How to Make Small Talk: Rules 3-5

Continuing my series on the 10 Rules of Small Talk, explaining the fundamentals of what small talk is and how to do it well, here are rules 3-5!


Rule #5: Small Talk Can Help You Acquire Important Knowledge

Your conversations with random people can be a great source of information. In fact, sometimes you should strategically seek out such conversations. That is one of the main purposes of networking events, but the principle applies elsewhere as well. If you want to know what people think about something that is of immediate interest to both you and them, ask them. You don’t even need to start off with a greeting if you ask you question skillfully. For example, say you are not up on the weather and you look out the window and see dark clouds, and you already know it’s cold outside. If it snows, you could have a bear of a commute home, so you ask a coworker, “Think it’ll snow?” She then says, “Well, I heard on the radio that…” Voila, free knowledge. That is a relatively low-reward example, but the idea scales.

The other side of this is that it’s often impossible to know what knowledge a conversation might yield, especially a group conversation. Maybe you will hear about an interesting commercial development on the other side of town. Maybe they are putting a new chain restaurant that you love, or a fun attraction. You might not have otherwise known for months until you happened to drive through that part of town. Maybe you will get a good stock tip, if you trade stocks. Maybe you will hear about a great new book that intrigues you (“word of mouth” marketing).

Maybe you will hear an interesting tidbit that you can repeat in future conversations. Maybe you will learn something new about a mutual friend, such as the fact that he has a pickup truck and you’ve been looking for someone to haul something. Maybe you will learn that a mutual friend is good at a skill or craft that you would like to either pay them for or ask them to teach you. Maybe you’re in a band and looking for a drummer, and you hear that a mutual friend plays drums. Maybe the mutual friend just bought something you are thinking of buying, and hates it. Then you know you should go talk to them and get the scoop.

While you never know what you can learn, if you approach conversations optimistically, and therefore fully engage, you might learn something that could enhance your life, aside from the social fulfillment that the conversation provides.


Rule #4: Small Talk has Numerous Social Uses Other than Conversing with the Other Person

The worst position you can be in at a party or networking event is to be—repeat this with me—by yourself. True, if you are staring at your phone while by yourself, you might look important, like maybe your job needs something and they emailed you. But if you stand there long enough, people will figure out that you are on social media because you are too shy to talk to anyone, and they will think you are lame. That’s the hard truth.

So you see that small talk with a random stranger is always better than standing or sitting around doing nothing, or on your phone, or making proverbial trips to the punch bowl. I know it’s not easy to talk to random strangers, but unless it is at a socially acceptable point for you to leave, you have to if you don’t know anyone there or if all your friends are busy. Plus, you should be wanting to challenge yourself to get something out of the party or event, even if it is merely brownie points with your significant other who dragged you there. Or perhaps the chance to build confidence with someone of the opposite sex if you don’t have a significant other! A great conversation starter is to ask someone how they know the person who invited you to the party.

Another use for small talk is if you are trying to avoid someone who is at the same party or event. Maybe it’s that friend who talks your ear off every time they get the chance. If you are tied up in a conversation with someone else, they can’t get you. Maybe there is someone who likes you and is stalking you, whom you do not like in return. Again, being tied up in a conversation can keep them away.

If you are at a party, you are on your own leisure time and yeah, if you really want to, you can burn some social capital by looking like a loner and not talking to anyone. I don’t advise it, but if you really wanted to, you could. However, if you are at a networking event, doing this is basically insta-death because everyone is forming impressions about everyone around them at all times. It only takes one social faux pas to show that you are not all you are cracked up to be in that suit. That’s a lot of pressure, but you should go into networking events knowing that that is how the game is played. It’s all about fulfilling social expectations and impressing everyone. Why do you think everyone hates networking events (although they love the free booze)? People don’t go to networking events for fun; they only go to them because it is in their self-interest to go. If you get good at small talk though, you can ace networking events because no social obstacle will stump you.


Rule #3: Look for the Perfect Thing to Say Until It Becomes Habit

At first, like I said in rule #8, your small talk may seem mechanical while you improve, but there are ways to handle it. And like in rules 10 and 9, there is a small pool of “right things” you can choose from when choosing how to reply in a conversation. The goal is to become so well-accustomed to picking something from the pool of “right things” that it becomes habit. Trust me, you will develop an intuition for what is a right thing and what isn’t, and your right choices will be reinforced over time. In addition, you will repeat many of the same things in different conversations with different people, which is an underestimated but very useful tactic. You will learn what kinds of responses would be too far removed from what you are replying to and avoid using those responses. You will learn what things you can say that almost always work as quick & easy “comebacks” that keep the conversation energized. The more you execute these behaviors, they more they will become automatic, the less lag time you will have thinking of what to say, and the easier small talk will become.

I said “perfect thing” in the title of this rule. This is not the same thing as the pool of “right things”. The goal is to become so good at replying with a right thing that is consistently feels perfect, which is a great feeling. You will leave conversations thinking to yourself, “Man, that was a well-executed conversation,” or some variation thereof.


Stay turned for rules 1 & 2!

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