Those oh-so-awkward silences.
Those moments when the metaphorical tumbleweed blows through the room.
Communication grinds to a crashing halt when it’s barely begun.
The shutters go up and it’s very clear that the intention of exchanging a few pleasant words with someone you’ve not met before has failed.
It happens to us all.
It leaves us feeling inadequate, uncomfortable, and at a loss for how to retrieve the situation.
Sometimes there’s a temptation to say something… anything to fill the void.
Or you default to firing a barrage of questions to cover your discomfort, making it feel more like an interrogation than a polite chat.
Whether it’s at work, in a social setting where friends are in the minority, or even at a bar where you’re surrounded by strangers, we all want to make a good first impression.
It’s frustrating when you find yourself unable to sustain a conversation and thereby miss the opportunity to shine.
In a professional situation, creating the best possible image of ourselves is a necessity for climbing up the career ladder.
The difference between nailing that long-sought-after role with its stellar benefits package and being passed over can come down to that all-important first impression.
Small talk, then, is way more significant than its name might suggest, and it’s far from being merely inconsequential chitchat.
So, let’s try to oil the wheels of these encounters and turn them from painful to pleasurable experiences.
The good news is that the art of small talk can be learned, even if shyness is your default setting. It isn’t just a skill you happen to be gifted with or not.
Read on to find the tools and topics you need to become adept at exchanging pleasantries with anyone, anytime, anywhere.
1. It’s not all about what you say.
When starting a conversation with a complete stranger, or someone you’ve met but are not able to relax with, you need to make them feel comfortable.
In this regard, body language is almost as important as what comes out of your mouth.
Be sure to give them your full attention and not allow yourself to be distracted.
If you cross your arms or incline your shoulders away from them, you’ll indicate that you’re not interested.
Intruding on their personal space is another no-no.
Be sure to keep your stance open and approachable, using eye contact (but not a full-on scary stare), to show that they have your attention.
Look eager, but don’t overdo it.
2. Be friendly.
In situations where you already know the other person, just say hello and be sure to use their name: “Hey, Diana, it’s good to see you again.”
This is simple, direct, and it sets a great tone to start your conversation.
On meeting someone for the first time, take the initiative and introduce yourself first to boost your own confidence.
Take the opportunity to ask their name. A good trick to make the other person feel relaxed is to repeat their name back to them.
In certain closed social settings such as parties, seminars, or at the college bar, try to take the initiative by opening the communication channels with, “Hey! I don’t think I’ve met you yet.”
This isn’t weird behavior since mingling is expected in these situations.
You’ll stand out at once as a social individual because you have started the conversation.
The reflex response will be to respond and then you’re in, asking appropriate follow-up questions according to the scenario.
3. Keep it positive and light-hearted.
The subliminal effect of exchanging information in a conversation is an exchange of energy.
Keeping the tone upbeat and being quick to smile – or even laughing where appropriate – will engage the other person and make them want to keep the conversation going.
It will also make it memorable. The subject matter may be something unexciting like the weather, but it can still be fun and positive.
Negative droning is the biggest turn-off for any budding communication.
4. Make it fun.
In certain social situations (not recommended for use with a senior work colleague you’ve just met), you can lighten up an initial encounter by making it a bit of a guessing game.
Try asking them where they’re from, but, before they answer, say, “Wait a moment. Let me guess!”
Your wild guesses are unlikely to hit the mark, but they will stimulate smiling/laughter.
If it feels appropriate, this can be a fun way to leapfrog over the awkwardness and smooth the way to a more natural conversation.
5. Find out what you have in common.
Our life experiences and interests may vary greatly, but we all experience the same weather, we all need to eat, and we all need to keep ourselves occupied.
No matter how little you may feel you have in common with another person, these topics are where you’ll find some shared ground.
Using the following suggested topics for small talk and being careful to actually listen to the replies, it’s surprisingly easy to ask follow-up questions that take you way beyond the initial subject.
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6. Keep questions open-ended.
You can establish the common ground between you by using open questions. You want to know about the ‘how’ and the ‘why.’
This will help to drive the conversation toward feelings rather than facts.
Once you’ve found out there’s something that you share, the possibilities for the conversation will increase exponentially.
7. Don’t over-prepare.
Don’t think you can just memorize a bunch of questions, because anything which is rehearsed will always sound stilted and awkward.
