The Art of Small Talk

Of all the life skills, few are so underrated or needed so often as the ability to make small talk. Of course, some find it effortless. Others are so self-assured, or so arrogant, that they adopt the attitude of a talent show judge and wait for the other person to amuse them. For many people, however, small talk is a tricky and awkward business. Indeed, some would literally prefer to visit a dentist than walk into a room full of strangers, introduce themselves, and start a conversation.

Small Talk and Big Talk

First, a distinction needs to be made between small and big talk. Many struggle with the first but not the second. Put them in a room with someone who shares their love for French cinema or medieval history and they will be perfectly happy. Make them visit their in-laws for Sunday dinner, on the other hand, and they will seize up with discomfort and embarrassment.

Remember, small talk means small talk. Someone once described reading P.G. Wodehouse as like swimming in champagne – a wonderful simile that could also be applied to the most successful small talk. Aim to make it light, sparkly and happy. Don’t stand at a friend’s barbecue, beer in one hand and hotdog in the other, asking your fellow guests whether they support the death penalty or believe in God!

Body Language

Before considering what you say, be conscious of how you say it. The basics of body language should be obvious enough. Keep your hands out of your pockets and your arms uncrossed. Smile, nod, laugh and maintain eye contact (obviously making sure this eye contact is non- confrontational). And work on your voice. Vary the pitch and rhythm and avoid the dreary, monotonous whine that so many people use.

Don’t Put People on the Defensive

The golden rule of small talk is not to antagonise the other person. Don’t forget, there is a good chance they will be as wary and uncomfortable as you. Unless they are sociopathic, they just want the conversation to flow in an easy, relaxed manner.

Keep the topics light and easy. Avoid anything that may start an argument or offend the other person – especially politics and religion. Some people find small talk excruciating and, in desperation, plunge straight in by asking the other person what they thought of the election result or whether they still go to church. Others find small talk so tedious that they steer the conversation onto serious topics to make it more interesting. More often, they do so because they have something on their mind and wish to rant.

You should also avoid anything too personal. Never ask a vague acquaintance how much they earn, for example, or how they got on with their parents. The more personal the questions, the more likely you are to touch a sore spot. If you are about to meet someone new, try and find out a little about them first. If their teenage son has dropped out of school and started dabbling in drugs, it would be helpful to know, that way you can skirt around the subject of children, college etc.

And try not to dispute or argue, especially if the point is a trivial one. Imagine you fall into conversation with a neighbour and ask them how Christmas went. She replies “well, you know what it’s like, you buy so much food that you end up making a pig of yourself!” This is merely a general, lighthearted observation. Just smile and nod. If you reply “no, I don’t think that’s true of most people” you are insinuating both that she is foolish for making such a statement – and that she’s greedy!

Giving People Something to Work With

Some people make small talk even harder by constantly replying with a “yes”, “no” or “don’t know”. If someone asks you whether you follow baseball, don’t just say “no”, say “no, I’m a fan of European soccer. I follow Manchester United.” Even if the other person loathes soccer, it may set off a train of thought, for example: “oh, really? My sister married an Englishman. I believe he came from Manchester. It’s near Liverpool isn’t it? I only know because I’m a Beatles fan.” You can then reply “Oh, me too. I also love the Doors.” If he likes The Beatles, he probably listens to a band like The Doors. He will then ask which album you like and away you go.

This is how small talk ebbs and flows: people throw out hooks and try to catch your interest. If you see one coming, grab hold of it! The key is to establish some kind of common ground. In the above example, you and the other person have established a mutual love of 60s pop music. You do not like baseball, and he clearly has no interest in soccer, but after a little effort some common ground has been established.

Your Life Isn’t Interesting

This may be painful to hear, but you are probably not very interesting. To be more precise, your life is probably not very interesting. Many people mistake polite questions for burning curiosity. Imagine someone asks you whether you have always lived in this town. Unless they are conducting research on population movement in the area, it was probably just asked out of politeness. Do not then spend fifteen minutes explaining how you were born in Toronto but then your father got a job in Vancouver, so you moved to an apartment in the north of the city where… etc.

The best small talk is cheerful, upbeat, and flits from topic to topic. Don’t go into excessive detail about any one thing. If you hope to interest the other person, find their passion; touch on that and you will see their face light up. So try out music, movies, books, travel, TV shows and pets. Most people will have an interest in at least one of those. And when they speak, be interested – really listen to what they have to say. In general, people would rather you disagreed (in a gentle, polite, friendly way of course) than sighed, looked over their shoulder, and waited for them to finish.

Above all, relax. You don’t need to dazzle the room. It is enough simply to be polite, cheerful, and friendly. Finally, you need to put these skills to work – so get practising.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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