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It's the holidays, put down the cell phone and chat

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Benjamin Peterson isn't one for small talk.

While waiting in line at a bank recently, the 21-year-old from pretended to be texting on his cellphone to avoid a conversation with the man standing behind him.

It didn't work. After 15 minutes of awkward silence, the man finally broke down and asked, "So, have you had the new Wendy's pretzel burger yet?"

Anyone who has discussed the cold - ad nauseam - at a holiday party knows that making small talk isn't always easy. Conversing with strangers, acquaintances or relatives you rarely see can be uncomfortable, if not downright painful.

As Peterson and many others have found, the explosion of digital devices has given us a handful of tools to avoid engaging with others. But small talk is a big deal when it comes to personal and professional success.

As trivial as topics such as the weather and traffic might seem, they are necessary rungs on a ladder of more meaningful conversation.

"Talking about things that are not intensely personal is the foundation of any real relationship," said Sheila Delaney, a matchmaker in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

A simple conversation can lead to new connections, which can lead to new business or romantic opportunities, said Diane Windingland, a speech coach and author of "Small Talk, Big Results."

"The holiday party can be a great time to connect with top executives, because everyone is likely to be more relaxed and receptive to chatting about non-work topics, such as family, holiday plans and more," Windingland said. "You are more likely to be seen as a whole person and not just, 'Joe in marketing.'?"

But the increasing reliance on cellphones, tablets and e-readers is cutting into opportunities for small talk, and many of us, especially young people, are becoming less adept at it.

"Because we've become so desensitized with electronics, people have lost the art of conversation," said Barb Churchill, a life coach. "This generation hasn't been trained how to speak in more than 140 characters."

Peterson concedes his generation is terrible at small talk, in part because social media fill the need for meaningless conversation.

"If someone were riding in the elevator and I were to get on, I can almost guarantee that if the person is under 30, a cellphone will be pulled out," he said.

Tony Mansmith, 22, isn't ready to say casual conversation is dead, but he is convinced we're headed that way.

"As we move toward a more technological world, we drift away from that way of communicating," he said.

And that brings us back to the holiday conundrum.

No matter how "social" our media get, there's no escaping at least a brief conversation with your boss's boss or great-aunt Alice.

So before you plot your hideout for the holiday office party or decide on a duck-and-dodge at home, take heart.

"Even the most introverted people can master the art of small talk," said Susanne Jones, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Minnesota. "It's a challenge, but people should not underestimate the power of small talk, especially around the holidays."

Short of hiring a networking, speech or life coach, there are plenty of things you can do to improve your small-talk skills. Be yourself, be genuine, focus on others and not yourself, and don't put so much pressure on yourself, experts say.

Some say it's even worth practicing small talk. And since many of us have our heads buried in our iPhones during prime small-talk opportunities -- on the bus, in line at the store, on the elevator -- the holiday social season is a great time to brush up.

Some people are just naturally good at small talk or have jobs that require them to talk about the mundane.

As an ICU nurse and perpetual partygoer, Nicole Marshall is a self-proclaimed "professional small-talker."

"I could probably sweet-talk the president of the United States," said Marshall, 37.

"Small talk is like speed dating. You get to find out a quick little snippet about people in a short amount of time," she said. "Small talk opens the door for relationships ... and often leads to something great, like a new friend."

Copyright 2013 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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