Are you already kind of dreading meeting your freshman dorm roommate for the first time, wondering what you’re going to say?
When you spot an acquaintance in a store, do you hope they don’t see you, pretend you don’t see them, and try to covertly duck into another aisle?
Does the idea of walking into a party where you only know one person fill you with dread?
Do you keep trying to summon up the courage to talk to the cute girl who makes your lattes at the local coffee shop, but whenever you get up to the counter, all you can muster is your order?
When you’re assigned to a table filled mostly with strangers at a wedding, do you talk only with your date, or sit hunched over your phone all night?
We’ve talked about the basics of good conversation before (see here and here), but today we want to discuss the little dance you have to do before you get to plunge into that deeper level of communication: small talk. Small talk is the back and forth you have with strangers and acquaintances and even family members that you rarely see.
I wanted to cover this topic as part of our “31 Basic Life Skills in 31 Days” series because I have interacted with a lot of young men who couldn’t engage in small talk to save their lives – really nice, earnest guys all, but their interactions with those beyond their circle of friends was painfully awkward. And while this form of communication may be “small,” it’s really a big deal when it comes to your personal and professional success, and your overall happiness. So before we discuss how to make it (and learn three, count ‘em three, handy acronyms to improve your conversational skillz), let’s talk about why it’s so crucial.
Why the Ability to Make Small Talk Is So Important
It’s easy to dismiss small talk as idle chit-chat, or superficial or pointless, and claim to only be interested in “real” conversation. But how do you get to the point of having a deeper conversation with someone in the first place? Someone you just met would be weirded out if you just walked up to them and asked, “Why do you think God allows bad things to happen to good people?” Conversation is a ladder, with small talk serving as the first few rungs. You can’t leap-frog up the ladder. That would be like trying to sprint before warming up, or cook a steak without defrosting it, or merge onto a highway without building up speed on the on-ramp, or…well you get the idea.
Think about it. How did all of your current most important non-familial relationships begin? Most likely with a bit of small talk one day. Asking about a homework assignment in chemistry class or commiserating about the pain you were in while doing bear crawls down the football field. And now you’re best buds.
Small talk is the portal through which every person you will ever meet will enter your life. That’s huge when you ponder it. You never know who you’re going to encounter in a class, at a coffee shop, at the gym, at a wedding; they could be your future business partner or boss, your future best friend or wife. You simply never know when someone you meet will send your life in a new direction. But if you can’t initiate these relationships, your circle of contacts and intimates will never expand past the current roster of friends whose Facebook updates and tweets you can’t take your eyes off of in order to meet the gaze of those sitting right next to you.
How to Gain the Ability to Make Small Talk with Anyone, Anywhere
The first step in becoming an expert small talker is to start seeing yourself as the host, as opposed to the guest, in any situation. The host acts as a leader. He’s active, not passive, and takes the initiative in talking with people, guiding the conversation, filling in awkward pauses, introducing people, and making others feel comfortable and welcome.
How do you become the consummate host wherever you go? Your hosting duties can be broken down into two categories: Approaching Others and Being Approachable.
How to Approach Others
Initiating Conversation with Strangers
We often feel self-conscious engaging a stranger in small talk, butmost people are feeling as shy and insecure as you are. It’s a great comfort and relief when someone takes the initiative to talk to them, saving them from standing alone by the punch bowl while they feel awkward and conspicuous. People love to talk (especially about themselves), and are typically flattered when someone is paying attention to them.
Look for someone who seems approachable, who’s by himself and isn’t talking to someone else or working on something. Make eye contact, smile at them, and then go up to greet them.
But what then? Anyone who’s had their small talk disintegrate after an exchange of “What do you do?” may worry that their attempt to initiate conservation will fizzle into awkwardness. But when you know what you’re doing, you can sail right over any potential slumps.