Ask An Adult: How Do I Fix My Awful Small Talk?

It’s time to get serious about pleasantries. Except, don’t take it too seriously or you’ll scare people.Illustration by Alex Coll

Ask An Adult: How Do I Fix My Awful Small Talk?

by Stevie Martin |
Published on

Small talk is the bane of everyone’s life - even if you’re not that bad at it. Questions about the weather, conversations about transport, the sort of the stuff that - when you’re a kid - makes you pray you never grow up.

Unfortunately, it’s incredibly important if you want to get ahead, make friends, make work connections, or do pretty much anything with your life. Sure, you can get far without mastering the art of the small talk - but you’ll have a lot of people along the way saying things like ‘Well she’s incredibly awkward in social situations’ which is rarely a positive.

‘Small talk is the appetizer for any relationship,’ says Debra Fine, author of The Art Of Small Talk. ‘Whether business, social or romantic, it either starts with small talk or reverts to small talk to become a relationship.’

So if you want relationships, you’ve got to be prepared to bring up how cold it is this time of year/how late the trains are/whether the person your with has ever been on holiday. Thankfully, we got some uber practical tips on how to go about chatting the small stuff when you’re really not that good at talking to people both from Debra, and Judy Apps, author of The Art Of Conversation.

It’s time to get serious about pleasantries. Except, don’t take it too seriously or you’ll scare people.

Start it off

A large percentage of small talk isn’t necessarily about what you’re saying, it’s about the underlying message you’re putting out which is ‘I’m making an effort to be friendly here, do you want to make an effort to be friendly back?’. While few people enjoy being chatted at when waiting for a bus, when at a job interview, house party, waiting to go into a meeting, starting a new job, going to a family do, literally anything you care to name is bookended with small talk.

‘People think somehow they have to say something interesting - but someone has to start so it might as well be you,’ says Judy. ‘A good way to start is anything bland, uninteresting! ‘God it’s a foul day today’ or ‘How did you get here?’. The questions people think are so boring are good openers because if the other person doesn’t answer, it doesn’t matter.’

You want to start low key, and whatever the question is, the point is that you’ve started talking. The other person will either appreciate this olive branch of friendliness, or reject it. If they reject it then they’re either a) a bellend or b) someone who hasn’t read this article. No love lost though, eh? Because who cares if someone is unresponsive about a weather question? Keep the stakes low, and you’ll risk less embarrassment on your part. Also, it’s weird to go in with ‘Hey I’m Hannah, what are your greatest fears that keep you awake at 3am?’.

Be okay with rejection

Or, at least, accept that it will happen and that not everyone will be up for a chat. As we said before, the main thing is that you tried.

‘People decide before we open our mouths whether they will speak with us or not,’ says Debra. ‘Sometimes they decide based on what we are wearing, how old we are, what line of work we are in, if we are a person of influence, etc. So since there is no guarantee that small talk will work with ANYONE, ever, be the first to day "hello" and be prepared for rejection.’

Rejection being one word answers, or no reciprocated interest rather than them yelling ‘NO’ and running away (but this could happen too).

Have something in your arsenal

It could be as crap as the trains, or it could be a new film you just saw - Debra advises you always have about three things to bring up so you don’t panic in the moment.

‘Always be prepared with things to talk about, as the worst time to think of something to talk about is when the conversation has run dry,’ she says. ‘I walk into an occasion, interview, date or networking event with 2 to 3 things to talk about.’

Judy adds: ‘Remember to finish every little comment you make with a little question back. That keeps things going. “Dull day, I just got back off holiday and I’m finding all this cold so difficult! Have you been away recently?” immediately opens things up.’

Drop something personal

Not on the floor. Like, into the conversation. If you attach facts about yourself, opinions, or anything unique to you to the conversation then it personalises it and makes the other person feel like you’re somewhat invested in talking to them. Rather than just a girl who is obsessed with discussing what bus she took.

‘By putting in a little fact about yourself, you can make the conversation a little more interesting,’ says Judy. ’For example, if you’re at a conference - how many times have you been to it? Have they been before? Is it the first time you’ve been to this place before?’

It works in bars too - have you been to this bar? Which bars are good that you’ve visited recently? Does the person you’re small-talking (yep, using it as a verb now) have any good recommendations etc? Obviously don’t say to someone on a Friday night if they ‘have any good recommendations’ because you’ll sound like a robot. But using the place you’re in to kickstart a conversation is always a winner.

Don’t wet yourself

Just an unhelpful thing to do, isn’t it.

Use verbal cues to keep the conversation going

When you’ve asked a question (‘So what’s new since I last saw you?’ or ‘How’s work going?’) Debra recommends using little sub-questions to keep them talking. Useful if you have nothing to say. ‘Ensure you do not run out of steam by using verbal cues to indicate your conversation partner should continue,’ she says. ‘Things like "that is interesting" "what happened next?" "give me an example of what you mean by that”’

Latching onto parts of what they’re saying and getting them to expand is a good way yo make sure they don’t say a thing, stop saying a thing, and leave the two of you in silence while you struggle to think of the next thing.

Do not be terrified of silence

Silence is fine. Silence doesn’t mean anyone is going to explode or die. ‘If you’re really comfortable with someone, there are loads of long pauses,’ says Judy. ‘So it’s fine for there to be a gap, just act like it’s the most natural thing in the world and take a breath! Take a lovely big breath and usually something will come out when you exhale.’

Silences are only awkward when you can tell the other person is totally panicking. So don’t panic, pick one of your three things, look around the room and comment on something (anything).

Don’t get stuck on one topic

You know the feeling - you’ve found something to both talk about, but now you’re totally trapped and have been discussing which train lines yield the smoothest journey for about fifteen minutes. They’re bored, you’re bored, you can’t get out of it because you’re worried you won’t have anything else to talk about. Judy suggests taking the initiative and moving it away from the topic you’ve been stuck on.

‘People get caught on things, so don’t be afraid of changing the topic and asking a question that bring you back to the person. Changing it to asking them if they enjoy their job, if they are planning and summer breaks, anything to get you off the topic you’re on!’

Be aware of your body language

You might feel like hugging yourself, making yourself as small as possible because you feel really uncomfortable but you can absolutely trick your brain into being more relaxed by just standing in a more relaxed way. Trick yourself into being cool with small talk.

‘Appear approachable - smiling, stand up straight and exhibit body language that exudes comfort in your own skin,’ says Debra. ‘Fake it if you have to, because people hate being with people who appear nervous or ill at ease, and it’ll make you feel worse too. Just look like you are actively listening, too. Lean forward, maintain eye contact.’

The fake it till you make it maxim really comes into play here - if you feel weird, the other person doesn’t necessarily know you feel weird so why not model your body language on your most confident friend? Watch them when they’re next talking and emulate how they stand, how they gesticulate, how they maintain eye contact. It’ll make you feel way more confident than you are.

Now go forth and chat shit to people you don’t know - because practise makes perfect and, as long as you’re not running down the street trying to tell someone about a TV show you watched last night while wetting yourself, you’ll be fine.

Like this? Then you might also be interested in:

The Politics of Social Media Climbing

The One Basic Dating Rule Everyone Needs To Remember

How not To Fall Out With Your BFF On Holiday

Follow Stevie on Twitter @5tevieM

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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