Mom might have warned you never to talk to strangers, but it’s impossible to avoid around this time of year. After all, there are holiday parties, office soirees and countless trips to the mall to contend with, and strangers must be sweet-talked at every turn.

So how can you master the art of small talk? Two communication experts share their foolproof strategies so you can stop stressing and start impressing.

Good: Find Common Ground

To break the ice when talking to a stranger at a party, look for things you have in common. “Most people are initially uncomfortable in these situations, so the key is to quickly find some common ground to put you both at ease,” says John W. Cavanaugh, Ph.D. “Do you live in the same area? Did you go to the same school? Do you like a particular sports team?” If all else fails, simply ask people how they know the party host, or what brought them to the event. And don’t be afraid to admit that you’re nervous. “It's likely that they're as nervous at this gathering as you are -- so that’s another thing you share,” notes Cavanaugh.

Better: Be Assertive, Not Aggressive

Hate that sweater Aunt Suzy gave you, but the sales slip slipped her mind? When navigating the returns counter or customer service department -- especially if you're reliant on their goodwill -- it’s crucial to be friendly and assertive instead of aggressive. “Keep in mind that individuals who work in service departments are accustomed to people treating them badly,” says Rachel Tighe, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Communication Studies for the University of Virginia's College at Wise. “If you begin by being pleasant, you have already started the interaction off better than most.” If you strike up a nice conversation but the clerk still won't honor your request, it’s time to ask for more service (with a smile). “Respectfully ask to speak with a manager,” advises Cavanaugh. “Be clear as to what you expect. You might say, ‘I've shopped here for years, and this is the first time I've needed to return something. I'm sorry that I misplaced the receipt, but I just want to exchange this sweater for another one.’” Bonus points if you can get the staff to laugh.

Best: Get People Talking About Themselves

People love talking about themselves, so you can never go wrong by giving them the opportunity. At a work event? Ask a new client or colleague about their hobbies, interests and current or future plans. Studies show that talking about oneself boosts activity in areas of the brain that are linked to value and motivation. In fact, the regions of the brain that are activated by talking about oneself are also responsible for the thrills of food, sex, money and drug addiction. “Questions about the other person are always the best conversation starters,” concludes Tighe. Ask away!

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