Most of you aren’t social enough.
Sorry. Didn’t really want to drop it on you cold, but there really isn’t any gentle way to go about it. I know that a number of you have been trying the exercises that I recommended for making talking to women a part of your daily lives, but there are far too many among you who linger in the fringes of a social gathering, hoping that there will be a chance to get the woman you like alone.
And let’s not talk about those of you who go to parties or bars and spend all of your time quietly nursing a drink, feeling awkward about the fact that you know barely anybody there. Because I know there are plenty of you too, little bundles of social awkwardness wishing that you were anywhere else and desperately hoping for someone you know to show up and rescue from this convivial hell.
Of course, there’s always the other solution. You could always start getting to know the people around you.
Look, cold hard truth time. You can’t just stick to talking to people you know or to the limited areas where you feel comfortable. You will have to make small-talk with strangers, whether it’s your girlfriend’s family or your fellow cubicle farmers at work. You don’t need to be the life of the party, but you do need to learn how to make small talk. Let’s be honest: whether you’re at a party, at a bar or killing time in line waiting for the show to start, nobody wants to talk to Johnny O’Sullen glowering by himself in the corner. They all much prefer the friendly, charming guy who seems to be genuinely interested in getting to know people.
So it’s time to start learning how to talk to anyone.
Don’t Sweat The Opening
Much as with approaching a woman for the first time, you don’t need a pre-set excuse to talk to somebody. All you really need to do is just start flapping your lips. You have any number of openings. You can be observational and take your cues from the environment around you; someone did something crazy, a waitress spilled a drink, the game’s on the TV. You can go old-school and just introduce yourself. You can – politely – insert yourself into an ongoing conversation, provided you have something relevant to say. You can even just start talking and wait for them to react.
Consider the context of your location; are you at a party? You have no reason not to go up and introduce yourself; parties are social gatherings. Are you at a bar? Ask someone for an opinion or comment on what’s happening on TV. In an elevator? Sitting on a ski lift? Ask them how their day’s going. You have any number of social questions that can lead to a quick conversation.
The important part, though, is that you need to take the initiative. Sitting around waiting for someone else to do the heavy conversational lifting for you is how you end up sitting in a corner feeling sorry for yourself and wishing you were somewhere else while the people around you are having a good time.
Interested Is Interesting
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: we instinctively like people who show interest in us. We appreciate that someone is taking the time to get to know us, to find out what we think. It’s a quick and dirty way of getting on somebody’s good side and making them more likely to want to keep talking to you.
In practice, this means that you want to ask questions. Now while I normally advise people to avoid the Common First Date Questions, but this isn’t a date; this is small talk. Asking someone what they do is a good way to get a conversation flowing. Take time to find out what they find interesting and what makes them tick. Everybody has a story and they can catch you by surprise. I met one couple in a bar in London who looked to be the stereotypical “ugly American”, complete with a cartoon-sized cowboy hat and a girlfriend who apparently had been taking fashion tips from J-Wow. Over the course of a couple of bourbons, it was revealed that he was as a former miner and land manager who was taking a tour of Europe with his girlfriend… because they had literally struck gold. Another guy I met in a bar where I was killing time used to scuba dive until he damaged his eardrums. Which he did because he found goddamn pirate treasure and surfaced too quickly. Had photos of the wreck and everything. Another guy turned out to be a male escort… who specialized in clients attracted to clowns.1
The point is: you never know what you might find out about someone until you stop and ask some questions.
Don’t Make It All About You
By the same token, you don’t your conversations to be all about you. Nobody likes the guy who makes a point of turning every conversation into another chance to go on about something he likes. Similarly, you don’t want to leap into somebody else’s conversation and try to take it over or turn it to a subject you’d prefer.
Everybody has someone in their social circle who does this. You don’t want to be that guy.
Keep It Light
There’s something disconcerting with a stranger trying to engage you in the sort of incredibly deep conversation that stoned college students have late at night in their dorm rooms. I remember one guy at a bar during karaoke night who wanted to talk about the Matrix and how can we prove that we’re not just programs living out somebody else’s pre-programed fantasy, maaaaan?
Of course, me being the smart-ass that I am, I think I kind of blew his mind when I started trying to explain the plot of TRON to him as something deadly serious and utterly real… but still, that’s a hell of a thing to start off with.
Look, this is small talk. You don’t want to get too deep right from the word “go”; trying to discuss the subjective nature of reality with strangers is best reserved for after a couple bong hits instead of making conversation with the guy sitting next to you on your flight to Dallas. Keep things to a superficial level – jobs, women, money, sports, movies, television – unless they make the leap first. At which point, go right ahead, feel free to discuss Western philosophers versus the Buddha, favorite sexual positions, that crazy thing your ex-girlfriend did that made your eyes roll back in your head and caused you to make “Mnyaaaa hah hahaaa” sounds like Moe Howard.
Just realize that you may have opened yourself up to some really awkward propositions or offers of drugs later.
- In fairness, he was in clown make-up at the time… but then again, this is in Austin. What’s weird to everyone else is Tuesday to us. [↩]