Many of us freeze at the idea of making small talk. The thought of having to converse with people we hardly know, having to find something to say or risk being seen as clumsy and unsociable – well, it’s enough to make you turn down that party invitation, or lurk in the cloakroom until the very beginning of the meeting.
It doesn’t have to be this way. A lucky few are naturally good at making small talk, but the rest of us can learn the skills of social conversation.
You don’t ever have to be stuck for words again.
‘Social’ is a cheery word. It implies getting together with people, going to parties and gatherings, celebrating, going out, having fun. A little bit of eating and drinking too, maybe? Perhaps a little bit of dressing up, if that’s what you like, or dressing down, if that’s what you prefer.
Some of us are so into the social thing that we list ‘socialising’ as one our favourite activities. And there are no rules or pressure – it doesn’t matter if your idea of a great social occasion is paintballing with 20 of your closest friends, or a quiet evening with a couple of mates and a bottle of wine (mine’s a nice Merlot, since you’re asking). Just relax and have a good time.
- Not being ‘social’ is seen as a negative.
- ‘She’s not very sociable,’ we whisper about that girl in the office who doesn’t chat much.
- ‘The new premises are fine, but there’s no space to socialise,’ we frown.
- ‘I don’t think he has much social life,’ we say with a significant nod.
‘Conversation’ is a warming word as well. Who doesn’t like having a good chat, or a lively discussion, or just a comforting exchange?
When we converse, we connect with each other, we make friends or consolidate existing relationships. One of the best compliments we give is that someone is easy to talk to.
Put the words together and we should have an inspiring phrase, right? We should have a concept which fills us with anticipation and promises an enjoyable occasion. Oh, is that you heading for the door? And you as well?
Well, no wonder. The phrase ‘social conversation’, AKA ‘small talk’, fills many of us with dread. It’s right up there with ‘smart casual’ as an expression liable to send us into a state of panic.
The main reason for this is that we are required to make social conversation with people we don’t know, or don’t know well. At parties and weddings and similar occasions, we are brought together with strangers, and the social convention is that we make small talk. In other words, we don’t sit in silence through a three-course meal (plus speeches and presentations) without saying a word to our table companions. We are expected to chat, to converse.
In other situations, the expectation of conversation creeps up on us unawares. There’s that awkward few minutes while you wait with someone for the coffee machine to deliver, or when you fall in step with an acquaintance or colleague who is going the same way as you. And when you actually get on the same bus or train – come on, own up. You pretend you are only going to the next stop, don’t you, and endure a longer journey rather than having to exchange a few more words with a fellow human being. Or you study your phone as if it’s the key to the universe.
There are many reasons for our fear of having to make small talk:
- I’m shy
- I never know what to say
- I’ll look stupid
- I can’t be funny or interesting
- I’m scared I’ll say the wrong thing
- I don’t know anything about them
- I can tell we’ve got nothing to talk about
- I’ll seem boring
All these thoughts are absolutely understandable. But, for a moment, stop nodding vigorously and think about someone else. Think about someone who in your experience, manages social conversation really well. Think of someone who seems to chat easily, who seems warm, confident, engaged.
It might be someone you have enjoyed talking to, or someone with whom you have a brief exchange which makes you feel good. You have no way of knowing how this person feels inside. You don’t know if they have been plagued with the kinds of doubts and fears listed above. What you do know is that they have found a way of managing these social situations, and making them better for themselves and for other people.
You can do this as well. You can learn the skills of making small talk, in spite of all your reservations. Here’s one clue to how to do it.
Look at the first word of every objection. Yes, it’s ‘I’. As soon as you get rid of the ‘I’ and stop focusing on your own feelings, talking becomes much easier. Think about the other person, the one you always sit next to while you watch your kids play in a match, or the one who says ‘I think I’m on this table’ at the formal dinner, or the former colleague you bump into unexpectedly in the supermarket. Think about making this encounter easy for them.
My new ebook, ‘Small Talk Skills: A Short Guide To How To Make Social Conversation In Any Situation’, gives you lots of guidance about how to become a confident conversationalist.
It offers practical ideas and suggestions on topics such as how to start a conversation, how to keep it going, how to deal with the awkward moments. It gives you words and phrases that you can use. Perhaps you will find something which you can use tomorrow – that work or business function? that parent-teacher quiz night? that house party where you only know the host?
Have a great time. And let me know how you get on – I’d love to hear from you.