When it comes to making conversation, Jews have a certain historical advantage. From their earliest years, they've been encouraged to ask questions.
So says Susan RoAne, a San Francisco-based business communication entrepreneur, author and speaker who calls herself "the Mingling Maven."
"They converse, they laugh, they're right in there. It's part of our culture," says RoAne, 52, whose latest book is "What Do I Say Next? Talking Your Way to Business and Social Success."
"Questioning is extolled as a virtue," she says. "Our faith says, here's Four Questions. What you need to be aware of [when you ask questions is that] people's favorite subject is themselves."
On the other hand, she says, avoid cross-examination. "I will allow you for tradition's sake, four questions. When you get to the fifth question, if you haven't offered anything about yourself, you're an interrogator. That cannot be your only method of getting to know people."
RoAne, a former sixth-grade teacher, is a professional speaker who for years has been teaching folks to mingle — executives with Fortune 500 companies, salespeople, hairdressers, MBA students.
In "What Do I Say Next?" she expands upon the art of shmooze, developed in her earlier books, "How to Work a Room" and "The Secrets of Savvy Networking." To make sure readers understand her shtick, she includes a Yiddish glossary.
Key points include keeping abreast of the news, cutting out articles and anecdotes that will serve as conversational appetizers, and developing a list of small-talk topics. Best-selling books, local events, hobbies and films rank high on the small-talk list.
But stay away from religion, abortion and partisan politics, unless you're among like-minded people. And don't deliver monologues. RoAne uses what she calls the "AT&T" rule: Is it appropriate, timely and tasteful? She also advocates the "OAR" approach: "Offer an observation. Ask a question. Reveal your thoughts, ideas or opinions."
Sprinkled amid advice on conversation skills are one-liners from the Talmud, like, "A lesson learned with humor is a lesson learned" or "These things are good in small quantities and bad in large: yeast, salt and hesitation."
"I got them from the Jewish Bulletin," she said. "There was a time when they needed a filler, they would do a little something from Talmud, from Hillel, these little pithy wonderful quotes. If I saw a good quote, I would cut it out and put it in a drawer next to the nightstand."
One of her favorites, which she shared with an image consultant, is "In your town, your reputation counts. In another town, your clothes do."
In RoAne's book, certain topics are conversational no-nos. While she applauds humor, an ethnic joke or a joke at somebody else's expense is taboo.
"I taught kids in school, you don't make fun of other people," says RoAne, who delivered the same message in presentations on multiethnic sensitivity in local school districts. "That is still my job when I'm dealing with Fortune 500 companies. I am telling them some of the same things.
"Humor at the expense of other people is very tricky and unless you're Don Rickles or Bobby Slayton, I think you pretty much shouldn't do it."
What does work is treating a business mixer as if you were the host. The biblical principle of welcoming the stranger, she says, works as well in a business setting as it does at a synagogue oneg or at a Passover seder. Part of the art of conversation is not simply developing strategies to keep the ball rolling but learning to listen and draw other people out.
At a large gathering, it's easier to break into a group of three or four people than a party of two. "I take the well-mannered, rachmones [compassion] approach," she says. "If I see someone on the periphery, I take a step back and will physically include them in the circle."
What does one do when the conversational ball is served into the opposite court and it goes flat?
"If you're really trying to engage people, be a two-timer, give them a second chance," she says. But "trying to bring someone out who doesn't want to be brought out — for whatever reason — is a waste of time. When there's 100 people in a room, when there's 20 people in a room, when there are other nice people in a room, excuse yourself and go and talk to someone else."
While speaking at a YAD event several years ago (the Young Adult Division of the Jewish Community Federation), she encountered a successful professional man about her age who let her know he wasn't about to participate in a mingling exercise. "He said, `I have a problem. I don't like imposing myself on people because I don't like them imposing on me.'
"I thought to myself , `You jerk! Who are you that you're so important that you go to an event and don't want people to talk to you? Stay home if you're going to cast people aside.'"
While RoAne's focus is business rather than singles, occasionally she gets an opportunity to address both. While talking to a business group in Sacramento earlier this month, she asked members of the audience of 300 to raise their hands if they were unattached. About 85 responded.
"Good," she said. "Take a look around and talk to one another…That's where my Jewishness came in."
Whether it's a business or a social event, RoAne advises those who want to meet others to avoid sticking too close to a friend or partner. "People don't feel comfortable talking to someone who's with someone else. Don't look like you're Velcroed."
She also recommends taking an active role at a gathering, introducing those who have something in common. "Being a networker," she says, "is nothing more than Yenta the matchmaker in a business sense. That's a wonderful business skill."