Today you’re going to learn how to be good at small talk
Every day, people are faced with the potential of communication with strangers, though how many people feel comfortable with the prospect?
I wrote this article in order to help those seeking solutions to communication issues. In fact, by the end of reading it, the reader will be able to strike up conversation with any stranger, without feeling awkward and without dreading the kind of response that they will get.
The idea of small talk?
It breaks the ice and it helps human beings to become closer to each other. In a social situation, that’s an extremely useful skill because it helps in so many ways.
Open up a dialog with a stranger and you are able to find out what makes people tick. That means that in business or in home life, you are able to gain a greater understanding of what’s happening in the world.
You may be wanting to form a new allegiance. You may just want to strike up a friendship or you may want to talk peace with someone holding a grudge.
The thing is that once you learn the art of small talk, you can open that dialog and that’s the first move toward greater understanding, the potential of an alliance being made, and never facing social embarrassment.
People who are able to talk to anyone, regardless of their status in society, are also able to enjoy more fulfilling lives. Why? Because their level of understanding is enhanced and their openness to new things means that they go forward through their lives with less fear of the unknown.
How To Be Good At Small Talk:
This guide is their keyhole to a whole new way of thinking. Imagine being able to communicate with the masses and it may send a chill up your spine, but communication starts one to one, and the confidence of our greatest leaders is based upon the ability to talk to anyone at any level.
Find your own greatness and start to learn how small talk becomes so much more than that, when you approach it in the right way. Once you do, you won’t believe the power that this gives you and the satisfaction you glean from having made that first approach.
It’s well worth it, and at the end of the day, will make you into a better person.
The Importance of Making the Connection
You may not see the connection between small talk and big achievement, but believe me, it starts with those first few words.
If you are able to communicate with anyone on a one to one basis with confidence, you will be able to develop skills that will help you through business and career, as well as being confident enough to be able to ask awkward questions should the need arise.
Business leaders don’t get to be business leaders without first knowing how to communicate. They have to do deals with banks. They have to be able to employ the right kind of staff and they have to make sure that the workforce they employ is willing and able to give its best.
That isn’t down to chance. It’s down to being able to accept the views of others as well as wanting to listen to their own voice. That’s where many people go wrong. They have a vision, but that vision doesn’t include listening.
If you want to learn how to talk to anyone at all and be heard, then listening and observation are the first and foremost skills that help you in this pursuit.
Behavioral scientists from Chicago have done experiments to find out what makes people happier. Nicolas Epley and Juliana Schroeder were of the opinion that people who talk and are open with others are happier and did an experiment with commuters.
These commuters usually caught the same train every day and behaved in the way one expects commuters to behave.
Most passed their voyage in silence. In a controlled experiment, however, they asked a certain number of passengers to make a point of talking to the person next to them, while another control group were asked to resist the temptation to talk and to keep themselves to themselves.
On measuring the response of the participants, what they found was that those who had talked to strangers were a lot happier than those who did not.
In fact, socializing becomes a part of happy people’s lives and talking to a stranger comes naturally because of the way that those who socialize see life and respond to other people. In a busy world, wouldn’t it be a richer place if people did talk to strangers and make the world a friendlier place? Indeed it would.
Look at these greetings that people that know each other use each day or at least on an ongoing basis.
“Hi, how are you?”
“Hi, hope you got over the flu.”
The problem is that these people who take for granted that they know the recipient of the comment hardly ever stick around to listen to the reply. People have become disinterested in others and this makes society an extremely cold place to be.
Take a look at people that talk to you in your everyday life and what you find is that they may be saying something, but that they aren’t too good at listening.
Talking with a stranger is a little bit different, because you need to listen, to gage their reply in order to carry on that conversation. You know nothing about the person that you are talking to. You only have appearance to go on and that doesn’t always give you an accurate picture.
When people talk to strangers, they open up a two way dialog that is often more revealing than everyday conversation between people who know each other.
Thus, it has a value because it makes people more observant, more attentive and more able to see the variety of characters that make up this world that we all live in.
You can be surprised, you can be humbled and you can certainly meet people who face different problems every day of the week, but among those strangers, there will be those that leave a wonderful impression of humanity.
They open your mind to a new way of thinking and make you very glad you took the initiative to start the conversation.
