The art of small talk makes a big impact

Victoria Walker, Staff Writer

On the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 28, University seniors and local alumni congregated in the on-campus Samek Art Museum for an evening cocktail party. About thirty individuals mingled in the gallery, sipping wine and munching on hors d’oeuvres while engaging in discussion about the various art pieces displayed on the walls. The event served as a lesson on small talk, and was followed by an overview of how to intelligently discuss artwork with peers and strangers held by Director of the Samek Art Museum Rick Rinehart.

Sponsored by the Career Development Center as one of many programs intended to prepare students for life after graduation, the goal of the event was to educate attendees in the art of maneuvering adeptly through unfamiliar social situations.

“It’s difficult to approach people you don’t really know and to talk about art you don’t know much about. But we learned some good tips on how to do that,”  Shyanne Salen ’18 said.

The lesson on small talk was given by Senior Regional Director of Leadership Gifts Amy Wilson in the University’s Development Office, who joked that she makes a living getting lunch with people.

“In [Wilson’s] role, she is constantly meeting and connecting with people,” Assistant Director of Alumni Career Services Rachel Redmond said.“In addition to her development experience in higher education, she has also worked at the Smithsonian, so she was able to speak from experience about the basics of making small talk and navigating a room not only in the art/museum world, but also in a variety of other settings,” Redmond said.

Wilson outlined a variety of strategies for conversing effectively, including going to talk to people standing alone near the bar, getting to know the wait staff, and standing near a piece of art to discuss it with passers-by.

“Small talk [is] sort of the glue that binds our society together. It’s actually a great skill to have and people are endlessly fascinating, so just keep asking questions. If you don’t know what to say, find a friend and go in together,” Wilson advised.

“I think the most interesting thing I learned was to use jokes to displace some of the awkwardness of social mishaps that happen because you don’t know people that well,” Cameron Williams ’18 said.

“It was a lot about just getting comfortable talking to people and understanding that a lot of people aren’t comfortable talking to people, and that’s okay,” Eileen McAuley ’18 said. “There are a lot of different ways to meet people. It’s not as scary as people make it seem.”

Beyond general talking points and strategies, attendees also learned some specific ways to discuss art. A half-hour session by Rinehart moved the event into the two smaller galleries attached to the Samek’s main room.

Rinehart explained that galleries are unique because it is one of the few artistic spaces where small talk is so closely associated with the atmosphere. He noted that an increasing number of museums want to break away from fostering environments of quiet observation by replacing them with those that encourage interaction.

“What museums want to be now are social spaces; community centers. So the fact that you’re talking with people in a gallery is what galleries want,” said Rinehart.

Rinehart provided a few simple talking points to help mitigate the intimidation that can come with discussing art, including a piece’s color, its line style, and whether it feels stable or as if it is in motion. He stressed that gallery visitors should not be hesitant to discuss how art makes them feel, or to look up the historical context of a piece if they are curious about it.

“I really do believe that these skills that I have learned here will definitely help me in many social settings in my life after Bucknell,” Williams said.

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