Making small talk is an art. Many people think it’s profane, or that it doesn’t matter. But it’s one of the first steps of forming human relationships.
For some people, small talk is fun and comes naturally. For others it’s hard. I myself felt awkward for many years of my life in social situations where I had to engage in small talk, and it took deliberate practice and effort to become fluent.
One of the first elements of small talk is that you have an actual, sincere interest in the other person. Now this sounds like a phrase – but it really is true, and it is important that you don’t treat it like a phrase in your mind.
Ask yourself: when I talk with this person, am I really interested in him or her – or is my mind filled with thoughts about myself, how the other person thinks about me, what I should say next, and so on?
You can’t fake genuine interest. But you can make it – by consciously directing your attention to the other person and asking yourself: “What could be intersting and fascinating about this person?” Of course you don’t ask that question out loud – you use this question to keep your mind alert to your conversational partner.
And remember: small talk is not about the words you use, but about how you make the other person feel. That’s what they remember long after they have forgotten what you actually said. If you make them feel good, they will want to reconnect with you, whereas negative or neutral feelings will have no such effect.
But how to improve small talk even more? Well, one thing is to be prepared. For example, if you go to an art gallery for the first time, then it makes sense to learn about the paintings or sculptures that you’re going to see there. Do your homework first. Read about this style of art, how it came to be, what it’s main influences are, why the artists choose to express themselves in these particular ways, and so on. Everyone who comes to that gallery will have an interest in that subject, so it is the easiest way to get a simple conversation going.
Also, do not make the mistake of thinking that you need to bond right away with people. The first step is to just start talking to strangers and practice to be comfortable doing so. If you enjoy doing it, you will learn small talk really fast and naturally.
Spend time with people who are good conversationalists – and study from them. Listen careful how they initiate conversations, and how they keep them going. In NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) there is a term called modelling. It basically means that you observe another person’s behaviour and then “model” it – basically you copy what they do. So when you spend time with great conversationalists, pay attention to the words they use – but also notice how they use them. The same words, spoken with a different tone of voice can have a totally different impact on another person. Timing is also important.
Small Talk Questions
There are a couple of questions for small talk that are good to have in your repertoire just in case you’re ever at a loss for words. You do not need to use these questions, but they are tested in the field and have proven to work and either initiate or keep a conversation going pleasantly.
“What brings you to this event?”
This is a simple question that can lead to other interesting topics. It might be a common interest, a common connection, a shared ambition – plenty of opportunities where you can bring the conversation from here.
“Are you supporting some kind of charity or social cause?”
This question can lead to a more meaningful conversation and help to identify a common purpose, although it can only work if you have a cause you’re passionate about too or an otherwise genuine interest in the field.
“What do you usually do in your free time?”
A simple question that can lead the conversation in a more personal direction when you’ve already covered the “What profession are you in?” question.
“How did you get into this line of work?”
Many people didn’t get to where they are today in a straight line, and they often find joy in sharing their story with someone.
There are many more small talk questions (including family related ones, which offer great opportunities for bonding on a personal level), but there are also some topics to better steer away from during small talk.
Remember that small talk is not about becoming best friends – it’s about just finding enough common ground to connect again at some future point in time. Yes, oftentimes it is superficial, but it does serve a purpose nonetheless.
Do not try to force small talk to turn into a deep, meaningful discussion – sometimes this could lead to a heated discussion, which is more emotional than appropriate in most social situations where small talk is adequate. As Allison Graham put it:
For example, say with a smile, “Well, that’s one issue we’re not going to solve tonight,” or simply close the conversation with “I certainly understand your perspective,” minus the “but” that is sitting on the tip of your tongue.
The more you learn about mastering small talk, the more you find how many subtleties are involved. It really is an art form. And the better you become at it, the more fun it is – because we human beings are social animals, and small talk is the natural way to connect with others.