Some people have the seemingly magical ability to start a conversation with anybody. They know exactly how to fill those awkward pauses, what questions to ask, and how to use body language without looking like a total spaz.
For those of us who fall more on the “introverted” side of the social spectrum, we can’t help but be a little jealous. How are they able to talk to everyone so effortlessly? And how can we improve our small talk skills?
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More importantly, how can we engage in meaningful small talk? A study published in Psychological Science showed that genuine, substantive small talk (“What was your favorite place in Paris?”)—as opposed to trivial small talk (“Nice weather we’re having!”)—is the biggest factor in one’s overall happiness and social engagement.
So the next time you find yourself among strangers, don’t pretend to look at your phone. College is a time for social exploration, networking, and maybe even finding a new bestie! Join the conversation by keeping these small talk tips in mind:
1. Repeat names
Dale Carnegie, a writer who specialized in public speaking and interpersonal skills, once said, “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”
And it’s true, right? Your name is a huge part of your identity. We feel respected when someone remembers our name. So don’t be afraid to repeat it. (“It’s great to meet you, Britney! Do you spell that with one or two t’s?”) If it’s a complicated name, ask if you’re pronouncing it correctly. And if you didn’t hear them at all, say, “Sorry, I didn’t catch that!”
Don’t use the excuse that you’re not good at remembering names. With a little practice and conscious effort, you’ll improve in no time (and people will genuinely appreciate it).
2. Don’t judge the situation
“I hate small talk; it’s so superficial and meaningless. Nobody is going to remember anything I say, and I’ll probably never see these people again.”
Does this sound familiar at all to you? I’m ashamed to admit I’ve been guilty of this pessimistic way of thinking. And unfortunately, it’s a sentiment shared by many introverts.
“Introverts do not hate small talk because we dislike people,” explains psychologist Laurie Helgoeshe. “We hate small talk because we hate the barrier it creates between people.”
So relax and take all of your preconceived notions about small talk out of your head. Don’t let your judgments of idle chit-chat get in the way of what could transform into a meaningful conversation.
3. If you disagree, finesse the conversation
Occasionally, you’ll come across someone who enjoys talking about divisive topics like politics and religion. If it seems like they’re just trying to provoke you into an argument, and you don’t want to play, kindly excuse yourself to the restroom. However, most of the time, people aren’t intentionally trying to offend; they’re simply stating their view of the world. And sometimes, that view won’t align with yours—but that’s OK, because then you can have a friendly debate (note: debate, not argument).
So how can you have a debate without arguing?
- Always base your opinions on facts.
- Respect the other person’s opinion.
- If you flub a fact, admit your mistake (humility is a sign of maturity, so they’ll likely take you more seriously).
- Get the other person to agree with you on something so you can find common ground.
- Don’t interrupt.
Also, before you go into any new conversation, don’t fall into a trap social psychologists call the “assumed similarity bias,” meaning you assume the other person has the same background and political affiliation as yourself.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask the big questions
Just because it’s called “small” talk doesn’t mean you can’t ask the big questions, like “What is the meaning of life?” OK, maybe don’t go THAT big right out of the gate. But don’t be afraid to stray from the conventional “So, what’s your major?” kind of questions. When you ask a question that’s not in the “small talk script,” it makes the interaction a lot less mechanical, so people tend to relax and be a little more open.
A few conversation starters could include:
- Tell me about the best meal you’ve ever had.
- Where are you from? What’s your hometown like?
- How do you keep yourself motivated in school?
- What inspired you to pursue your major?
- Check out other questions that’ll help improve your small talk game.
And always remember to start the conversation off on a positive note. Compliment their jewelry; don’t complain about a professor. If the other person mentions that they had to transfer schools, don’t ask them why they had to transfer; ask them what they like about their new school. By asking positive, open-ended questions, you’ll come across as a sincere listener without sounding “fake nice.”
5. Practice “open” body language
Body language is almost as critical as the words you say. Your posture and gestures let other people know if 1) you even feel like talking in the first place and 2) are enjoying the conversation once the chatting starts happening.
A few ways you can keep your body language relaxed and open include:
- Not folding your arms; instead, keep your arms at your sides, and try not to hold anything in front of your chest
- Keep your head in a neutral position (not bowed or too high)
- Stand straight, but don’t be afraid to lean forward, which shows interest (just don’t invade personal space)
- Use hand gestures to illustrate what you’re saying (research shows it makes you a more engaging speaker)
- Smile and nod (seems inconsequential, but smiling and nodding will not only help you relax—it tells the other person you’re listening)
6. Embrace pauses
Don’t try to fill every pause. I mean, we all need a breather in the conversation, right? Think of these small gaps as “tactical pauses.” Use these moments of silence to think about what the other person has said and to formulate an intelligent response.
Plus, when you pause, it shows that you’ve actually listened while the other person is talking instead of using that time to think about what you want to say next. (Fight Club author Chuck Pahlaniuk once wrote, “The only reason why we ask other people how their weekend was is so we can tell them about our own weekend.”)
7. Fake it ‘til you make it
If you’re not feeling 100 percent, sometimes you just have to go through the motions of confidence and cheerfulness until you actually feel those things. And it actually works.
In one study performed at a speed dating event, some 50 participants were told to act as they normally would on a date. Another 50 or so people were told to act like they were already in love with their date “by gazing into each other’s eyes, touching hands, and whispering secrets.” At the end of the date, 45 percent of the “fakers” ended up feeling a deeper connection with their partner as opposed to 20 percent of the “normal” group.
Richard Wiseman, a psychology professor at the University of Hertfordshire in the U.K. says, “The assumption [is] that the emotion leads to the action or behaviour but … it can happen the other way around—action can lead to emotions.”
Now take a break from playing Pokémon Go, and go practice your small talk skills with a new friend today!