I have to admit, necessity of conducting a small talk gives me the chills sometimes… Let’s say I’m riding in an elevator with a next-door neighbor. Should I stick to simple ‘hello’ or keep on talking to avoid uncomfortable lulls? Not that I hate the idea of gabs, but I do wonder whether my “Lovely day today, don’t you think?” remark might seem indecent to the fellow traveler. The biggest paradox of small talk is that it is meant to take the edge of an interaction, not to give you an extra trouble. So why do we struggle to start a chit chat then?
In 1923 Bronislaw Malinowski studied the matter and concluded that phatic conversation (i.e. small talk) has to be considered a social skill. It looks that being able to start a light talk with strangers, falls into a category of inessential, but absolutely delightful talents. Good thing about this talent is that there are ways to master it, even if you believe you are a chronic introvert.
First, you should probably learn how to recognize a phatic conversation and why appreciate it. Apparently, a lot of Germans (see our previous article) find small talks to be pointless and fake. That if you expect such conversation to bring certain important information. In fact, small talk’s purpose is slightly different; consider it to be a bonding ritual, a ‘social lubricant’ that helps you to establish relationship.
In 1959 Harry Weinberg gave a good example on how important it is to understand when communication is phatic: If you are fixing a flat tire on a hot day and a passerby asks, “Got a flat?” he [or she] is asking you to be friendly. If you take his [or her] words literally, you are likely to become angry and say, “Any damn fool can see I have.”
Although, classic ‘How are you?’ question doesn’t necessarily mean a person who addresses you is curious about your well-being, he still sends you a signal that he wants to be nice and friendly to you. This short phrase might lead to certain interpersonal connection in the future.
When do I Start a Small Talk?
What are the situations when small talk is appropriate and even expected? It all depends on what country you are in, but when it comes to England or USA you will hear people having a light conversation pretty much everywhere: in a line for take-away coffee or in metro waiting for a train to come, in art galleries or museums, at cocktail parties or networking events, at dinner parties, wedding receptions, doctor’s waiting room, before a business meeting and on the way to office.
Duration of chatting varies greatly. In a queue you will probably have a short up to 3 minutes dialogue; if stumbled upon a college in a corridor a quick ‘How is your day going so far?’ question can be just enough to exchange social niceties.
At the same time, dinner party’s light talk might last through the whole event. For such cases dinner etiquette guidelines suggest to have a conversation with a person to your right during first course of a meal. When the course is changed, try to engage in the conversation with a person to your left.
Business meetings usually start from small talk as well. Remember that the host of the meeting has to be the one who changes the direction of conversation towards business talk. If you attend a formal meeting, it will be considered rude of you to jump into business discussion before the host.
Long story short, you can initiate a small talk almost anywhere; except probably public toilets, which people visit for reasons other than mingling.
The only vital nuance to keep in mind would be choosing a topic wisely.
What should I talk about?
Since small talk’s purpose is enhancing relationships and building rapport, settle on neutral, every day things to talk about. Mild observations or questions about weather, traffic, recent travelling, books, movies, art, current events, new restaurants and good food, hobbies, mutual friends or family members, music or flower arrangement fit into the category. If you decide to start a small talk with a joke, pick it carefully, it has to be gentle.
|Introductions||John, this is Jane. Jane just moved here from Paris. Jane is interested in flamenco and is a dancer herself.|
|Hospitality||Can I offer you something to drink? What would you prefer?|
|Weather||The weather was amazing these two weeks, don’t you think?|
|Traffic||Did you have a pleasant journey? Was it difficult to find this place?|
|Travelling||Are you going anywhere on holiday this year?|
|Books||Have you read any nice book recently?|
|Restaurants; Food||I had an amazing meal yesterday at this new Italian place. Do you like Italian food?|
|Hobbies||What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?|
|Mutual Friends, Family Members||James is a great host, right? Where do you know him from?|
|Movies, TV||Did you watch ‘The Apprentice’ last night?|
|Art, Music||What sort of music do you like?|
|Current Events||The Royal wedding was organized perfectly, don’t you think?|
As to subjects to stay away from, many sources advise to avoid any controversial topics like personal issues, health problems, politics, gossips, cost of things and inappropriate jokes.
How do I Start a Small Talk?
When you are planning to attend a party or a networking event and you know for sure ‘scary small talks’ are unavoidable, you might want to prepare in advance. Just like you choose an outfit to wear, think of possible topics you would like to discuss this evening. Check current headlines, recent sport events and world news just to be in the loop on what is happening.
Eleanor Roosevelt had a special way to handle small talks. She went down the alphabet until she felt a listener’s interest. For example, A – I recently came back from Argentina, have you ever been there? B – Yesterday evening I caught Bourne Identity on TV, what a great movie, don’t you think? C –I heard Canon just launched a new photo camera and I can’t wait to test it. Do you like making photos?
Business networking experts often advise to try and practice a possible conversation in front of the mirror; prepare a list of topics and see how you look and sound. Talking to yourself might seem funny and awkward, but such training is a useful method to get rid of small talk anxieties.
Your posture plays a significant role in the way you are perceived by people. To look confident try standing straight with your shoulders back. Leaning a little towards your acquaintance will signal him that you are interested in the conversation. Also, don’t forget about positive body language, eye-contact and smiling.
To be a good company, you don’t need to be a big talker. There is a handy trick you can use to make a great impression – use open-ended questions. Instead of ‘Do you like music?’ ask ‘What kind of music do you like?’
People like to talk about themselves. Use that and ask more about their work, hobbies, interests, recent vacations and opinions. This approach not only will save you from the need to talk a lot, but also strengthen your reputation as a wonderful person to speak with.
There are situations when sudden pauses kill the flow of conversation. That might be a good time to consider switching your small talk partners by saying something like – ‘Oh, I see a friend of mine at the bar, I should probably go to say hello. Thank you for a great chat.’
Similar phrase will help you to escape an unpleasant situation. If you wish to quickly end a chit chat with an importunate person, just say that you need to refill your drink and mention that it was nice talking with him. By the way, another small trick will help you to protect you personal space. If a person is standing too close to you and you feel you are getting cornered, just extend your hand which holds a cocktail, so the person would be one arm away from you.
Bottom line is, if you wish to master your communication skills you have to practice. Start with greeting your colleagues in the office and ask them simple friendly questions. When attending a party find a group of people who are having a conversation and ask politely if you could join them. See how others behave and try to fit in smoothly. As Bernardo J. Carducci (director of the Shyness Research Institute in Indiana) says – “A golden rule is that you don’t have to be brilliant – just nice. If you start with simple even obvious comments, that makes it easier for others”.
Do you have questions about Small Talk or you think we forgot to mention something important? Come talk to us! Leave your comment below and let’s start the conversation!
Alona is the co-founder of Etiquette Tips – an online magazine that features articles on business etiquette, communication, dress code, table manners, international code of behaviour, gift giving, events & celebrations and more. You can find her on Google + and Twitter