I’m a world-class small talker. I honed my craft in college on the streets of Charlottesville, VA, with its friendly-to-foot-traffic environment and slow-paced summers, which allowed ample opportunity for small talk. However, the foundation was laid where I grew up, in small-town King George County, VA, where you have to be able to talk to anyone no matter how different they seem from you. You can’t escape each other in a county with only 7 stoplights, so you have to know how to talk to people when you run into them at the Food Lion or the gas station.
Small talk skills are life skills. As you grow up and move elsewhere, small talk is a way to connect with your new community and learn more about your world. Plus, with small talk, even the most boring day can become interesting. My small talk skills are how I made friends with the security guards and policemen on a movie set in town, which eventually got me onto the set to watch DeNiro film a scene. I’m a master of just hangin’ around, and you need small talk to be comfortable doing that.
Here are my tips, whether you’re just boppin’ around town or navigating a holiday dinner with tedious relatives.
Small talk tip #1: Talk about what’s right in front of you.
I know this tip is obvious, because that’s why everyone talks about the WEATHER. It’s right in front of us, and we have it in common… but it’s so BORING. I want to help you move beyond “weather small talk” and be a more versatile small talker.
This tip saved me this summer when I (uncharacteristically) got stuck without any ideas for small talk.
I was getting corn for dinner. I put some in a bag, then saw a man shucking an ear with great purpose.
Me: “Do people always shuck corn before they buy it, or do some of them just put it in a bag and shuck it at home, like I do?”
“Well, I think most people just do it at home,” he said humorlessly.
I decided to shuck the corn, more for the camaraderie of it. I wanted to be shucking corn with a stranger in the grocery store. But for the life of me, I could not think of any way to make small talk. I thought about mentioning something about the quality of the corn, but I didn’t think “I got some organic local corn that looked way better than this,” would be socially appropriate.
I didn’t have any interesting stories about why I was making corn that night, nor did the man offer any information about himself and his corn usage. We were just vigorously shucking corn together.
That man left, and another man came along. I was still shucking because I’d had to stop to text my sister to see if we needed more broccoli. Suddenly, I realized my hands were sticky. Eureka! “My hands are all sticky!” I exclaimed, holding my hands up toward the new stranger.
“Yup, that’ll happen,” he responded. “I found a sticky spot on a couple I just shucked.”
“I don’t think I can keep shopping like this. This is gross.”
“Yeah that happened to me too,” my shucking buddy replied. “There was a sticky part on one of the ones I just shucked. That’s why people shuck it, so you can make sure you’re getting good corn.”
See? This is why I love small talk. I had no idea you were looking for BAD CORN when you were shucking corn in the store. I just thought you wanted less garbage at your house, but now I know why all these people are bothering to shuck corn in a freezing cold grocery store rather than in the comfort of their own home. I achieved this small talk success by talking about what was in front of me: my sticky hands.
Small talk tip #2: Ask people questions.
Now, you have to be careful with this. Give the person an OUT. Don’t make your question overly demanding. If the person is carrying a mysterious object, don’t say “What’s that for?” That gets too much into their personal life because you are asking about THEM and what they are using it FOR. Instead, say, “What’s that?” That way the person can describe the object, and if they want to tell you what they’re using it for, they can.
Small talk tip #3: Don’t ask too many questions; this isn’t an interview.
After you ask a question and the person answers, now YOU have to give some info. If the object you were asking about turned out to be a telescope, now you need to think of something to say about the cosmos. Talk about the time you saw Halley’s Comet when you were little, or talk about the Mars Rover landing that happened last year or whenever. Exchange a few more sentences, and move on when the time’s right. It’s just small talk. Don't put too much pressure on yourself to have a long conversation.
Small talk tip #4: Do not assume you have a single thing in common with the person you’re small talking with.
Don’t assume they share your interest in organic food or current events, or that the person holds a job. Don’t assume they know about iPhones and Youtube. Don’t assume they have a relationship with their parents or children. People have very different lives and you need to respect that. This is why “talk about what’s right in front of you” is handy. Don’t try to find commonality; you are JUST MAKING SMALL TALK. Instead of trying to find common ground (family, life experiences, education- no! avoid!), focus on the person in front of you and what they are doing. That’s how you learn cool tidbits, and that’s how you avoid awkward conversations that touch on big topics that are too personal for small talk.
Small talk tip #5: Only make small talk if you have time for it.
You don’t want to start some small talk, then realize you’ve gotten yourself a really chatty talk partner when you have to be somewhere in a few minutes. Don’t give small talk a bad name by ditching out on your newfound friend. Let the conversation meander to its natural end.
Small talk tip #6: You can walk away.
If the person you are talking to starts acting bizarre or saying inappropriate things, you don’t have to extract yourself politely. Just say, “Bye, have a good day!” and walk away. Or just, “Bye.” It doesn’t matter if they’re still talking; I give you permission to be rude.
Small talk tip #7: Don’t be afraid to say weird stuff.
There’s a good chance you’ll never see this person again! Use all your best stories, like the time you forced a bus driver to run over an injured squirrel in the road, so it wouldn’t suffer. Talk about your crazy relatives- hey, the person will never meet them! Talk about all those things you’re too embarrassed to admit to your friends. Have fun! See what's in your head! You will certainly entertain this stranger!
Small talk tip #8: Keep it positive, and smile.
Small talk is your chance to give a stranger something interesting to think about or to brighten their day. Life can be really boring and lonely, and small talk is a way to add some pleasantness to this whole workaday, ho-hum grind.
Please let me know if you have any other tips or your own small talk stories to share!