After watching people at many synagogue gatherings over the years, I am convinced that one reason some members don’t talk to newcomers is that they never learned how to “small talk.” Small talk is an important skill when I am interested in building my community. Small talk is also a way to fulfill the mitzvot of hospitality and kindness, by making someone comfortable at my synagogue or gathering.
The next time you see someone standing alone at the oneg Shabbat (cookies, etc after services), here are some tips.
1. BEGIN WITH COMMON GROUND. You are looking to connect with another person. Go for the things you have in common, rather than the differences. “Wow, long line for the coffee! By the way, I’m Ruth.” is not great literature, but the long coffee line is something you have in common. The room, the weather, the service you both attended, the speaker – all are potential opening moves. Avoid divisive topics (politics, for instance) and don’t focus on ways the newcomer is different. An alternative, if you can’t think of a common ground, is simply to say, “Hi, I’m Ruth – have we met?”
2. VOLUNTEER ONE PIECE OF INFO. “I teach Intro to Judaism classes in Berkeley,” is a simple beginning, but it gives them a comforting advantage: they know my name and something about me. It also gives them an easy comeback, “Hi, Ruth, I’m Joe and I am visiting from Cleveland.” This is not the time for major autobiography, though – offer one or two conversational “hooks” and then settle in to listen and find out who they are.
3. GO SLOW! Repeat the person’s name and ask for more about the thing he told you: “Nice to meet you, Joe! What brings you to my town?” Or you can share more about yourself if you see common ground: “Joe, my grandfather grew up in Cleveland! The family name was Levi, and they were members at the Temple in Cleveland.” Chat a bit, pay attention. Listening is more important than talking. How long you chat depends on the two of you: if it’s interesting and comfortable, you might chat a while. If you can’t seem to connect with this person, then move on to Step 4:
4. MAKE SURE THEY MEET OTHER PEOPLE. Introduce them to someone else, providing one piece of information about them if possible. This gives you another opportunity to use the newcomer’s name, which increases the chance you’ll remember it: “Joe, I’d like you to meet Adam. Adam sings in the choir. Adam, Joe is visiting from Cleveland.” It also assures that the newcomer will meet more than one person there. If they let you know they are looking for a synagogue, you may want to introduce them to the rabbi, the membership chair, or someone on the temple board.
5. MAKE YOUR EXIT. One graceful way to move away from another person is by saying, “It was nice to meet you, Joe. I need to…” and then fill the blank with anything from “Get some water” to “leave early this evening” or “talk with someone.” The idea is to let them know that you enjoyed meeting them, and that something is now drawing you regretfully away. If you can leave them with someone new to talk to, that’s the best scenario.
For the newcomer, all the same rules apply: Start with the setting, introduce yourself (“coming out” as a visitor or newbie), pay attention and repeat names, and look for common conversational ground. If there’s something you want to know, ask.
Most congregations advertise themselves as “welcoming.” To be truly welcoming, though, a congregation needs to acknowledge and engage the people who come in the door. That takes small talk, the social skill that is not really so small.