Stepping past embarrassment and knowing when it’s right to start small talk is all there is to it, but it’s an important factor, in a world that is potentially dangerous.
We tell our children not to talk to strangers, and when faced with needing to make conversation, find ourselves stunted by our preconceptions of what small talk is all about.
Once you recognize the dangers and get over that barrier, small talk helps you to progress in life because it’s necessary. You may be anxiously waiting for results from a doctor that mean life or death or you may simply be at a company ball and need to mix with the right people in order to make an impression.
Whichever your case, small talk is what gets you known as an open and honest person and that’s vital to your happiness and contributes as much to their happiness, provided that you do it properly and respect the boundaries that people put up to stop strangers from approaching them.
Looking around you on the train to work, observe the different kinds of people that are sharing your space. There will be those who are out of your age range and perhaps who you would have little in common with.
There will be standoffish people who don’t want to talk and who have thoughts of their own which are already sufficiently complex to take their full attention.
The first step is to be able to work out which people are inviting approach and which are avoiding it.
If you find a common ground with strangers, you open up an area of potential dialog. For example, if two people are standing at a taxi rank in the rain, they both have the frustration of waiting and of the rain falling on them.
Of course, this may not be the opportune time to break into conversation, but it may well be. You need to be able to judge when the opportune time creates itself and step in with a friendly word or two that breaks the ice, makes them feel a little better about their situation and takes focus off the bad things such as rain, queues in the shops, etc.
If you have a common interest, you instantly have something that you can use to make the first contact. This small talk may be welcomed or it may be shunned and this gives you a clue as to whether to continue or not. Several examples come to mind.
When you are sitting outside in a street cafe and the person on the next table smiles at you. It doesn’t hurt to smile back. They have given you a signal and it’s up to you how you interpret it.
For example, if you are a single and pretty lady and it’s a man that smiles at you, the messages can be mixed:
Hello! You have potential and look vulnerable.
Hello! I am just waiting for my girlfriend but it’s nice to see a smiling face.
Hello! I wonder if you can see the little bit of cabbage on your front tooth.
The point is that it’s the mixed messages that frighten you and make you afraid to get close to people outside of your own circle. Observation and a smile are the first step toward being able to make small talk.
So what if you do have cabbage on your front tooth! If a friend told you, you’d be grateful. Get over this barrier that stops you from communicating with people and you may actually find that those strangers can become friends.
This is a great indicator of whether someone is open to conversation. The defensive pose of arms crossed is a classic sign of “back off!” and people who are more open to talking will be much more relaxed. Eye contact helps.
If you feel someone’s eyes honing in on you, there’s a good chance that he/she wants to converse and the eyes are a very good indicator in other ways. They tell you whether someone is being honest. They tell you when someone is looking at you approvingly and they are a tool that aids conversation.
Body language will also show you if the person is stressed. Busy people tend to occupy themselves with seemingly nothing, but they won’t actually allow you eye contact.
Recognizing the different types of people will help you enormously. When a comedian hits the stage, he never knows what the audience are going to be like and how he will be accepted.
The way that comedians gage their audience is by observation. Similarly with speakers who are trying to get across a message. Observation is everything.
Opening Dialog Without Fear
If you have always been one of those people who shies away from small talk, you need to change that attitude. People who talk to each other learn so much. They are indeed happier and don’t find themselves feeling so alone. Don’t appear to be desperate.
I have actually experienced people telling others their life story at a bus stop and it’s embarrassing. Small talk which is acceptable doesn’t inflict your misery on someone else. You cannot open a successful dialog with negativity.
Another thing which will instantly put someone off is that sense that the person they are talking to knows everything.
The know-it-all isn’t popular at all. These are people who wait for every opportunity to prove that they know more than anyone else. Their dialog isn’t welcome because it belittles people. Your approach is everything.
You must be mentally on a par with those you choose to talk to. Two women who are walking down the street with heavy shopping bags will instantly feel empathy toward each other because they are both experiencing the same thing on an equal basis. This gives them an opportunity for dialog.
Typical phrases that you can use as small talk that don’t impose on others are:
Can you tell me what time it is please?
It’s lousy weather, isn’t it?
That looks heavy. Can I help you?
You want to share a taxi and save money?
