Millennials today have a small talk problem. That problem is that far too many of us don’t know how to make small talk. We are too used to being able to retreat to our devices. For example, how many times have you been at a social gathering and one or more people are, during a group conversation, checked out and starting at their smartphones? Before smartphones, this was not possible, and those sitting at the table had to at least pay attention to the conversation. I define small talk as generally inconsequential conversations on light topics, leading either to social enjoyment or to fulfillment of unwritten social obligations. That’s a mouthful, but I think it captures the sometimes enjoyable, sometimes obligatory nature of small talk. Love it or hate it, it is a reality we must get used to. The good news, it is way easier to become better at small talk than you think.
For most of my life, I generally was not very good at small talk. Things changed when I started attending classes at George Washington University in D.C. and started going to happy hours and networking events in hopes of career advancement. In those settings, you are forced to make small talk because there is no other option but to leave. There is no purpose in being there other than networking, which absolutely requires small talk. Each event I went to cost me a lot of time, effort, and even transportation costs, so I have to dive in. This forced me to improve my skills and helped me see where I had been going wrong. I began to pay more attention to the conversational behaviors of others and see where they too were making the same mistakes I had been making.
From what I have observed, no one formally teaches us how to make small talk. You are simply expected to know how, and then execute. Today, however, we need some instruction. The word “introvert” has become very common, and now many introverts and extroverts understand themselves and each other. There is a slight danger though that introverts will simply accept their proclivity against shallow social interaction because the world now accepts that they are introverts. In reality, the ability to make small talk is something to be reasonably expected of any well-adjusted individual. You don’t have to like small talk, but to live a socially fulfilling life (and even introverts need social fulfillment), you have to be able to do it. I say this as an introvert.
To help introverts and Millennials navigate the maze of small talk proficiency, I have come up with the Ten Rules of Small Talk. I will provide Rule #10 here, and the rest in subsequent posts.
Rule #10: Small Talk is Like Choreography
Dancing. Plays. Movie Fight Scenes. Chess. These things all have a predictable pattern of A-then-B, give-and-take, or move-and-countermove. What most people don’t realize is that small talk is exactly the same way. People who enjoy making small talk never think of it this way. It takes an introvert like me to come along and view it as a system and a philosophical concept. Most of the time, when we engage in small talk, we follow a very predictable pattern (assuming it goes successfully) without knowing it. The trick for the small-talk-challenged is to understand the pattern. Then you will be able to see at which points in the dance you are struggling and put in some extra practice.
I find a great example of this concept in the movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In the middle of the movie is the first fight scene between Captain America and the Winter Soldier, the villain. I think it is one of the better fight scenes in a modern movie, because each character always makes the optimal move to counter the other character’s move. They always make the best move based on what was available, like they have an answer ready for every possible outcome. This is how you want your small talk to be. Obviously you don’t want it to seem forced, and it may seem a little mechanical at first, but it will become natural as you get used to it. There is a natural rhythm that needs to develop but can take a little time.
The key in knowing what to say is that there is generally a small pool of “right things” you can say when it’s your turn to speak during small talk. Your goal is to say one of those “right things.” In a fight scene, dance, or chess match, there are only a certain number of possible moves. Small talk is the same way. You can’t just say whatever you want, you have to say something with the narrow range of acceptable options. Further, the more conventional the thing you are considering saying is, the more likely it is to be in the pool of “right things.” That being said, avoid using worn-out clichés because you could end up sounding like a mindless drone. If the conversation leads to a friendship, you can move into more personal topics that actually help you get to know each other, at which point you no longer have to rely on the well-beaten path of conversational convention. The purpose of small talk, assuming you are not just killing time, is to bridge the gap from “Hi”, past the normal/boring phase of being conventional, to getting more personal. What if it’s small talk with someone you don’t like? You still need to be able to fulfill the social obligation side of small talk. If it helps, a good rule of thumb is, “what would a gregarious person say here?”
Stay tuned for more Rules of Small Talk!