Practical Advice for Mastering Small Talk

Everyone knows that impending sense of doom you feel when you head into an environment where you’ll be meeting new people. Even the most extroverted social-butterfly likely has felt exhaustion, thinking, “All this small talk is meaningless.” If you’re naturally more introverted or not loving your current answer to common questions like, “What do you do for work?”, then the idea of small talk may be so terrible that you consider just not leaving the house.

Despite the (reasonable) anxiety that exists around small talk, it’s actually the gateway drug to expanding your community of new loved ones. Small talk can lead to more meaningful conversation which can manifest into a new job, romance, roommate, or best friend.

It’s helpful to remember that most people in the room also have some level of anxiety around dreaded small talk moments. You’re not alone.

small talk bridge

Vulnerability Breeds Vulnerability

Brené Brown made major waves encouraging us to open up vulnerably to those around us. When we open up as complicated humans with genuine fears and emotions, this communicates to the person we’re talking to that it’s okay for them to reciprocate.

Social environments can be draining because often everyone seems to give answers to impress others. Recalibrate these conversations away from “What I do for work is so impressive, hopefully it’ll make you my friend” and towards “Guess what, you can trust me. To prove it, let me tell you a little about my flaws first.”

Prepare Interesting Ice-Breakers

Make small talk more memorable by refusing to kick-start conversations with cliché questions. Instead, dive-in with a unique question. My go-to’s can be rather obscure. Feel free to use them or develop your own:

What’s the kindest thing someone has ever done for you?
What’s biggest pet peeve?
I’m giving you a (concert or plane) ticket of your choosing. Where do you go?
Who do people say is your celebrity twin?
What celebrity would you like to play you in your life movie?
What’s the coldest you’ve ever been?
If you could be born in any country, but you couldn’t control where within that country you’d be born, what country would you pick? Why?
What’s the worst Disney movie, ever?
Which celeb would you legitimately cry about their death if they passed?
If you could go back in time and talk to your 16-year-old self, what would you say?
What movie did everyone else love that you found terrible?
If you could have started at a young age, what Olympic sport do believe you could have been good at?
What career did you want as a child?
What’s the hardest thing you ever accomplished?
What purchase do you most regret?
What’s your best ever costume?
What do you wish you invented?
If you could permanently end one injustice, what would it be?
Do you think the world will be a better or worse place 100 years from now?
Do you have any hidden talents?
How would our society be different if dinosaurs still existed?

It’s helpful to remember that most people in the room also have some level of anxiety around dreaded small talk moments. You’re not alone.

Genuinely Find Common Ground

I find the longer I live, the easier this becomes. I’ve experienced more things, so it’s more likely that one of those experiences will mirror that of the person I’m talking to.

Since I’ve traveled a fair amount, my personal hack to quickly finding common ground is to ask where the person I’m talking to is from. Then, I try to connect about something I experienced in that location. I always remain positive. No one wants to be mocked for where they grew up.

girls by river

I’m specific, like if someone says they’re from North Carolina, I’d say “I love North Carolina! Forever ago I went to this crazy art exhibit in downtown Greensboro where this hoarder who owned a thrift store had died. Her son donated the space to artists to repurpose the goods inside, as long as they didn’t bring any new items into or out of the store. Ever heard of that? Is that still there?”

What’s one common topic you have a little bit of familiarity with across the board? Maybe sports, music, food, technology or entertainment? When the person you’re talking to reveals their preferences within that topic, first honor their taste and then jump into a lively conversation around how much you both love their favorite thing.

Let the Other Person Talk

The easiest way to get someone to think you’re an interesting person? Let them talk all about themselves. Ask questions, listen, don’t interrupt, respond with enthusiasm, focus on them (not other people who may be walking behind them), touch their arm. It’s the human condition to feel unknown, so be a breath of fresh air by deeply focusing on getting to know this person. They’ll love you for it.

“What Do You Do?”

We all kind of hate this question, yet we often find ourselves asking this of others. It’s natural to want to ask someone about their job, but be sensitive that this can sting for someone who is unhappy with their current career situation.

Instead, I ask, “What’s your world like?” For the person who loves their job, they’ll likely focus on that. For someone else whose world revolves around passions outside of work, they may light up to talk about the music they write or the house they just moved into or how their children are their greatest joy.

girls on bridge

Exit Strategies

Perhaps you dread small talk because you don’t want to get stuck listening to the dating drama of your frenemy, or get cornered by the creepy flirt who doesn’t respect personal space. Reduce your anxiety by remembering that you always have an exit strategy. Politely let them know you need to use the restroom, or want to get another drink, or need to feed your meter. Voila! You’re free and can now step aside to go talk to someone else whose energy may be more uplifting for you.

I get it. It’s hard sometimes to get off that couch and out the door. But, armed with the strength to naturally and easily have conversations with strangers, you’ll likely find that making new friends can be one of the best ways to infuse excitement and adventure into your life.

Do you have any strategies for striking up a convo?

Images via Diane Villadsen

Talitha holds an MBA and currently works as a Project Manager for an LA-based social media company McBeard. She has a long history of non-profit work, investing 10 years into organizations like Invisible Children and The Giving Keys. She is a real "get-it-done" kind of gal with a love for yoga, travel, interior design, cats and craft beer.

4 COMMENTS
  • Kimberly Estes January 31, 2017

    Excellent! Thank you!

  • WithACupOf_ January 29, 2017

    Thanks for the ideas! I’m thinking now to start with something like: What do you really enjoy to do?
    Guess it will also help me to remeber the person based on something shared with excitement… And if the relation (professional or personal) goes beyond that encounter, I’ll have something to create a bound – knowing that “litlle” detail.
    https://withacupof.wordpress.com

  • Thank you for the advice. I’ve become much better at small talk over the years – in fact, I enjoy them now! Still, I’ll be keeping those ice breakers in mind!

    Charmaine Ng | Architecture & Lifestyle Blog
    http://charmainenyw.com

  • Madeline Osigian January 28, 2017

    Love these ideas! Sometimes small talk is a necessary evil, but it mustn’t necessarily be evil. 🙂

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