A few posts ago are started a series about how to become better at making small talk. I covered rule #10 of my Ten Rules of Small Talk, which has to with the fact that there is a limited number of good options you can reply with at any point in a conversation, and your goal is to pick one of those options. Now, I will go into rules six through nine.
Rule #9: If You Aren’t Good at Small Talk, it is Obvious
This is probably the most painful truth about small talk. Have you ever tried to strike up a conversation with someone who spends all their time playing video games and has no social skills? It’s painful, difficult, and usually not worth it. People avoid small talk when it is clear the other person doesn’t want to participate or doesn’t know how. Perhaps you can recall a conversation where it was going well, but you said something you thought was a normal response, and the conversation fell flat. In that moment, did you feel that the other person was better at socializing than you? If so, then perhaps the problem lay in whatever you said. You said something that was not in the pool of “right things,” and the other person did not know what to say in response because none of the “usual options” would have worked. The “usual options” are the things that are supposed to work, and that’s why small talk is able to continue. But by saying something that wasn’t the “right thing,” you interrupted the flow of the conversation and inadvertently killed the energy. You may have really liked the person. Perhaps it was someone you would have liked to date. Maybe you thought about it later and wondered what happened. The good news is that you are not alone! I’ve certainly been there and so have many others.
Rule #8: If Your Small Talk is Mechanical, it is Also Obvious
It is practically unavoidable that when you first start out trying to improve your small talk, it will seem a little mechanical. Your best option is to practice with people who are so friendly that they either won’t notice or won’t care. If you are at a party, pick someone who is known for their niceness. Other options include picking someone whom you are not attracted to, in order to take the pressure off. Or you can pick someone you know you will never see again, so that if it’s awkward it won’t matter. There are multiple ways to provide insurance for potentially awkward small talk practice. Pick one or several!
Rule #7: Small Talk Should Sometimes Consider What the Other Person Would Enjoy Hearing
This is similar to the principle of “right things” to say but goes in a slightly different direction. Try to make the other person happy. Avoid trite phrases and clichés that would annoy you if someone said them to you. Avoid trying to control the emotions of the other person by playing things up or down, since you wouldn’t want to be manipulated either. Avoid cop-out statements like “I don’t know anything whatsoever about ______,” which could be taken as you trying to get out of the conversation. Instead, try saying, “I don’t know much about ______, but what makes you think [whatever they said]?” The point is, observe the Golden Rule and do unto others. You would want to leave a conversation happier than when you entered it, so try to make sure it turns out that way for the other person, and they will remember that they enjoyed talking to you.
Rule #6: Small Talk Skills are Expected
Extroverts expect that they will be able to initiate small talk with you and you then reciprocate. Many extroverts don’t understand what extrovert vs. introvert means, and even if they did, you often can’t tell just by looking at someone which of the two they are. So, it will not occur to extroverts that you may not enjoy small talk until they have tried to converse with you. For example, if you are sitting in the dentist’s office and the person sitting next to you asks what you are there for, if you just reply with “A cleaning,” it will shut down the conversation and the other person may get their feelings hurt, may think “Whoa, what’s wrong with him/her,” or both. But, if you instead respond with, “I’m getting my annual cleaning. You?” you have perpetuated the conversation and proven you have at least some small talk skills.
Another possible scenario to illustrate this principle is if you are at a networking event and there are two other people, and one of them leaves to use the restroom. You are left standing there with the other person, who maybe you have not talked to yet because you had been talking to the person who just excused himself. At this point you can either do what Millennials do way too often, which is to take a sip of your drink and dig your phone out, hoping against hope that the other person does the same, or you can start a conversation with that person. If you don’t talk to them, think how lame you will look to the person who left when he comes back from the restroom and finds you both staring at your phones. He will think to himself, “this person has some social skills because he was able to talk to me, but obviously not enough skills to talk to this other person while I was gone.” He will feel as though you depend on him to have a meaningful conversation at the event, which puts him in an uncomfortable position, and unless you are buddies or there is something he wants from you, he will find an excuse to go talk to someone else who is more sociable. However, if he comes back and you are conversing with the other person instead of looking at your phone, you have now shown two people that you have social skills, and the person who left is more likely to want to keep talking to you. Plus, since there is another conversation going on, they now have the opportunity to wait for a moment to jump in that is convenient for them. It’s a win-win for everyone.