Preplanning doesn’t work.
For example, if you depend on a well-rehearsed line, it can backfire on you or just leave you struck dumb.
Let’s say that your standard opener is to compliment someone on something they’re wearing. That isn’t going to take you very far if they’re wearing a black t-shirt and jeans. It’ll sound lamer than a one-legged duck.
If you have a few topics up your sleeve like those listed below, there’s always something to comment on or a pertinent question to ask.
8. Listen carefully.
A common mistake is to be busily planning your next question while the other person is speaking, rather than hearing their answer to your previous question.
Once they cotton on to the fact you’re not listening, conversation will soon dry up.
In truth, if you pay full attention, the chances are that their answers will naturally spark further questions to help the conversation flow.
In your quest to make small talk a pleasure rather than a pain, you should aspire to make the exchange feel natural and effortless.
With that in mind, it’s a good idea to have a few universal topics up your sleeve to open the conversation.
Here are some ideas:
8 Of The Best Topics For Small Talk
It’s tempting to dismiss the weather as a boring and predictable topic, but it’s actually a potentially rich seam for conversation.
For example, an inconsequential chat about the weather might easily lead on to a lengthy chat about a recent skiing trip or the predicted heat wave and its likely effects.
Rain or shine, hurricane or heat wave, there’s always something to comment on, either about what’s happening now or is forecast for the near future.
And the weather is relevant to everyone, so it’s the perfect one-size-fits-all small talk topic.
A good way to be prepared for small talk any time is to keep up with the news. There’s little excuse to be out of the loop when it’s accessible on your phone.
If you’re aware of what’s going on locally, nationally, and globally, you’ll never be short of a conversation starter.
If you’re time-poor, there are some great news digest sites out there. They distill the main stories into bite-size chunks, making you sound way more knowledgeable than you actually are.
To be adept at using this topic, you’ll need to keep track of seasonal sporting action across the board: football, baseball, golf, etc.
Having some knowledge of national and international tournaments is also a benefit.
This will come naturally if you’re a sports fan, but, even if your interests lie far from the sporting arena, simply explaining why that is can lead to a fruitful discussion.
This rates as another of the most popular topics for small talk.
It’s also a topic that fits well with the ‘guessing game’ mentioned above.
So, if it’s appropriate in the situation you’re in, you can ask “What do you do?” but follow it immediately with “Wait a moment, let me guess…”
The chances of you guessing correctly are small, but all you want to achieve is a light-hearted, fun vibe for your conversation, leaving a lasting good impression.
It’s something we all share, big or small, and a very common conversation opener.
Be prepared to ask others about their family and to reciprocate by answering questions about yours.
You can learn quite a bit about someone fairly quickly by learning whether they’re married and how long, if they have any siblings, etc.
One of the greatest pleasures for many people is their vacation. They love to talk about where they’ve been and also what’s on their bucket list.
Asking questions about their travel experiences and for recommendations of interesting and/or beautiful locations to visit can lead to a very satisfying and even memorable exchange of ideas.
You’d be surprised what unusual hobbies some people have and, even if they sound pretty dull to you, an enthusiast never tires of talking about their favorite pastime.
Whether it’s crochet or collecting cacti, they will delight in being given the chance to talk about it, making this a potentially rich seam to delve into.
Everyone comes from somewhere, making this another accessible topic.
Whether it was the warmest and most welcoming of communities, generating only the fondest memories, or it was a place they just couldn’t wait to leave, asking questions about where they grew up can help the conversation to flow.
Topics to avoid
A timely reminder that certain topics are taboo, being culturally unacceptable for discussion with strangers.
Subjects to avoid at all costs are finance, politics, and religion.
Similarly, any mention of age or appearance, sex, personal gossip, and past relationships are a sure-fire fail.
Likewise, offensive jokes are an absolute no-no.
There are no prizes for guessing why these topics are off limits for small talk.
Small talk, big impression.
Remember that small talk is about building a bridge between you and another person.
It’s not an interrogation.
It doesn’t matter so much what you talk about, but rather that you open the channels of communication.
These exchanges, though often brief, can be so valuable in terms of creating a positive first impression.
Don’t lose sight of the fact that small talk can open doors to jobs, to promotion, to new friendships and, yes, even to everlasting love.
It can, in fact, be the biggest talk you can do.