out of bed in the morning?” It’s enough of an open-ended question to give a person the chance to go in any direction, and it usually elicits an unplanned answer, which sparks spontaneous conversation.
John Demsey, executive group president at the Estée Lauder Companies Inc.
I’ll ask some form of a Betty-or-Veronica question, such as “Are you more like Betty or Veronica?” Or “If you were Archie, would you choose Betty or Veronica?”, or “If you were Betty or Veronica, would you choose Archie or Reggie?” It says it all.
Lauren Lawrence, writer and TV personality
As the “Your Dreams” columnist of the NY Daily News, author of six books on dreams, former “Political Dreams” columnist at the late John Kennedy Jr.’s George magazine, and the former TV host of “Celebrity Nightmares Decoded,” I usually ask my seatmate, “So what did you dream of last night?” It really opens them up.
Carolyne Roehm (standing) at a party she hosted recently for writer Julian Fellowes
Carolyne Roehm, tastemaker, author. and member of The Salonniere 100
After the introduction and a sentence or two, I will simply say, “Now tell me about you!” I find that most people love to talk about themselves. If they are very shy, I will say the same thing but in a softer, more private voice to make them feel comfortable. For me, it’s all about the tone and manner. If my dinner partner is cranky or self-important, I will smile brightly and say the same thing, but in another tone of voice. I might even sort of pull their leg to see if they lighten up. If they continue to be difficult, I usually just say to myself that I am too old to put up with this kind of attitude—sometimes this shit—and focus my attention elsewhere.
Ellie Cullman, co-founder of the interior design firm, Cullman & Kravis, and author
I try to bring them out by asking two questions: “Picking anyone from today or from history, who would be your ideal dinner partner and why? And what chef would you like to prepare your ideal dinner?”
Alexa Hampton, interior designer and author
I will first ask them about their work. People usually have a way they explain their job, or how they spend their day, so they can feel comfortable answering this. I also like to ask people what they are reading. Strangely, I think of this as a more personal question.
Alexa Pulitzer, stationery designer and member of The Salonniere 100
I ask them to name their three favorite bands, films, and vacation destinations.
Jill Kargman (center) at a party with the cast of her show, Odd Mom Out
Jill Kargman, creator, writer, and star of Bravo’s “Odd Mom Out”
I ask “How did you two meet?” It never fails.
Francesca Craig, social secretary at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C.
With the French, family information is kept in a tight vault, and they will give out the combination if they are feeling the vibe. So if it’s a French guest, I will ask “How long have you been in the US? What brought you here? What do you like about the experience?” If it’s an American guest, I’ll ask “How long have you known the host?” and “Are you from D.C.?” because NO ONE is from DC!
No-Fail Conversation Starters
Welcome Photo and Quote Mashup
Welcome photo: Cary Grant and Kim Novak (1959)
Welcome quote: Cool Hand Luke (1967)