These are all openers. Whether the conversation goes further is up to the recipient, but if you make a habit of talking to people, you may even build up the confidence to use compliments, but only when they are sincere:
Excuse me. Your sweater looks so nice. Can you tell me where you bought it?
Excuse me. I am looking for a really good optician. Do you have any recommendations locally?
These lead to conversations that have a logical conclusion, but they don’t have to conclude when the reply is given. You may just be making a friend. Listen to the response. Perhaps the lady with the great sweater made it herself and has the pattern she is willing to share.
Perhaps the person who directs you to the optician is going there too and wants to tag along. Take a conversation how it comes and welcome dialog, but don’t be disappointed if the reply is simply a direction or a statement that doesn’t leave itself open to further dialog.
You are more likely to gain confidence if your small talk has a purpose to begin with. It may be expressing disapproval in common with others. It may just be that you need their help or that they need yours.
Listen to people and instead of pouncing on them with inappropriate and embarrassing small talk, make it relevant because that takes away the element of embarrassment.
If you really are a people person, you pick up on moments when it’s a good time to start small talk. The long wait in the doctor’s surgery is an ideal time for people to talk but some don’t want to for a very good reason. You should avoid subjects which cause the recipient embarrassment. Talk about general things.
Remember, this is small talk. Where people go wrong is trying to make deep conversation before they have actually got to the stage of the liaison calling for it.
You wouldn’t go up to a stranger in the street and ask if he’s had his flu injections unless there was some indication that he needed them. Don’t embarrass yourself by trying to get too close too quickly. Small talk is just that. It’s polite conversation with strangers.
“It’s been a long wait today.” Would be an appropriate opening to someone in the doctor’s surgery who has been waiting with you.
“What’s wrong with you?” is a potentially embarrassing and invading question and isn’t small talk. What are you going to say when that patient tells you he has two months to live or that he has a sexually transmitted disease?
However, if you see that the patient has a leg in a cast, there’s nothing wrong with saying “That looks awkward.” He/she will probably agree with you entirely. After all, they’ve had to live with that cast. Making small talk with them will be simple after that.
Where people go wrong is starting small talk with the wrong kinds of questions or with an embarrassing statement. Work out the situation and use the situation to your advantage because it’s always a great indicator of something that you can say without making an absolute fool of yourself.
The places that you come into contact with people give you opportunity. Don’t blow it by just jumping in and expecting people to respond to you. Work out the situation. Use your intuition and take it from there, and you are much more likely to find something that makes the words flow naturally.
The Social Situation
If you have been invited to a celebration or an event but know no one, don’t worry. There will be others there as well who feel every bit as awkward as you do. In a social situation, you use the same instincts that you used in previous paragraphs. These instincts are summed up here:
- Common ground
You observe someone that looks interesting also looks like they know no one. You watch for opportunity without stalking them. You feel empathy and you look for common ground which enables you to start conversation. An empty glass gives a man the opportunity to offer a refill.
A woman staring at a painting at a gallery opening gives the opportunity to discuss the painting. There are always links that help human beings to connect. Use these. Look for them and try talking about something that’s already common ground.
Remember these are strangers. Don’t assume just because you are at the same event that they are on the same level as you. For example, you may think that the host is a little pompous, but imagine the horror when you find you made a derogatory comment about him to his sister or his mother.
Until you are able to work out who the characters within the scenario are, play it safe. Open the conversation with things which cannot be misconstrued.
This painting is beautiful – Who’s it by? Any idea?
This doesn’t assume that the recipient of the words knows who the painting is by. That may have been an embarrassing situation for those with no art knowledge.
It tells the recipient that you like the painting and you are merely commenting and trying to find out something interesting to you. The reply you get will depend upon the individual to whom your comment was addressed.
“No idea,” and a turning away from you to talk to someone else indicates that the person isn’t open to small talk. That’s okay. Not everyone will be. Had you chosen someone who had observed that painting for a little while, the response may have been more in tune with your thoughts.
You jumped in and chose someone whose back was facing the painting and who was already conversing with others.
Small talk at a party
This is easy and you don’t have to spend the whole evening being an observer. Just use the initial stages of your arrival and getting seated to get a handle on the kind of people you are surrounded with. The mistake that people make in a social situation is very similar to how birds preen their feathers.
