Small Talk, A Primer For The Socially Awkward

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I know I know, you hate small talk. You’re just too deep and full of complex emotions to be able to even entertain the idea. Chill, no one likes small talk. You’re not supposed to like it. Small talk is the most misunderstood thing on the face of this planet. The turbulent emotional relationship we all have to it does not change the fact that small talk is an important tool that’s worth getting really good at. Think of it as the car ride on your way to somewhere awesome (Disneyland? The beach? DSW?) worth the discomfort because it will take you where you ultimately want to go – friendship, stronger connection, mentorship, whatever the case may be for you.

It honestly doesn’t matter whether you’re introverted or as outgoing as they come, there’s a good chance that you could use some brushing up in the small talk department. Though many of us obviously find it boring, small talk plays a big role in how we get along with others. Think of it as the gateway to connecting with people. There’s this misconception that small talk is just a dumbed-down version of “actual talk” in which you dive deep, wax philosophical and get into the meat of a topic. Small talk is often synonymous with filler, fluff and inane banter. If you’re someone who sees small talk as merely inane banter, then you’re probably also someone who generally finds people to be unfriendly, and difficult to connect to on a deeper level. Coincidence?

Choosing to stick to only deep conversation and avoiding small talk altogether when meeting new people is kind of like asking someone to marry you after a first date. Sure, you might strike gold and meet a person who is just as quick to jump the gun, and the two of you manage to make a connection, but these are exceptions. The vast majority of people are going to feel strangely uneasy every time they’re around you. Small talk is like the necessary courting phase of a romantic relationship. Talking about the weather or asking about someone’s family is exactly like taking your crush on a first date to their favorite restaurant. Sure, it may not serve your favorite food, and it may not even look very nice, but it’ll make your date comfortable and much more likely to have a deeper conversation with you eventually. Small talk is a polite and comfortable way of showing someone that you’re a decent person, before you expose your bleeding heart with all its opinions, emotions and insecurities. Diving straight for the deep and philosophical can be really uncomfortable when done too soon.

If you are shy, bad at small talk and feel out of place in a crowded room full of strangers, every new encounter is going to feel like a missed opportunity. Socially, mastering the art of light conversation can be a total game changer, and even if it isn’t, at worst it’ll make your life easier at all those networking events. Knowing how to initiate conversation, keep people interested and engaged is a super-skill that you can develop with practice. Whenever you find yourself in a situation that calls for small talk, whether it’s a party or work event, you’ll need to keep five things in mind: 1. Know when someone is actually interested in talking to you 2. Stick to neutral ground, 3. Tune into body language, 4. Be kind, and 5. know when to bail. We’ll go more in-depth below.

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Small Talk Isn’t Really About Talking

When you first meet someone your job isn’t to blow them away with your brilliant conversation skills. If you can, then great. But don’t feel pressured to be Mr or Ms Profound with someone you barely know. In the early stages of conversation, your job is to send and to look for those subtle signals that tell you someone is comfortable with you, and open to moving beyond light conversation. The small talk phase is all about body language. People waste so much time trying to come up with interesting topics to talk about, but it almost doesn’t matter what you say, as long as it’s light, polite and politically correct. The conversation part of small talk is really just a very small part of the bigger picture. What matters more here is how you act, how warm you appear, how much charisma you exude and how interested you seem in the other person. The truth is small talk isn’t supposed to be captivating, it’s just an excuse for two people to throw empty words at each other long enough to get a good feel for each other’s energy. Are you cool? Do you like me? Are you psychologically stable? Are you going to stab me if I turn around to reach for my drink? These are the kind of questions subconsciously running through a strangers head when you initiate conversation for the first time. So don’t worry so much about finding interesting topics of conversation, just smile, stand up straight, ask a lot of questions and try not to nod too much (it’ll make you look too eager).

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No Really, What Should I Talk About?

