Small Talk for People Bad at It

A step-by-step approach.

Posted Dec 15, 2018

Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Small talk is the usually necessary prerequisite to deeper conversation.  If you're not a natural at it, you may be well-served by a step-by-step cookbook approach, although I apologize in advance to those of you who are repulsed at human interaction being reduced to a formula.

1. Arrive early. No, don’t be the first to walk in. That could increase your self-consciousness. Hang out near the entrance and when a few people have entered, take a deep breath, stand straight, shoulders back, chin slightly up, and walk in at a moderate pace. Being there relatively early avoids overwhelm and makes it easier to be seen and to decide whom you might approach.

2. Approaching or getting approached. If you want to try to get approached, stand about 10 feet from an appealing individual or group. Keep that head up and make a flicker or two of eye contact. Give it a minute to see if you’re approached or, if it’s a group, you get a wave or even word inviting you to join.

If you’d rather approach someone, find a comfy place from which to observe, perhaps a corner of the room. That gives you the chance to decide whom to approach. If you spot someone, it’s better to see if s/he’ll start the conversation with you. That’s both because it shifts the burden of starting the conversation to the person and, if the person is taking the initiative, s/he has more investment in you. So proceed as suggested above: Stand about ten feet away and make a flicker or two of eye contact. If after a minute, there’s no response, it’s possible they’re shy or oblivious to your non-verbal overtures. You need to make the first move.

3. First words. Take another of those salutary deep breaths, keep that chin slightly up, smile a bit (teeth a bit apart) but just a bit lest it look like a salesperson’s tactic. Then just say, “Hi” in a pleasant but not exuberant, trying-too-hard voice. Of course, if you know the person, for example, it’s a coworker, say “Hi (insert the person’s name.) Wait a moment. The other person might initiate, which, as mentioned, builds the person’s investment in you. But if not, make an environmental comment. No, I’m not talking about climate change. I’m talking about a comment about the immediate environment, a point of commonality between you. Examples:

  • At a party, you might say, “How do you know the host?’ Or, “The room’s decorated  beautifully.”  While it’s usually wise to err on the side of positivity, occasionally, a negative can be more bonding, for example, “The music isn’t exactly quiet is it?”
  • At a work-related meeting, an environmental comment might be, ”I’m in the HR Department. How about you?” Or, “Have you heard the keynoter before?”  Or if you want to try being negative, for example, “Ah, another pump-up-the-troops revival meeting.”

4. Listen, really listen. Sure, your next utterance is made easy if s/he asks you a question but many people feel it’s invasive to ask questions so soon, so they’ll say something, usually still small talk. Listen to both the words and tone, adopting a mindset of curiosity. That will help you generate a question to ask, which reduces the burden on you to come up with something to say.

5. Search for a hot button. Let's say the person doesn’t give you an opening but, in response to your “Hi, pretty place, isn’t it,” simply says, “Yeah.” It’s time to ask a more forward question. You can often quickly build a bond by asking a question to unearth one of their hot buttons, something they care a lot about, usually their job, family, hobby, pop culture, health, or these days, Donald Trump. The following question can often reveal one of their hot buttons: “So, what are you thinking about these days?” Again, listen both to the words and tone.

6. Respond in parallel. Respond by expressing common ground. For example, let’s say you asked, “So what are you thinking about these days?” and the person responds, “Work. Things are really busy.” If true, make a bonding comment, such as “Me too. It seems like the pressure’s ever growing.” Note, "the pressure's ever growing" adds an emotional component to the conversation, deepening the relationship. If you sense it’s premature to comment, ask a follow-up question such as, “What are you working on?”

7. Go deeper or change the subject. That first thread may be worth following. Keep listening, mainly making bonding comments and asking questions, perhaps deepening ones. In the aforementioned example, it might be, “Work can get overwhelming, at least I sometimes feel that way. How about you?”

If the first thread seems to be going nowhere, try a different one. To avoid sounding like an interrogator, rather than jumping right in with another question to unearth a hot button, pair your question with a reveal of one of your hot buttons. For example, you might say, “Want to tell me something about yourself? When I’m not working, I’m pretty involved in community theatre.”

8. Capstone the convo. Stay sensitive to when you feel it’s time to end the conversation. When you do, after they’ve finished an utterance, stick your hand out, shake their hand, and say, for example, “I’m going to get something to drink,” “I guess it’s time for us to take our seats,” or some such. If it’s a conversation you’d like to continue, say, “I’ve enjoyed this. I’d welcome a chance to continue the conversation. You might even make it specific: “Hey, may I have your phone number or email address? I’d enjoy continuing the conversation."

The takeaway

Of course, nothing as complex as conversation can be reduced to a formula. But if you struggle with small talk, this structure may be a place to start. Try it, adapt it, and later perhaps scrap it in favor of your own approach.  P.S. Thank you dear readers. I'm honored that my Psychology Today articles have now had over 7 million views.