Small talk is one of those things you either love or dread. I’ve been blogging about introversion lately (“An Introvert’s Guide to Dating and Relationships” and “An Introvert’s Guide to Fostering Community“) and one of the things associated with that for me is the dread of small talk.
I feel like I can never come up with the right things to say when put on the spot at social gatherings. Even if I know someone well, small talk can still be awkward. I even think of conversation starters before meeting up with a friend or attending a gathering so I have something to pull out of my back pocket if there is a lull in conversation.
In my study of communications theories, I’ve learned a few things about conversations, how they work and how people interact with each other. Here’s to (hopefully) less awkward small talk on dates and with friends!
1. Let it flow. Conversations have a natural flow to them, and they even follow unspoken social rules. Here are four that will help you navigate small talk: Your contribution should provide sufficient information but not too much, and must be truthful, relevant and clear.
For example, if your date asks you how you feel about marriage in general, you may not want to respond by pulling up your wedding board on Pinterest and walking him through all the details of your perfect wedding. You also don’t want to respond with a one- or two-word answer and then abruptly stop talking and create an awkward pause. Your response should be clear and not skirt around the topic. Saying that your brother just got married doesn’t answer the question clearly, but saying that it is something you desire in the future does and leads to follow-up questions.
Conversations also follow a natural pattern of back-and-forth contributions. These come in pairs. For example, your small talk may begin with a question-answer pair, a mutual greeting, a request followed by a response or a compliment and response. When this pattern is broken and a response does not match, awkwardness ensues. Suddenly the other person is unsure how to respond, and it throws the conversation off track. Awkward pauses and stammering may result as well as another random comment that adds to the confusion.
2. Find common ground. It’s a known fact that people like people who are similar to them. Common interests lay the foundation for solid friendships, but it’s possible to make small talk with someone with different interests. By initiating with a question-and-answer pattern, small talk can help you discover common ground.
A conversation about the weather can lead to a discussion about the current season, which can lead to a discussion about suitable clothes, food or holidays. Highlighted differences can also spark conversations. If your conversation partner doesn’t like pumpkin spice lattes, you can find out why — and maybe even convince him or her to give it another try. Using that example, you have follow-up material to use as a conversation starter for the next time you see that person.
3. Watch your nonverbal cues. Body language can clue you in to how the conversation is going. When someone is comfortable, their body language tends to mirror the other. When someone is uncomfortable, there will be dissonance, and body language will not match.
For example, when two people are involved in an engaging discussion, they might learn forward to show their interest. If someone is not interested in that topic, they may tend to look away or lean back with their arms crossed. You can also tell when someone is anxious by watching for behaviors like twirling hair, playing with a ring or shaking their foot.
4. Pause and relax. Sometimes a lull in conversation is OK. Learn to be comfortable with silence. Have you ever been on a road trip with a close friend, and after a few minutes of talking, you both went quiet? I have, and it’s rarely awkward.
Those lulls in conversation give you time to reflect, recharge or come up with a new topic to discuss. Sometimes they give you or the other person a chance to politely withdraw from the conversation. Also keep in mind that withdrawal does not mean you were unsuccessful at small talk. That person may have been in a hurry or was distracted by something else, so it’s good to not take it personally.
Small talk is just that — small talk. It’s not an in-depth conversation that will last hours, although it could turn into that depending on how the conversation goes. Small talk is also a great tool for catching up with an acquaintance, making a new one or navigating that first date. Once you relieve some of the pressure and expectations for small talk, conversations should flow naturally.
What are your tips for successful small talk?