Small talk. Just the words fill people with existential dread. It conjures up images of being stuck at a party or networking event and getting caught in the awkward conversation loop where nobody can think of anything to say. It’s the worst part of any first date. It is 100% pure undiluted cringe in social form.
But for as much as we dread small talk and wish we could just skip it entirely, it’s actually a necessary part of socializing. Small talk isn’t space filler, it’s social bonding; it’s the building of relationships between people that allows us to actually bridge the gap between the social space and exchanging supposedly “meaningful” talk. By making small talk, we set ourselves up to be able to ask the “big” questions… but that doesn’t mean that small talk is useless otherwise. In fact, making more small talk actually makes people – even introverts – happier. Knowing how to make small talk helps break us out of a bubble of isolation and makes us feel more connected to the people around us. It’s simply a matter of knowing how.
To Make Better Small Talk, Connect Rather Than Talk
The hardest part of making small talk with someone is just starting. It’s that awkward and uncomfortable moment at a party when you’re standing by the wall, playing with your phone in hopes that people won’t think you’re desperately wishing that someone would come talk to you.
Think of how relieved and grateful you feel when someone does come up and introduces themselves. It feels great, doesn’t it? You can be that somebody who makes the other person feel relieved.
Getting nervous already? Don’t be.
See, the part that tends to freak people out about starting a conversation with a stranger is the feeling that we need a reason to get the conversation going. You really don’t; the only reason you need is that you just want to meet somebody. Think of a conversation as a wagon in front of a hump in the road at the top of a hill. You want the wagon to get to the bottom of the hill. Once you get the wagon over that hump, gravity kicks in and takes care of the rest. So your goal is to get the conversation over that initial hump in order to get things rolling. The trick is just making that push. So how do you do that?
Start with an opening statement – something that helps establish a connection and creates a commonality between the two of you. You make an observation or comment based on your shared surroundings. “This is a great party”, “Did you see that guy on the dance floor?”, “The Stephen Amell/Stardust match up at Summer Slam was amazing”, “That last speaker was weird/boring/funny,” etc. In a cold approach situation, this is often called an observational or situational opening. What you’re doing is two-fold. First: you’re establishing a small similarity or shared experience – a little moment that says “we’re both of the same tribe”, as it were. It’s a quick and instant commonality, something to bridge the social gap. It also serves as the pretext for the conversation. Everybody recognizes this to one degree or another, which is why I always say: the opening doesn’t matter. It’s just the conversational on-ramp; we understand that it’s just how we get the conversation started.
But but now that you’ve had your opener, it’s time to bridge the gap from an opening to an actual conversation by opening up just a little and connecting yourself to the opener. Let’s say that you used Stephen Amell’s performance during Summer Slam as your opening. To bridge the gap, you might say something along the lines of “I was never really much of a wrestling fan, but the idea of The Arrow doing pro-wrestling was kind of hilarious and now I’m kind of digging it.” By sharing a little bit about yourself, you’re encouraging the exchange of information in a way that invites reciprocity – you’ve shared something about yourself, now it’s their turn to share something about themselves. By sharing part of yourself – even something relatively minor – it allows other people to feel comfortable sharing part of themselves as well. Opening up like this also provides an immediate conversational topic – this shared moment and how you both relate to it.
So now that you’ve shared a little of yourself, what do you do? Well, you don’t want to just sit there and ramble – that’s a lecture, not a conversation. You want to draw them into the conversation… so you toss them the conversational ball by asking a question that ties into your opener. What did they think of the match, what was their favorite part of Summer Slam, what did they think of Jon Stewart beating John Cena with a chair… the point is to get the other person engaged in the conversation and sharing their thoughts or opinions.
It doesn’t hook? Try a different observation.
Once you’ve gotten the conversation over that initial hump, it all gets much easier. That being said, there are still some pitfalls you want to avoid.
Take the Lead
There’s nothing more awkward when you’re making small talk than when both parties are sitting there and you realize that this conversation is speeding into a brick wall. You know that moment: you realize even as the words leave your mouth that not only do they not care about the topic, but you don’t want to talk about it either; you’re just throwing words out like a conversational shot gun because the other option is awkward silence. Except now it’s even more awkward. Nobody is quite willing to take ownership of the conversation and you’re both relying on the other to make the next move to keep things going. Before you know it, the conversation has fucked off for parts unknown and you’re both now left wondering if it’s possible to cringe so hard that you actually fold in on yourself and disappear.
You can’t rely on other people to do be your conversational director because often they’re waiting for you to do the exact same thing. If nobody is in charge of the conversation then you’re going to have to step up and start directing the flow. One of the reasons why small talk quickly becomes a trip down a one-way, dead-end street is because both parties run down one subject without stopping, even when you both know it’s boring you both to tears. To save the conversation, you have to start cutting threads and changing the subject. It’s actually very simple; when you feel a lull or dead end coming, you use a conversational transition phrase. “Hey, let me ask you something…” “You know, that reminds me,” “Interesting. Hey, I’ve been wondering…” “Check this out…”
Don’t worry about making the transition relevant to whatever you were just talking about – you’re changing the subject to something else entirely, it doesn’t have to be connected. Think of the conversations you have with your friends; you jump the rails all the time, often without even pausing to make a transition. In fact, you can even leap back and forth between threads – talking about one topic, changing to another, then coming back to a previous one. Most small talk isn’t as linear as we think it is; it’s only when we start overthinking things that we get stuck on conversations to nowhere. Remember: small talk is meant to be engaging, not tedious.
Ask Open-Ended Questions
One mistake that we make when making small talk is that we ask the wrong questions. Some questions open up any number of possible topics while others shut the conversation down like cops raiding a teenager’s house party.