They want to be seen as something or someone special. In a party situation, acting in this way could cause you embarrassment, so avoid it. Instead, simply be yourself (1). It may actually be endearing that someone is so relaxed and happy with who they are that they can do this.
In the movies, you see characters like Sandra Bullock who are naturals in company. There’s a real lack of pretentiousness and people at parties are drawn to those who can display this part of their personality for a very good reason.
If you are not “preening your feathers” or trying to be the social butterfly, they don’t have to make so much pretentious effort to gain your attention. Thus, conversation and even small talk becomes fun rather than creating a difficult situation.
You may get on like a house on fire, but you may find that you are worlds apart, but it won’t matter because neither of you entered the conversation with any expectations of each other, and that’s when small talk is usually at its best and both participants are on an equal footing.
Get accustomed to initiating conversation with strangers, even if this is just in passing on the train that takes you to work. Small talk becomes easier once you are accustomed to it.
You never embarrass yourself by being friendly and open hearted. Observe – look for common ground – and simply talk at a reasonable level that doesn’t impose upon others, but that opens dialog.
Things to Avoid
The stranger on the train didn’t ask you to start conversing with them. Everyone has opinions and they are not the best ice breakers. Your opinion may actually be the opposite of the opinion held by the person you are trying to converse with.
Avoid opinions at all costs as, at this stage of your liaison with a stranger, your opinions are irrelevant. Many people make the mistake of proffering opinion when it’s not invited.
These are people that other’s shun because having opinion rammed down your throat by someone you don’t even know is unacceptable.
Find yourself in a common situation and if they make the first move by gesturing in some way, then you can use opinion to calm the situation or to agree with them since they made the opening move.
Just because you heard a stranger tutting at someone’s behavior doesn’t give you the instant signal that you can open a dialog with negativity. Try to avoid it. People have enough negativity (1) in their lives and you may be adding more stress to their day than they choose to have.
It’s much better to start any liaison on a positive note, even if the small talk comes to an abrupt end or loses impetus.
Negativity never makes for good quality conversation. In fact, it just shows the darker side of people and if you want to be successful at small talk, you need to take that smile with you and keep it friendly.
The friendly interactions between people commuting to work in the experiment that was mentioned earlier employed positive small talk and the percentage of people who found this enriching was huge.
People really did find that it made them feel a lot happier in themselves and that the connection between strangers was essential to that feeling. If you want to indulge in small talk, keep it on a positive note and reserve your negativity for times when it is more appropriate.
People make assumptions about each other all of the time. If you want meaningful dialog with a stranger, don’t just jump in and expect it to work.
The rules of society mean that it is much more polite to observe, to find common interest and then to ease into conversation rather than assuming the lead in a conversation that may not be welcome.
Learn to listen because listening is one of your greatest tools. If you hear the way that people interact, this gives you a great opportunity to know how to approach someone. You can’t simply budge into people’s lives without expecting some kind of reaction.
It’s far better to wait for the appropriate moment and make the introduction as natural as possible because it makes you look less desperate and less assuming.
I hope this text has given you food for thought because it’s written by someone who learned empathy a long time ago. When talking to strangers, it’s easy to forget that you don’t know what they have been through. You don’t know how sad or happy they are.
The approach that I have given you here is safe, tried and tested approach that makes people want to be with you. They enjoy the contact as much as you do if it’s light, uplifting then encouraging. You may even make friends along the way.
There was a song by Melanie Kafka in the sixties about people wearing buttons to tell others the kind of person they are. Unfortunately, people don’t wear these.
She was saying about people that she passed every day in the corridor or on the way to work but that never became a part of her life because there was never any dialog.
What you need to do, if you want dialog and want to talk to people without really making a fool of yourself is to watch out for those moments that life offers you when it’s okay to talk and it’s alright to open up dialog in a very positive way, without assumption and without expectations.
When you expect, you get disappointed. When you use small talk as part of your life without this element of expectation, you actually encourage friendships to form and to feel happier about the person that you are.
Above all, be yourself. If you make overtures that you are someone that you are not you end up with embarrassment when you get past those initial stages and want to make the friendship a little more permanent. Don’t set yourself up for disaster.
If you use the advice given in this post, you will find that small talk isn’t the problem. The problem may be that your social calendar is filling up quicker than you expected.