Celebrate Hilton Head_can we talk? feature

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have lived on two continents and in three metropolises, and although I’ll confess that my Parisian French accent is something I’m shamelessly proud of, I am and will forever be truly one thing only: Southern. Like all good Southerners, I wear this as a badge of honor – it’s a privilege to have been born deep in Dixie. We alone are known the world over for our impeccable manners and unrivaled hospitality. And while I don’t believe our gracious way of life is at risk of extinction, I worry that it will be diminished with the next generation of Millennials who are being raised to see themselves at the center of the universe, and not the relentlessly Other-minded focus of our forefathers.


Charm, courtesy, care, and respect are the backbone of manners, the oil that greases all human interactions, and to true Southerners, manners still mean everything.

The art of conversation is a huge part of our Southerness, too. Southerners speak. We speak to the cashier at the grocery store and to every other person in our checkout line; random strangers on the street; and we wouldn’t dream of starting even the most routine phone calls without a friendly inquiry as to the other person’s well-being (pronounced “hyah yew?”).

But in this modern Digital Age, it’s easy for even the savviest Southerner to let their conversational skills slide. I mean, between being glued to our laptops and smart phones, with kids on their Xbox, Playstation, and back-seat DVDs, who has time to talk? So I’ve whipped up some out-of-the-box ways to get conversation flowing again.


Let’s face it: Sometimes our children’s schedules can be even

busier than ours, which means that interacting has to be purposeful. If you don’t take time to teach children the art of small talk, truthfully, it’s a skill they may never acquire. This is one of those areas where practice makes perfect, and here are two ideas that work really well: Phone-free Fridays (or the night of your choice), a mandatory at-home family evening spent in conversation (I love themed nights); and Dinner

Table topics¸which the Kennedys were known for as children: Everyone has to come prepared to discuss a current event of their choice on family dinner nights (because you are having family dinner nights, right?).

Parents, you’re the talk show hosts facilitating the meal — cue cards are optional.


It’s enough to strike fear in the hearts of most mortals: having to make prolonged small talk with total strangers, whether for work, play, or passion (like first dates). At the basic level, teach kids to tackle weather, sports (guys), compliment people’s outfits, and the like; but truthfully, weather ain’t gonna take you very far. Here’s the secret to being able to talk to anyone, about anything: emphasize your common points

and then let them talk. You might have to dig deep to find them, but they’re there: where you’re from, places you’ve been, school age children, careers, hobbies – beyond the obvious career-focused stuff. During my fashion publicist days in New York City, my agency had a lunch meeting with the Susan Lucci about representing her jeans line. My boss took two of us with her. The conversation started off haltingly, because – news flash! – the last thing Susan Lucci wanted to talk about in her private life was Erica Kane. I knew from People magazine that Susan’s daughter, Liza Huber, had just begun college down South, so I asked her about that, and she lit up and fully engaged. Liza was at Chapel Hill. gave Susan a mischievous look and said, “Carolina! I’m from Georgia. Did she survive rush? And what did she wear?” Well, not only had Liza survived rush at a Southern college, requiring a bigger wardrobe than her celebrity mom had ever bought her before (we talked at

Charm, courtesy, care, and respect are the backbone of manners, the oil that greases all human interactions, and to true Southerners, manners still mean everything.

length about that), she’d also made Chi Omega. By the time the main course came, the entire table had shared their college sorority/SEC school spirit stories, and we could segue into the business part of lunch on a more intimate footing … which brings me to my next topic:


Great salespeople know that the winningest strategy is to focus on helping others make their goals (because in so doing, sales “just come naturally”). And the same is true for making business lunch conversation flow, too. If you sit down to break bread with a stranger thinking only about what you need to get from them, they’ll

Here’s the secret to being able to talk to anyone, about anything: emphasize your common points and then let them talk.

feel like a hog being sized up for Christmas dinner. But if you sit down to make a new friend that you’re here to get to know better and, along the way, help them meet their goals, you’ve got a lifelong new pal who just happens to be a new client.