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Ok, so we understand that coming up with things to talk about is hard, even when we’re dealing with mundane chit chat. We hear you, and we’d like to help. The trick to making small talk successfully is observing your environment for conversation topics, then asking open ended questions about them. Start by scanning your surroundings for anything interesting – does the host have some strange pieces of furniture you could mention? Do they have awesome taste in art? Is the party located in a weird part of town? Does the person you are speaking to have a tan? A great haircut? Ask them an open ended question about it! These are the topics that make the best small talk fodder. Open ended questions can’t be answered with one or two words (yes, no, good, I’m fine, sure etc). So instead of approaching someone and asking, “Do you come here often?” (No/Yes) or “How are you today?” (Fine, thank you), you would ask “How do you know the host?” or “How the hell did you get that oversized couch in here?” With questions like these you don’t have to work so hard to come up with various topics. You just ask a simple open ended question, and let them do all the talking. If you see that the other person is giving you short answers, it may be because they think you don’t really want to hear the full story (this is especially true in formal networking situations where people expect a lot of empty but polite chatter). Just encourage them to continue, showing your interest, “I’d love to hear more about that.” People LOVE to talk about themselves, so just let them. It’s the easiest way of making small talk work.

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Who Should I Talk to at a Party

Not everyone at a party is interested in making friends or snagging your business card. Sometimes people show up out of obligation to a friend, or a co-worker. You’ll want to know how to steer clear of people that don’t want to be showered with your magical small talk skills. As a general rule of thumb, eye contact is a good indicator of interest. People who want to be left alone are usually not scanning the room and looking people in the eyes, they’ll focus on their phones, or stare intently at the drink in their hands. Same goes for anyone who looks like they are concentrating. This is closed body language, and includes standing with your arms and legs crossed, and your body pointed in the direction of the door. The person you want to approach will be scanning the room, with both feet and shoulders pointed in the direction of the crowd. This kind of open body language is a safe bet, even in group situations. When a group of people stands together in a closed circle, it acts like a fortress against anyone trying to join their conversation. On the other hand, if the group forms a semi-circle which remains open to everyone else, you can safely join in and introduce yourself. This kind of body language is embedded so deep in the mind that the majority of people don’t even realize they’re doing it, making it a reliable indicator of how open someone is to talk.

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The Rodgerian Approach To Small Talk

Carl Rogers was a famous psychotherapist who believed that all people have the capacity inside themselves for self-understanding and the ability to change basic attitudes and behaviors. Rogers argues that these resources can be tapped “if a definable climate of facilitative psychological attitudes can be provided.” Meaning, by consciously creating a certain positive psychological environment you can control the attitude and behavior of the people around you. What we’re dealing with here is the antidote to awkward social situations. According to Dr. Rodgers, in order to get people to relax and open up around you, three things have to happen: congruence, unconditional positive regard and empathy. Congruence is the ability to freely and openly relate to people without hiding behind a persona, unconditional positive regard is basic respect, listening without interrupting, and not passing judgment on opinions you disagree with. And lastly, empathetically making an effort to see the world through the other persons eyes.

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How to Turn Up Your Charisma

Coincidentally, congruence, positive regard and empathy are also key players in how charismatic you appear to others. When you combine respect, sincere interest and empathy with the right questions, and some well timed jokes, you can significantly increase your charisma. Olivia Fox Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth, adds two more steps to amp up you personal magnetism: Presence and Power. According to Cabane, powerful people are naturally perceived as more charismatic. It’s that cool but confident air that makes people look like they’d be equally comfortable leading an army to battle, as they would be giving a TED talk to a crowd of thousands. By being conscious of how to carry yourself, you can increase your power charisma. If you ever observed charismatic individuals you may notice that they don’t expend energy on excessive movements, like fidgeting and over-nodding, and they definitely don’t waste their words. Their conversations are not littered with “mhmmm” and “ahaaa.” This what we call poise and it’s powerful charismatic stuff. It’s like that saying, confidence is silent, insecurities are loud. Presence, on the other hand, is about not drifting off mentally while other people are talking. A lot of socially anxious people do this – they use the time it takes someone to answer a question to come up with a new question, without really listening to anything that’s being said. You may thing that no one will notice, but you’d be dead wrong. After  life-time of talking to people, we’re all experts at body language without even realizing it. The micro-expressions on someone’s face when they stop paying attention is downright obvious. So, just listen. Be present in the conversation and stop wasting so much time trying to come up with the next clever thing to talk about while you’re having a perfectly decent conversation in the present.

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Use Awkward Silence To Your Advantage

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Studies show that all it takes is 4 seconds of an awkward silence for someone to feel properly rejected. Social anxiety should be renamed to “fear of not knowing what to say.” Anyone who isn’t great in the small talk department fears awkward silences as if they were a flesh eating virus.  But the thing about awkward silences is that they’re not really awkward. It’s one of those strange “it’s bad only because I say it’s bad” phenomenas. A lot of people feel that an awkward silence means you’ve failed the conversation in some way, or that you’re not clever or interesting enough to come up with something to say, but that’s a crazy perfectionistic approach to conversations. People are not machines, they get tired of talking. Sometimes a silence is honestly needed.

