We’ve all been there before. You’re at a party, the lobby café of your new office, or a Thanksgiving dinner full of family members you’ve never met. Many of us dread the mundane, oftentimes energy-draining interaction known as small talk.
Taken straight from the top Google search result, “small talk” is the term used to describe the “polite conversation” you have with someone you barely know, usually on unimportant or uncontroversial matters.
Personally, I think Urban Dictionary describes it best as the “useless and unnecessary conversation attempted to fill the silence in an awkward conversation.” That hits a lot closer to home.
Sadly, we can’t escape the necessity for “small talk” conversations, however fruitless or even “fake” as they seem. If you want to meet new people, grow your network and become a socially adjusted member of society, small talk’s just another form of social art you’ve got to master.
I used to get worked up like no one else when it came to new social gatherings, events, what-have-you. I’ve never been clinically diagnosed with social anxiety (and I don’t recommend anyone resorting to self-diagnosis when suspecting potential mental, social, or physical illnesses) – but if there was one word I could use to describe that festering pit of butterflies in my stomach when starting or being approached for shallow conversation, it would total and utter anxiety.
That feeling of breaking in cold sweat, scrambling through the cranium archive for pocket openers, and eventually fumbling through bland and boring weather statements isn’t an all-too pleasant experience. It really is just mindless chatter at its core, but why does it feel like the worst for so many of us?
For most people, the disdain for this social interaction comes down to two main factors:
1. The fear of rejection
2. It’s boring.
When meeting new people, those of us who are more self-conscious than the rest tend to have that mild anxiety of being judged or “sized up” by the other. It’s why first impressions matter so much to us – we want to put our best foot forward to gain that sense of acceptance.
If you relate to this, pulling a conversation out of thin air with someone new can almost feel a bit like a performance – you want to show the other that you are, in fact, a “cool” or “charming” or “charismatic” person.
This is where the fear of rejection comes in. While some hide it well and do manage to strike interesting chit-chat that leads to a great first impression, others suffer from the crippling nervousness of this – the possibility of failing to prove themselves as this awesome, or at the very least, likeable, person – causing them to stumble and fall face-first into awkward stuttering and apologetic, nervous laughter.
But an even more prominent reason for hating the act of “small talk” is the fact that many of us just find it pointless. I can attest to this; I’m totally in the camp of those who find it exhausting having to fill the air with vapid, shallow statements for the sake of politeness. It lacks sincerity, and most of us just prefer deeper, more meaningful social interactions. This is even harder if you’re an introvert with limited social energy – why waste your precious energy on telling the riveting tale of your dreary morning commute?
But, as mentioned earlier, “small talk” is that mandatory first for making the human connections we’re all after, whether in our personal or professional lives. You wouldn’t walk up to a random guy at the bus stop and start discussing Marxist ideologies or the tales of your 9th grade heartbreak.
No, those are conversations we’ve got to earn… even if it means using ever-exhausted openers on the day’s weather or the awesome new shortcut you’ve figured out on Excel.
The trick is to not let the conversation linger in this tedious state – to breeze through the insipid blather and ease into the more interesting stuff a bit quicker.
So, how do you do just that?
I believe a great part in the art of “small talk” is the efficiency at which you’re able to transition from “small talk” to meaningful conversation.
And since that’s what we’d all very much prefer, here’s how to get to it much faster in the right situations:
1. Ask your conversation partner to tell a story
Not literally. But when getting to know someone new for the first time, get them to share a bit more about themselves by asking questions that incite a detailed story; responses that invite actual discussion and thought.
Instead of the usual eye-roll-inducing questions like “So what’d you have for breakfast today?”, “How many hours of sleep did you get?”, or the ever-dreaded, “How’s it going?” – try and probe for more than pointless one-word answers. Ask them if they’re looking forward to anything exciting in their week. Ask them what they think of [insert world-news event here]. Even something as simple as, “What did you today?”, works way better than the typical, “What’s up?” (Which usually results in a “Nothing much!” 99.9% of the time. Blegh.)
It’s in inviting people to share their stories that get them excited to talk to you – and since people love to talk about themselves, this works like a charm in getting them to open up.
This also leaves you with two main advantages: (1) it allows the other person to happily take a significant amount of pressure off you to maintain conversation, and (2) it helps you gain more insight into the person’s character, along with their opinions and interests. Which leads me to the next step…
2. Try and find common ground
Now that you’ve got them talking, the next step is to listen. Listen to what their thoughts are on a certain topic and the subjects that get them excited. Then, try and pick out details in their stories that you share a common interest or opinion on too, no matter how small. When something pops up that catches your attention, go ahead and share your thoughts or opinions on that topic too.
Don’t be afraid to get a bit personal if it feels right, either. Since they’ve done the sharing on their end – now its your turn! (Of course, use common sense and try not to get too heavy with it.)
