Small talk has never been one of my great skills. I love to talk to groups, and I enjoy a lively one-on-one conversation, but for years I’ve been one of those people who at social events would kind of sigh and do my best to get through the thing without too many awkward moments. Starting and stopping short conversations on light subjects didn’t seem to be something I did well.
I realized recently that this was something I’d like to change, and it occurred to me that small talk, like most skills, was very likely something I could improve with some study and practice (see “Do you have enough talent to become great at it?“). So I went out and did some studying, and this past weekend I had several opportunities to practice, including an event in another state where I knew almost no one.
The result? I’m still not a master of small talk, but the improvement was dramatic, and I expect things to keep getting better as I get more experience. Here are some of the tips I learned that helped me. In a follow-up post, I’ll include links to articles I read on the subject, which can offer further information and ideas. I also hope to have a chance to write up pointers on how to remember names.
1. Small talk is important
Many of us don’t take small talk very seriously, but the essence of small talk is making connections with other people. As human beings, connections with other people are about the most helpful and rewarding thing we can have in our lives. Even if you’re just being practical, it helps to have a lot of friends and friendly acquaintances.
2. No one is forcing us
Even if someone manhandles me into the back of a van and throws me into a party without my permission, I don’t have to talk to anybody. Whenever we have conversations, we’re choosing to have those conversations. Why not do it well?
3. Collect things to talk about
Good conversation involves both talking and listening. In order to have something to contribute, it helps to actively look around for interesting topics that might be of interest to almost anybody: news, entertainment, strange local happenings, unusual things that have happened to us, etc. Then when a silence in the conversation opens up, we already have something to fill it in with that could start a good new conversation. This seemed obvious to me after I started to do it, but the idea of keeping a few things to talk about the next time I was in a social situation had never really crossed my mind.
Lecturing or going into too much detail about something that isn’t fascinating to the listener is bad conversation. Leaving openings for the other person to respond and then paying close attention to what they say makes things flow easily. It’s especially helpful to ask further questions when someone answers a question. Example:
YOU: Where are you from, originally?
THE OTHER PERSON: Kansas.
YOU: (Instead of just saying “Oh.”) So how did you come to live around here?
Watching body language is also helpful. We can keep an eye out for signs we’re boring the other person, for increased interest, for discomfort, etc.
5. Pick specific, friendly subjects of broad interest
Conversations can fall flat when we choose topics that are too general (“Sure has been sunny lately!”), too specific (“I’m trying to figure out how much arch support I need.”), or too controversial for the person you’re talking to (some people like to talk sex, religion, and politics and are bored with milder subjects; others are the opposite).
If you know the person you’re talking to, personal topics (“How’s the baby?” or “Did you ever get that car you were interested in?”) can be especially good.
6. It’s not an interview
For years, my habit in conversations has been to ask questions–lots and lots of questions. Sometimes this works wonderfully, and it’s great for me as a writer. At other times, the person doesn’t feel comfortable being the subject of intense questioning. Light conversation goes more easily when it’s not just a question-and-answer session.
7. Don’t pretend to know things you don’t
Under most circumstances, stopping the conversation to say you don’t know about something someone mentioned is actually a good thing: other people get to share topics they’re knowledgeable about, you get to learn, and nobody has to pretend to know what’s going on when they’re really lost. My experience is that people generally respect an intelligent question, even about something they think of as basic.
8. Wrap it up and move on
At most events, it works better to have several shorter conversations than one long conversation. This depends on the circumstances, of course, but it often works well to find a graceful exit to each conversation before it grows to monopolize the whole time available. This is probably my weakest skill, though. In most cases, all I come up with is polite versions of “Well, I ought to talk to other people now.” Any comments or suggestions on this particular point would be welcome, and I’ll update this item down the road when I have more information.
9. Enjoy people
If I don’t feel like spending time with other people, I’m not likely to make good conversation. It’s important to come into a social situation with a willingness to enjoy the other people there–even (maybe especially) if they’re not the kinds of people we usually spend time with.
10. Open with a general comment plus a specific question
One conversation opener that seems to work well is making a general comment about the situation and following it up with a specific question, for instance “I had no idea there were going to be so many people here. Are these always this popular?” or “I read that the band that’s playing later is great. Have you heard them before?”
Of course, there are other good ways to start a conversation; this is just one good approach.
11. Ask questions about things you observe
Depending on who you are and who you’re talking to, different kinds of questions about the other person can be another easy conversation opener, for example “That’s a great hat! Where did you get it?” or “Is that one of the new iPhones?” or (after reading name tag that includes a company name) “Oh, you’re from Gunderson & Gunderson? My uncle used to work there.”
12. Don’t force it
At least a couple of the sources I read strongly urged seeing movies, watching TV, keeping up on top radio hits, following the news, and otherwise building up your store of general knowledge of current events and pop culture. On this point, I’m going to have to break with the suggestions I’ve heard. If you’re interested in current events or pop culture and want to use them as a way to make more conversation, great. Also, if your day-to-day life involves a very limited range of topics (for instance, your thesis, your cat, and that’s it), then it can really help to expose yourself to books, movies, news, local happenings, or other topics you can use to connect with the people around you. However, most of us are exposed to enough current events and pop culture that seeking out more just to aid conversation strikes me as a bad idea.
First and foremost, I think it’s important to be ourselves, by which I mean not to pretend interest in anything that doesn’t genuinely interest us. If someone’s talking to me alone about a subject that really doesn’t interest me, the ideal is for me to either find a way to get interested or to offer a change of topic. This is especially true if I end up talking with someone who’s very self-occupied and not picking up on my body language or signals.
If it’s not possible to change the subject, it might be a good time to excuse myself to get a drink, find someone I meant to catch up with, or head home for the night.
Yet I don’t often run into people who aren’t interesting to talk to once I get started. Here’s hoping that with some of this information, you won’t either.