How to master the art of small talk

An illustration of two pairs of hands gesturing as in conversation while holding cocktails.
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A guide to having actually interesting conversations with strangers.

Andy Lowe was not naturally blessed with the gift of gab. But even he, a self-described shy, introverted person, understands its functions. Lowe works at a technology public relations firm where chitchat with clients and journalists is just another part of the job. As a previous user of dating apps (Lowe is happily partnered now), he realized banter reigned supreme. He also plays bass in bands in Seattle; meeting other collaborators involves some amount of introductory small talk.

So he decided to get better. To improve his small talk, Lowe says he paid closer attention to his conversation partners to discover “what makes them tick, what drives them,” he explains. He’ll ask what books people are reading or movies or television they enjoy. “Then just making sure that when you go into those situations,” Lowe says, “you are more interested in the person that you’re talking to than talking about yourself.”

Small talk gets a bad rap for being too surface-level, too rote, a throwaway filler conversation. But casual chat can be the on-ramp to deeper connection. After all, most of us wouldn’t introduce ourselves to a stranger with a question about their biggest fears. Small talk is an opportunity to build trust and to learn about others, and to become a more curious person, says Georgie Nightingall, a conversation specialist and human connectivity researcher. “Being genuinely curious, that always helps,” she says. “You can actually realize that you do want to know more rather than having that sense of like, I’m just asking for the sake of asking.”

Even if you find your small talk game lacking, with some practice you can improve. To ensure you’re leading with curiosity, experts and small talk enthusiasts offer their best advice to strike up a conversation with strangers and familiar faces alike, without relying on stereotypical openers.

View small talk as an opportunity, not an annoyance

Many people bemoan small talk because they “get stuck” in it, Nightingall says, without moving on to deeper conversation. “One of the key elements of small talk,” she says, “is having the mindset that actually this is not where we’re going to end up.” Consider all the relationships that began as banter or the job opportunities that came from acquaintances. There is potential for small talk to bloom into something bigger.

However, you should avoid viewing chitchat as solely transactional. Research shows people enjoy and appreciate talking with strangers or acquaintances, and these brief interactions contribute to well-being. While these conversations have the potential to be awkward, Gillian Sandstrom, a senior lecturer in the psychology of kindness at the University of Sussex, has found in research that most introductory small talk with strangers does in fact go well. As people engage in these chats with greater frequency, the more confident they are in their abilities to talk to strangers, according to the study. “That’s enough to allow you to be in the moment more instead of in panic mode,” Sandstrom says.

What to talk about instead of your job

Popular scripts dominate small talk: comments about traffic and the weather, the questions “So, what do you do?” and “How are you?” Often, people give unengaging or throwaway answers that don’t give the other person much to respond to. Instead, lead with inquiries related to your interests, says Adam Smiley Poswolsky, a workplace belonging expert and author of Friendship in the Age of Loneliness: An Optimist’s Guide to Connection. Consider asking a barista at your neighborhood cafe about their favorite beverage or if a friend of a friend at a party has also watched the newest season of Love Is Blind. If you want to feel a little more prepared, Poswolsky suggests having a list of five or so questions at the ready that are topical and feel authentic to you — just be sure to refresh your list every few weeks. Maybe your talking points include asking if someone has an upcoming vacation or if they tried any new restaurants recently.

Or instead of questioning your conversation partner, try a statement or observation. Something as simple as “This line is taking forever,” or “[Mutual friend’s name] makes the best cheese boards,” or “You have the cutest dog I have ever seen” can be an effective entrée to small talk. Research has found that making an observation about a product or item another person has chosen to display — like a band T-shirt or a colorful hat — is a better conversation starter than discussing the weather. Initiating a chat with someone wearing a shirt from your alma mater is easier than attempting to find common ground with nothing to go on. “Those conversations tend to go better,” says the study’s lead author, Hillary Wiener, an assistant professor of marketing at the University at Albany, “because it’s on something that both people involved might actually care about.” The products that were most successful at launching a conversation “suggested a point of commonality between the asker and the person wearing, using a product,” she says. For example, try approaching someone in a Taylor Swift shirt if you too love Taylor Swift or sharing a hiking story with someone who is drinking out of a water bottle from Yosemite National Park.