By this stage, you’re doing your part and more meaningful conversation is in the works. It’s worthy to note, however, that people are generally more attracted to those who share the same attitudes, values, and opinions as them, so it may be best to start off by discussing the things you and the other person mutually agree upon. Get them comfortable with talking to you first, and they’ll be more open to hearing your more controversial opinions later.
Of course, if you can’t pick out anything you have in common with the other person’s initial response; you can always ask them about something else, or if you can, share a story of your own.
3. Don’t be selfish
When it’s your turn to take the reins in the conversation, it’s important to remember that this whole dance takes two. Don’t forget to continue letting the other person have their say on things lest you start hogging the discussion; reducing it to an interaction where you’re talking at, rather than talking with the person. And this is something to be especially wary about when sharing your opinion on more sensitive matters – like politics, religion, or whether Joaquin Phonenix was a good cast for the Joker. If you catch yourself passionately going off on something with someone you’ve just met, you may want to dial it back a bit; they’re probably not too keen on a 10-minute lecture.
Instead, keep your side of things nice and concise, and keep asking questions to get to know the other person a little more each time. As they continue share more about themselves and what they think, you’ll gain more insight into what topics or opinions you both have in common.
And basically, you have a rinse-and-repeat of the first two steps: encouraging your conversation partner to reveal a bit more about who they are, recognising where your mutual interests lie, and following up with your thoughts on that.
And there you have it – you’re having a substantial conversation! Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t some foolproof guarantee that you’re now buddies for life; you may just find out that you both aren’t that compatible after all, apart from a few shallow areas of mutual interest.
But hey, if that’s the worse that could happen, you’ll at least have a pocket set of topics to pull out the next time you bump into this person – one’s that don’t involve the weather, or their train ride to work.
Now, while this all seems fine and simple, these three steps to wrangling “small talk” aren’t going to magically work on their own. You’ve got to keep these factors in mind, too – to avoid any extra unwanted awkwardness:
Make sure you’re actually in the right situation to be having a substantial conversation
What “small talk” is also good for – apart from leading meetings with new people to a place of potential, real connection – is for passing the brief amount of time you have to spend with an acquaintance without coming off as rude or standoffish. It’s great for elevators, bump-ins at the grocery checkout, or when you’re a barista at Starbucks. What they aren’t great for, as you likely already know, are having in-depth conversations on hard and personal topics. People in these contexts are presumably ready to take off in a matter of minutes to do other things on their agenda; to stop and make time for a hefty conversation isn’t exactly at the forefront of their minds.
Be sure you’re in a relaxed, laid-back situation before attempting to make a meaningful conversation with someone. Trying to ramble on in untimely stations increases your risk of getting that dreaded “rejection”, as the person will likely try and opt out of the interaction as quick as they can.
Assume the other person has deep and interesting things to say, too
I’m pretty guilty of this at times, and it’s what fuels my disdain for “small talk” even more. However, I admit that this type of unproductive mindset isn’t going to get you anywhere – and certainly not in place where you can foster potential friendships with new people.
Don’t judge, and don’t assume that interacting with someone new will lead to nothing but lame prattle. Chances are, they might just surprise you.
Adjusting your perspective is a key part of having a meaningful back-and-forth, otherwise you’re just shutting out that probability of forming a connection before it even takes place.
Don’t try and push people to adopt your perspective
People you’ve just met are usually just after conversation, not debate. Like I mentioned previously, it may be best to start off with discussing subjects or opinions that you find you and the other person already have in common, since this allows them to feel comfortable enough with you to listen to your more adversarial views later down the track.
However, being stubborn in your views and attempting to lecture them on a topic or placing your views above their own can successfully leave them feeling alienated or antagonised.
And for new people, this can lead to them forming a rather unpleasant or intimidating impression of you – and they’ll inch out of the conversation before you know it.
Arm yourself with interesting knowledge to share
Lastly – but definitely not least – general conversation will be a dreaded challenge if you have nothing interesting or valuable to share in the first place. Read more, get up to date with the news, and treat yourself to new television shows, movies, or music. Brush up on your knowledge about the world and culture around you. The more you know, the more you’ll have to say.
Most of us aren’t fans of “small talk”. And while I’ve admitted that this type of interaction is a useful social tool, I’m still not the greatest fan of it either. “Small talk” can suck and feel silly, but it doesn’t have to lead to crippling anxiety – and pushing the potential for great friendships away.
Once mastered, you’ll have a handy skill under your belt for meeting the right people and making the right connections you need in both your career and personal lives. It’s not the easiest thing to get a hold of, but it sure is worth the initial fumbling.
So the next time you’re in the office pantry having lunch, or find yourself at an overwhelming networking event, go ahead and strike up a conversation with the next individual you bump into. You might have to start simple, but you may also discover an interesting person along the way.