How to master small talk without being awkward

Hate small talk? Here's how to get over it. 

Photos: ING Image
Photos: ING Image
14 Sep 2015

Photos: ING Image

It’s easy to dismiss small talk, especially when its chief purpose is to fill time in elevators or at boring functions when you’re next to someone you don’t know. “I don’t do small talk, I just look at my phone,” you might say. But when it’s your boss you’re stuck in the elevator with, or an important industry figure you’re sitting next to at a corporate dinner, small talk takes on greater importance.

If you want to make new friends, beat conversational lulls, and be a standout host, party guest or valued presence at company events, these conversational tips might come in handy. Here’s how to master small talk and come up with topics. 

1.  Ask people thoughtful questions about themselves.
1. Ask people thoughtful questions about themselves.
14 Sep 2015

1. Ask people thoughtful questions about themselves.

Make people feel good by getting them to talk about themselves. Research shows that self-disclosure triggers the same sensation of pleasure and satisfaction in our brains as money and food.

Inquire about something positive that’s happening in their lives to keep the mood light and energetic first. Instead of asking, “So, what do you do?” ask them what the best or hardest part of their job is. People love to talk about how hard their job is because it’s often a chance to humble brag, which feels rewarding. Draw out more details with follow-up questions. In general, people find it gratifying to share their thoughts. 

2. Ask for advice.
2. Ask for advice.
14 Sep 2015

2. Ask for advice.

Turn small talk into an actual conversation by asking for advice. It’s an effective, subtle way to introduce the right amount of mindfulness and depth to the talk without coming across as too intrusive. Tailor it to the person’s interests if you can. For example, if you and the person you’re talking to both have kids, ask for parenting advice (sleeping tips, kids’ extracurricular activities or classes they’d recommend, etc.). If they work in retail, ask what they think you should buy your mother-in-law. People like to feel helpful so chances are, they’ll enjoy giving you their two cents. 

3. Don’t worry too much about making the wrong impression.
3. Don’t worry too much about making the wrong impression.
14 Sep 2015

3. Don’t worry too much about making the wrong impression.

It takes guts to open up to strangers. For some of us, simply making the first move is enormously stressful. Don’t fret about making the wrong impression. Nobody’s asking you to disclose your life story (in fact, don’t). Some fail-safe pointers for not making a fool of yourself: Think before you speak. Listen more than you speak. Be as natural as possible. Share what you’re comfortable sharing and don’t, under any circumstances, correct their grammar.



4.  Choose a topic that you care about and can speak about with excitement.
4. Choose a topic that you care about and can speak about with excitement.
14 Sep 2015

4. Choose a topic that you care about and can speak about with excitement.

Do you really care about the weather? If you can’t show excitement in the topic you bring up, don’t expect the other person to take much interest. Respond to “How’s it going?” with something specific and meaningful like, “Good! I just started on a new project” or “Great. I went to Tokyo for the first time and it was amazing.” The other person will likely ask about your project/trip and you can continue to share about your experience. Even if they’ve never been to Tokyo, they’ll pick up on the excitement in your face and voice, and all those happy feels will make them more engaged. People connect with emotions.

No matter how passionate you are about the topic though, be careful not to talk their ear off. Give them opportunities to reciprocate with their own relevant stories. 

5. Don’t interrupt or send a discussion off tangent.
5. Don’t interrupt or send a discussion off tangent.
14 Sep 2015

5. Don’t interrupt or send a discussion off tangent.

There’s blatant interrupting, then there’s the kind that’s more subdued but equally rude, like asking a question that has nothing to do with what the speaker’s saying just so you can turn the conversation back to what you want to talk about. Another form of inadvertent interruption is saying something like, “Yeah. Uh huh. Ha ha. Anywayyy, on a totally unrelated note…” or “By the way, that reminds me…” before proceeding to send the conversation off tangent and monopolizing the floor.     

6. Act genuinely interested.
6. Act genuinely interested.
14 Sep 2015

6. Act genuinely interested.

To show that you’re listening, paraphrase what they say in a kindly, sympathetic or contemplative tone. A handy trick is to repeat their last few words. This emboldens them, making them feel understood. Maintaining eye contact, nodding your head, and adding “uh huh’s” at appropriate moments help, too. Do not smile or laugh at the wrong parts – that’s a dead giveaway that you’re a numbskull whose mind is somewhere else. 

7. Don’t take it personally if they’re not feeling it.
7. Don’t take it personally if they’re not feeling it.
14 Sep 2015

7. Don’t take it personally if they’re not feeling it.

Sometimes despite our best efforts, the other person doesn’t seem interested. You can usually tell by their expression and body language (glazed eyes, distracted smile, delayed response or no response at all). As soon as you pick up on their lack of engagement, maneuver to another topic. Still not connecting? Don’t blame yourself, and try not to take it personally.

Also, have some compassion for the other person and yourself. They probably didn’t intend to be unfriendly or dismissive. While you might walk away confused, wondering “Did he think I was lame? Was my joke that unfunny?” and swear off small talk forever, it could simply be that they were tired, hungry, or preoccupied with worries entirely unrelated to you. 

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