However, don’t feel like you must write off meteorological small talk. Discussing the weather is ample conversation fodder for my colleague Miles Bryan, a senior producer and reporter (and the self-appointed Philly Bureau Chief) for Today, Explained. “It’s such a shared experience between everybody I’m talking to,” he says. “It’s a way to connect with somebody else without a lot of pressure on the conversation.” Luxuriating in small talk is thoughtful, Bryan says: “Small talk is empathetic.”

To be better at small talk, actually listen

Making the most of small talk — and elevating the conversation to large talk — involves active listening. If someone mentions the city they grew up in, you can use that detail for follow-up questions. What did they like the most about that city? What did they dislike? Why did they move? You can even offer a personal anecdote, Nightingall says, maybe mentioning a trip you may have taken there. “Whenever someone shares anything with you, they’re sharing a tiny dot in a web of hugeness,” Nightingall says. “Our job is to find out what makes this person different, interesting. What makes their life unique?”

The more curious you are about another person’s experiences or perspectives, the more likely the other party will be interested in continuing the conversation, Poswolsky says. The other person, in turn, will readily offer more information, furthering the discussion.

Just don’t make it weird

With any interaction, there is a risk of coming on too strong or rubbing your conversation partner the wrong way. For small talk with strangers, especially, a well-meaning question may not be taken as intended or they may suspect you of trying to flirt with them. Small talk is warm and introductory, with no ulterior motives. It can surely blossom into a more flirtatious exchange but you should lead with curiosity and friendliness. “You can’t realistically be sitting next to someone on the plane and say, ‘Hi, what’s your favorite superpower,’” Wiener says. “That doesn’t work on a human interaction level.” Starting with an observation about how packed the flight is or asking whether the person is traveling for work might be more of a context-appropriate introduction.

Wiener also suggests avoiding making small talk about someone’s physical appearance or religious wear. Never make assumptions about or comment on someone’s background, income level, sexuality, political stance, or other personal identifier.

Try not to sound accusatory either, Sandstrom says. One of her go-to opening lines is “What are you doing?” “I saw someone who was leaning over a bush and lifting up a leaf,” she says “and I’m like, ‘What’s going on here?’ They taught me some stuff about bugs.” But do your best to keep the mood playful — you’re asking out of curiosity, not suspicion.

Every once in a while, someone might bristle at your attempts at small talk or appear confused as to why you’re talking to them, and that’s okay. Sandstrom finds explicitly stating “I’m just being friendly” helps ease some of the awkwardness.

What to do if you get stuck

Every conversation, including small talk, inevitably encounters roadblocks. Whether you find yourself giving one-word answers or the discussion veers toward potentially contentious territory, there are ways of deftly navigating. For chats that are veering on boring, feel free to direct the conversation to another topic or ask a random question. (Conversations aren’t linear anyway, Nightingall notes.)

If you find the discussion isn’t going anywhere after a few exchanges, don’t force it, Poswolsky says. Either politely excuse yourself (“I’ve got to run to the bathroom” is a great exit) if you’re at a social gathering or simply drop the chitchat if you’re mingling with a stranger on public transit. For talks that become prejudiced or offensive, Sandstrom suggests saying “This conversation is making me uncomfortable.” Just remember, both people need buy-in for small talk to be productive.

“If zero people are excited, it’s over,” Poswolsky says. “If one person is excited, you can see where you’re heading. What you’re looking for, and this is rare, is when two people are [having] a back-and-forth. There’s active listening happening on both parties. There are decent questions happening.”

Small talk is what you make it. It can be a delightful way to spend a few minutes with a stranger while in line at the grocery store, it can be your superpower at a party, or it can lead to your next career move. Or, if you’re like Bryan, it can simply be uplifting banter about precipitation.

“If it looks like rain, and you’ve got more to say about it, and you’re interested in what your partner has to say, just stay with it,” he says. “The big stuff will come. But you don’t need to rush it. It’s okay to stay small.”

By: Allie Volpe
Title: How to master the art of small talk
Sourced From:
Published Date: Sat, 02 Mar 2024 12:00:00 +0000

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I'm a writer for lifestyle publications, and when I'm not crafting stories, you'll find me cherishing moments with my family, including my lovely daughter. My heart also belongs to my pets—Sushi, Snowy, Belle, and Pepper. Besides writing, I enjoy watching movies and exploring new places through travel.