However, if you’re in a panic over an awkward silence, and want to find a way to fill it asap, here’s what you should do depending on the situation: If the conversation becomes awkward because of something stupid or embarrassing that was said, the best way to get out is to acknowledge it in a joke, i.e. “and the awkward award goes to…” If the situation becomes awkward because the topic stream has simply dried out, you should try dipping into a topic reserve. It may sound lame, but consciously thinking of two or three topics to bring up before you even arrive at a social event, prepares you for awkward silences. Be prepared and don’t think that you need to wing it. And most of all remember that the person/people you are speaking to should also be making an effort to come up with something to say. So don’t put pressure on yourself. The next time an awkward silence pops into a conversation, just let it be. Lean into the awkwardness and let someone else fill the void with small talk.

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Know When to Bail on the Conversation

Whenever talking to people be aware of two things: there is a time limit to how long you should talk to someone you just met, and by no means are you obligated to keep talking to them all night. The thing that often makes small talk so awkward is that eventually you get tired of talking to the same person, start running out of things to say, or you’re just downright  not feeling the person talking to you. These are all very legit reasons to end a conversation. At a party or networking event, you should not spend more than 15 minutes talking to each new person. If the conversation is going particularly well, then by all means break the rules. But as a rule of thumb, talking any longer to a complete stranger will naturally get strained after a while. An exit strategy is in order. Simply saying, “It was so great chatting, I hate to end the conversation but I’ve got to run for a bit”  or “Let’s continue this later, I have to go check up on…” or “Would you excuse me for a minute, I need to grab another drink” will do the trick.

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Learn How to Give and Take a Compliment

We live in a society where it’s often seen as impolite and arrogant for anyone to actually like themselves. Women are encouraged to spend hours on their appearance before they leave the house, but do it so that it appears that it took no time at all. We’ve learned to deny anything positive about ourselves for fear of offending someone, or coming across as vain. Hence, when you’re given a compliment you cringe and say something self disparaging in response. “Wow Jane, I love what you did to your hair!” – “Seriously? It’s so fine and limp I can barely look at it in the mirror.” If this is how you handle compliments, you’re doing it wrong. Whenever anyone says something nice to you, feel the sincerity of their words and answer in kind with a sincere and simple “Thank you, you are so kind to say that.” It may not be immediately obvious, but by diminishing a compliment that someone gives you, you are essentially rejecting them. At least that’s how it comes across to the person giving the compliment. It’s like showing up to a party with a present, and having someone say, “Oh you really shouldn’t have, I’m not going to take this.” When someone goes through all the trouble to give you a compliment/present, the most gracious thing to do is accept it kindly, even if you don’t want it. Do not, by any means, return the compliment with an immediate compliment because it will come across as insincere.

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The Art of Conversation is a Dance

If conversation is a dance, then making friends and meaningful connections is like a musical. Every part has its curtain call and its chronological place in the process. “Begin at the beginning,” wrote Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” Begin at the beginning is all about small talk i.e. not over-sharing, not making any assumptions about the other person’s opinions and beliefs, going easy until you can figure out how to not offend them. Small talk allows the parties in a conversation to get an initial sense of whether you are someone worth getting closer to. This is when, through subtle cues and body language, you can show a person that you are fun to be around, at the same time you get a feel for whether the energy is right. Small talk is essentially about allowing the parties in a group to judge each other without being too obvious about it. The reason small talk is so, well, small is because in most cases your brain will be too busy working on trying to decode the other person’s behavior and reading between the lines to focus on talking about anything intellectually stimulating. It might sound terrible, but judging people in this context is a positive thing. If you think about it, relationships are a huge investment of your time (and sometimes your money). A relationship does not just run itself, and you will need to call, email, attend meetings, events and dinner dates. You’ll want to assess whether the relationship is worth your investment, and you will want to let other people do the same. We hope this small talk guide has been helpful! Leave any questions or comments below.

Natalia Borecka

Natalia is the editor in chief and publisher of Lone Wolf Magazine. She founded the publication in 2012.

2 Comments
  1. Thanks for that! Worth the reading!

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