It refers to the obligatory exchanges we share when we first meet people at parties, business functions and events, social activities.
It describes the kind of conversations we have with people at the bus stop, in the shop, at the school gate, queuing for tickets, waiting for the Pilates class or sporting event to start, any situation in which not to speak seems rude, but knowing what to say seems impossible.
What you actually say doesn’t matter a great deal
Making small talk is less about having a conversation and more about taking part in a social ritual. The point of making small talk is not to exchange meaningful observations, or to get to know someone intimately or to be amusing and entertaining (although of course these might all be very welcome outcomes).
The words you use are like a code for saying ‘I’m a friendly person. I like to connect with my fellow human beings. I’m not carrying any weapons.’
That’s why the weather is such a popular opening topic for our social encounters. No one expects to hear insightful comments about the climate or detailed analysis of the chill factor. We exchange familiar words about the rain or the cold or the summer, what summer, and this helps us to tune into each other, no matter how fleetingly.
We hear each other’s voices and engage with each other’s presence. We prepare the ground for further, more substantial conversation, if that is appropriate, or we move on, pleased that our small talk has done its job, that we have established brief rapport, and that we are ready to communicate with the next person.
Focus on the other person
Making small talk is easier if you forget about yourself and focus on the other person, who may be feeling just as awkward as you. Listen to what they say and observe their reactions to your comments.
Ask questions to show your interest. It’s a good idea to mix closed and open questions – you don’t want to sound like an interrogator. ‘How do you know James?’ is easier to give a fuller reply to than ‘How long have you known James?’
Give some information back. Not too much – a query about your journey doesn’t mean that someone wants to hear every detail of the tailback on to the motorway and how to shave ten minutes off the journey by driving along cart tracks and how the train was held up for half an hour outside Crewe.
Do make a comment which invites the other person to respond. ‘It was quite a long journey, but it gave me the opportunity to listen to music/listen to the radio/read/chat/knit/draw/enjoy some silence.’
This gives a little offering to your listener, who can then follow up by asking about what music you like listening to or what programmes you enjoy or what you are reading and so on, and tada! There you are, almost having a real conversation!
Listen and pick up points
Concentrate on what is being said and remember little things that you can refer to later. If someone says in passing that they used to go to a particular place for their holidays, or that they know a certain part of the world because their son lives there, or that they were nearly late because they had been gardening or childminding or cooking or finishing a round of golf or working on a presentation, store away the comment to use if the conversation flags.
‘You mentioned gardening earlier. What kind of garden do you have?’
‘How does your son like living in…’
If someone refers to a place, a person, an activity or an item, such as a car, painting, computer, piece of equipment or furniture, it’s probably safe to assume that this is a safe topic to draw on.
Use friendly body language
Keep your body and your head angled towards the person with whom you are speaking. Don’t cross or fold your arms. When you are listening, make eye contact. If they are talking at length and your eyes get tired, shift your gaze for a moment to the side of their face. It will still look like eye contact. Smile or look serious or surprised or questioning according to what is being said. Don’t look over their shoulder for someone more interesting to talk to.
The combination of warm body language and interested questions interspersed with a little self-disclosure will make you an expert in the art of small talk.