It’s that relentless focus on the Other Person that works. You’re going for friendtimacy, a caring and sociable mix of friendship and intimacy that gets you behind the velvet ropes and closer to the person’s true heart. Southerners of my grandparents’ generation – shoot, my own mom and dad – did this organically. Everyone was brought up to be super-sociable, and conversation flowed easily. You didn’t have to work to reach someone else’s “friendly space:” People lived in their friendly spaces because they were authentically friendly people.

My top six tricks for building business lunch friendti -

macy, if you’re ever in a pinch:

• Research your lunch date online before, so you’ll arrive armed with a couple of directions to take the conversation in. (Yes, this sounds obvious, but . . . )

• Open with small talk about your locale (i.e., restaurant). “I love it here for lunch because. . .” and engage the other, i.e., “getting out is a treat for me – are you stuck at your desk like I am usually?”

• Ask a big, non-intrusively personal question to get the friendtimacy ball rolling. In a melting pot city like Manhattan, I ask about where people grew up. In the Golden Isles, where folks relocate to enjoy our lovely weather and scenery, ask how long they’ve been here and how they’re enjoying it, and take further direction from there.

• Emphasizing your common points (see above), keep the convo going by inquiring, encouraging, and entertaining, focusing on the other person and not yourself. We are truly our favorite thing to talk about – it’s a universal truth that never fails. But remember that you’re having an authentic and flowing conversation, as opposed to an interrogation or an inquest.

• When you’re just about halfway through your main course, then segue into the Business Topic You’re Really Meeting About. And make it about them: “I know you’re a busy ( ) and I’d like to help you ( ).”

• Order coffee and/or dessert if time permits, and wrap up by reiterating next steps/ to do, exchanging contact info, making one last personal reference to something y’all discussed (“good luck with Brooke’s dance recital next week!”) and letting them know how much you enjoyed lunch.


Prepping for business lunch conversation is easy, because it can be done in advance.

Dinner and cocktail party chit-chat, on the other hand, can be increasingly daunting in today’s busy world. The Duchess of Windsor said it best: “When

you accept a dinner party invitation, you have a moral obligation to be entertaining.” And I’ll confess that as gregarious as I naturally am, even I have to make a party-prep effort these days in the Conversation Department, because spend way too much time alone in front of a computer every day. My life-of-the-party stealth prep secrets:

• Read the local newspaper, and scan the headlines of the New York Times and (don’t laugh) People magazine online. Check out the headlines at one of the wire services online, too – love Reuters for its conciseness.

• Pick three starter topics you’ll discuss with almost everyone from the day’s news/ current events. dined out on our Hurricane Matthew damage for a while


Internet videos that have gone viral are great ice breakers, too, as long as they’re appropriate for the crowd you’re with. (Parents, this is where that family dinner Hot Topics training will one day serve your children well!)

• After you’ve exhausted your three topics, organize your conversational interactions into one of life’s four main quadrants: family (theirs first, then yours); civics (what’s going on about town); spirit/faith/soul (this includes exercising); careers (New Yorkers start off with the question, “So what do you do?” (#workaholics), but that is considered rude by Southerners, which is awesome .)

• Keep it light and lovely. Cocktail party chit-chat is meant to be lighthearted and entertaining. Save the deeper and darker talk for more intimate occasions. The good news is that as Southerners, being sociable is in our DNA. So for even the shyest of us in this Era of Technology, a great conversation is never too far out of reach. At the end of the day, great conversation is about authentically caring and being interested in the person we’re talking to. And as Southerners, We. Care.


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If you sit down to break bread with a stranger thinking only about what you need to get from them, they’ll feel like a hog being sized up for Christmas dinner.

A native of Brunswick, Elaine is a graduate of Yale University. She studied at the New York School of Interior Design and began her design career in the office of architectural behemoth Peter Marino, following a nine-year career as a publicist in New York and Paris. She opened her own firm in 1999, and authored the bestselling book “Design Rules: The Insider’s Guide to Becoming Your Own Decorator.” She has been a contributor to Better Homes & Gardens, Oprah’s O at Home, Elle Decor, and is ranked as one of House Beautiful’s Top 100 American Designers. She also appeared on NBC’s “American Dream Builders” and “The Today Show.”

EDWARD ON ST. SIMONS ** GIM J/F 1/3SQ 4.00 x 4.875



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