The difference is simple: the wrong questions encourage binary answers. If any question you ask can be answered in one or two words, then you’re asking the wrong question. For example, let’s say you’re meeting somebody and you’ve ended up talking about work. Surprise, surprise, you find out that they’re a rodeo clown. You might be tempted to ask “How long have you worked as a rodeo clown?” This is the wrong question; it’s a conversational dead end because it’s a two or three word answer: not long, a couple years, six months…. followed by crickets as you both stare at each other awkwardly. You need to ask questions that encourage longer, more involved answers – so instead of “how long have you been working there?” ask “How did you get started?”
Almost every question that brings a one or two word answer can be rephrased in such a way that makes it more open-ended. Instead of asking someone how they like their job or their major, ask them “what made you decide you wanted to do that” or “what’s the best part of doing X?” Instead of how long they’ve lived in town, ask what it’s been like living there or what brought them there.
You want to be asking questions that leave openings for clarification or follow up questions. They’re majoring in glass-blowing, so what made them decide to go into it? Do they see themselves pursuing more of an artistic side of things, or are there practical applications? Do they end up with their friends asking them to make custom bongs? If they’re new in town, ask how it’s been adjusting to their new place. Have they been getting to know the area? Have they discovered any new favorite spots? How does it compare to where they used to live?
Some other open-ended question prompts:
- Tell me about…
- How do you…
- What inspired you to…
- What’s $SUBJECT like?
- What’s the best part of…
- Have you… /Did you…
Avoid Going Into Interviewer Mode By Varying Questions With Statements
Expressing interest in others is a key part of making small talk and getting people to like you. At the same time however, if you just barrage people with questions, it starts to feel less like a conversation and more like they’re being grilled. Plus, if someone feels like they’re doing all of the talking, they begin to feel awkward for dominating the conversation.
So to avoid coming off like Larry King (or like they’re having to account for their whereabouts on the night of the 24th), you want to mix in some statements along with your questions. By varying up questions with statements, you keep the other person from feeling like they’re doing all of the talking, which helps them feel more comfortable. The trick is, as with asking questions, you have to make sure that you’re making statements that encourage a response instead of putting up roadblocks.
One way of making a comment instead of asking a question is to make a joke or humorous observation about what they’ve just said. A pop-culture reference, a dry observation, making an absurd exaggeration or even a gentle tease can all help break up the string of questions while still moving the conversation forward. You just have to be careful – if you’re not incredibly socially well-calibrated, then you want to avoid anything even vaguely edgy. The last thing you want to do is to end up offending the person you’re trying to make small talk with.
Making a comment or statement can also be a way of pulling a conversational thread away from a dead end. If you’ve asked a question that’s led to a conversational blockade, then sharing a little more about how you feel about the topic can help move things back on track. So if you ask if they watch Arrow and they respond with a blank stare or a “no, I don’t,” you might say something along the lines of “I wasn’t really a fan of superhero shows, but I liked the premise enough to give it a shot; every episode I’d think it was cheesy, but I kept coming back.” You can then either wait for them to respond or add in a question: “Do you watch any shows that just hooked you despite yourself?”
You also want to apply the basics of active listening; take what they’ve said and rephrase it in your own words while finding a way to relate to it. This not only breaks up the flow of questions, but it also demonstrates that you’re paying careful attention instead of just waiting for your turn to talk. It’s incredibly gratifying when someone we’re talking to shows that they care about what we think. Active listening during small talk is a way to build those social bonds even quicker.
When You Can’t Think Of Any Questions, Pay Attention
Everyone dreads that moment when the conversation runs dry and you can’t think of anything else to say. Sometimes it can be hard to come up with a question to ask and you’re left sitting there awkwardly shuffling your feet and feeling the tension settle in. However, a little situational awareness can pull you out of any conversational dead zones.
To start with, look around; there’s almost assuredly something around that can spark a conversation. You may ask a question about a photo, poster or random souvenir they have (“So what’s the story here?”). You may ask a question about someone nearby (“Woah, what do you think he was thinking when he decided that shirt was a good idea?”). You can suss out relationships or circumstances on how you both came to be there (“So how do you know the host?” “How’d you find out about this event?”).
Another technique for getting out of a conversational dry spell is to notice something about them, pay them a compliment on it and follow it up with a question. If they have an interesting piece of jewelry, ask where they got it or if there’s a story behind it. If they organized the event you’re attending, pay a compliment about the set up or the decorations and then ask about some specific aspect about them. Where’d they get the food, how did they decide on the music or the speaker?
You can also bring up something that they said to someone else, or that someone else said. They may have mentioned playing a sport earlier and you happened to overhear; what got them into it? Are they a fan of $LOCAL_TEAM? What do they think of the season?
Another quick way to keep the conversation moving is to ask for advice on an issue – something that you know they have an interest in. By doing so, you’re giving the other person a chance to brag a little by demonstrating their knowledge and skill. This not only lets them go on about a topic they already enjoy, but it strokes their ego a little. It’s a great way to quickly build rapport with someone while you’re making small talk.
Of course, sometimes conversations reach a natural lull and there’s nothing to be done about it. But rather than sit in awkward silence, use this as a natural opportunity to disengage. One of the simplest ways of stepping away – especially at a party or networking event – is to go refill your drink. Offer to get them one too; just because the conversation is over, it doesn’t mean you might not want to reengage them a little later on… and at that point you’ll feel much more at ease with them.
Small talk can be intimidating at first. But with a little practice and thought, you’ll find that you’ll be able to talk with anyone and put those anxieties behind you.