This is the last installment in the 10 Rules of Small Talk series. I hope you have enjoyed these posts and found them helpful. I will posting more about small talk rules & tips in the future!
Rule #2: Keep it Light: Avoid Certain Topics when Making Small Talk
According to conventional wisdom, religion and politics are the two things you should never discuss in casual conversation (Charles Schultz added the Great Pumpkin to the list). This rule usually applies, but really it depends why you are there. People break this rule all the time, and it can be a painful, agonizing thing to behold, and even worse to have to directly respond to. I will cover how to get out of such situations in future posts, but here, I want to drive home the importance of this rule.
Think back to your own experience. When was the last time a conversation got unexpectedly serious? It’s not a pleasant feeling, is it? It totally kills the energy. I can’t count how many conversations I was in in 2016 where the presidential election came up. I also can’t think of a bigger conversational minefield, and I would simply nod and use the “mm-hmm” and “uh-huh” conversational fillers, while being inwardly disappointed with the person for not being able to find a more creative and inclusive conversational topic. When the election came up, no matter which candidate the other person supported, the predictable litany of complaints about the opposing candidate would ensue. This kind of scenario wrecks any good conversation unless you get lucky and are talking to someone with similar political views. Conversations with strangers, however, are a big gamble with these topics, so the word to the wise is to not go there.
Now, as a Christian, I sometimes bring up my faith in a casual conversation with a stranger. We are expected to want to share the gospel message with others. However, it’s something that needs to be done with caution, consideration, and prayer, in order to maximize the effectiveness.
Whoever came up with the rule about religion and politics did not pick those topics because of the topics themselves. They picked them because the topics have a way of turning a conversation unexpectedly serious and even negative. People have widely varying and often emotional views on such subjects. So, keep it light so that the other person feels no negative emotions and will want to keep talking to you. Even if you’re just trying to fill a short period of time with something other than awkward silence, you don’t want to leave the other person with a bad impression. You might run into them again.
Going back to our example of being in the dentist office from the earlier post, if instead of saying you were there for an annual cleaning and then asking the other person what they were there for, if you instead started going on and on about your recent root canal and how painful it was, you have turned the conversation negative and it will wither. People don’t want to hear someone else complain. One rule people often teach about dating is to avoid saying anything negative. That generally applies here too, unless you are commiserating with the other person. That can be the right response at times, but most conversations should stay light.
Rule #1: Improving Will Take Effort at First but Will Become Easier
At first, it will take conscious effort and concentration to improve your small talk skills. However, I promise it will get easier. You may even end up enjoying it, if nothing else than for the challenge. Sometimes when someone starts making small talk with me, I realize that the conversational chess match has begun. If this is how you have to think of small talk in order to get comfortable with it until it feels more natural, so be it. It can be fun to see how long you can make it before one of you makes the first social blunder and breaks “the rules” of small talk. In the end, however, what matters is that both of you come away with a positive social experience, although the best conversations are those in which no one breaks the rules.
Anyone can get better at small talk. Not everyone can realistically get better at a given skill, sport, trade, or craft. It may be due to time constraints, physical reasons, or other factors. However, the opportunities for small talk are around us constantly, and it’s a skill we will need for the rest of our lives. Decide to embrace small talk, armed with these rules, which have given you the initial strategies, techniques, and mindset shifts you need to get started. We are, by design, social creatures, so it’s only natural to be able to carry on a conversation with a stranger. We usually aren’t taught how to do it, though—we are just expected to learn by example. I devised these rules for anyone who needs help beyond that. Again, I emphasize that this is something anyone can do and get good at.