the art of small talk
September 5, 2012 12:13 PM   Subscribe

I’m not naturally social, and I’m looking for tricks on speeding up my banter with aquaintances and strangers.

After spending most of my life avoiding strangers I’m determined to master the art of small talk to the best of my ability. I have a job with a lot of customer facing time, and I want to make the most of it.

So far I’m struggling against 29 years of semi isolation. I have ADD and I tend to process social information slowly. I struggle to come up with rapid fire responses. Of course this isn’t a problem when I know somebody well. It's really just a matter of time. I always think of the right thing to say later, but I'm not sure how helpful preparing responses in advance would be since a lot of them are situational comments.

I also get easily drained from socializing with strangers, and I’m looking for ways to lengthen my “on” time.

So far I’ve made lots of progress. I’d say I’m about halfway there, far better than I was even six months ago. But I feel like I’ve plateaued a bit and could use some pointers on getting all the way.

Bonus points on any hacks to make people warm up. An example would be that I”ve noticed even the gruffest person will soften when you ask about their kids.
posted by timsneezed to Human Relations (21 answers total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, that's a good hack. In general, you can't go wrong by asking people about themselves (in a non-intrusive way, of course). So, if they don't have kids, ask about their hobbies, their work, where they're from, what they've read recently. At a party you can always use, "How do you know [the host]?" Also, if they're wearing something distinctive, you can compliment them on it and ask where it came from. Genuine curiosity is a wonderful conversational asset.
posted by pompelmo at 12:23 PM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Be Sherlock Holmes. If you're in a person's office, comment on pictures, awards, etc. For example, if you see a nice vacation photo of the person's family, you could say, "that's a great picture, nice looking family, where was it taken?" You'll probably get a ten minute explanation, and with each minute, the person talking will feel closer to you.

"Hey, I notice that you went to President's Club. What trip was that?" Usually the person will say, "Oh, it was the Cruise, it was awesome. I ate lobster every night!"

One thing is to be come interested in other people. What do they enjoy doing? Do they have a family, pets?

Don't rehearse stuff, just act as though the person in front of you is the most facinating person you've ever met.

Don't be afraid to discuss your preferences with them. "Oh you like dogs too? Dogs are awesome. We have a cat now, you'd be amazed at how smart he is."
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:26 PM on September 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

What I've noticed with those people with rapid-fire responses is that they say the same things over and over. Kind of like stand-up comedians. Have you ever seen two shows in a row, it's the exact same show. My funnier friends seem to have the same material and use it over and over. I sometimes think they are annoying, but new people think they are funny.
I get drained too repeating myself, but I guess practice makes perfect as well as making it second nature, so not as much effort is required after a while.
posted by udon at 12:29 PM on September 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think the real trick is to actually listen to people, and not be planning your next remark in your head. I do have the ability to get total strangers to tell me their life stories very quickly, and I think it's because I actually listen. I don't care how I'm coming off, or what that person thinks of me or when I can tell my cute story or really much else while they're talking. I ask real questions, not just chit-chat "How about those Dodgers?" questions and I pay attention to the response. Sometimes, I err in being too personal, (like the time I asked on a first date "Have you always stuttered" to someone who had a debilitating stutter) but in general, people respond well. I used to be a journalist who interviewed people for a living, but I had this talent/ability/skill since I was a kid, I guess.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:38 PM on September 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

I am a lot like this too. I find that with acquaintances, it helps to prepare a little -- before you go to the party, think about what you know about people (Bill loves cats, Bob just went on a beach vacation, the last time you saw Jane she was talking about buying a house) and then when you see them, ask them about it. (I'm like you and think of something to say five minutes after the person walked away, so the key is advance preparation.) With strangers, you can talk about the situation -- how do you know the host, have you ever done this before, do you like that kind of beer and what are your other favorites. Also, think of one or two interesting things you're currently doing or thinking about, and when someone asks how you're doing, instead of just saying, "Good," say, "Good, I just ran a 10K and now I'm recovering. How are you?"
posted by chickenmagazine at 12:41 PM on September 5, 2012 [6 favorites]

Talking sloooowly, to make sure the others understand it, lets me have time to think what to say next and kind of make the info flow out my mouth in a good way. Its hard to do so at the beginning because when you are nervous you naturally tend to talk very fast.
I used to sell cell phones and my manager kept complaining that I don't chat to customers but the way I am, I tend not to discuss things I don't care about (weather, traffic, their kids.... whatever you talk about with complete strangers in a store), with friends I could BS about things but with them I don't care about being not politically correct and I am not afraid of offending them by accident.
As time went on it was harder and harder getting excited about products we sell when Cellular One/Cingular/AT&T they became more expensive and their website had better prices I could not match. On top of cutting commission and higher quota requirements.
For practice and tips go to a dealer and pretend to buy a used car. Pay attention to their tone, choice of words, body language, expressions and all that and pick what works for you in your job after walking out. These guys are experts in being social, picking up girls, and making others feel good when they talk to them, as I know few of them.
Good thing I became an engineer so when I talk to customers I don't have to BS but get to the point and answer their questions.
posted by AdamG8GXP at 12:46 PM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Something my mom taught me: After somebody tells you what they do for a living, you can pretty much always respond with, "Wow-- you must have some great stories."

What's great is how often this statement turns out to be true. Most people have great stories; but they rarely get asked for them.

Another good follow-up to "What do you do?" is "How did you start off in that?" Usually there's an interesting story behind somebody's decision to enter their career, and/or how they first did broke in.

Also, "Where are you from?" is often a good question, but you have to be careful with it; if somebody has a foreign accent, or belongs to an ethnic group that is a minority in your current area, they might think you're implying they don't belong there. Unless they have an unambiguously foreign accent, I've found it's better to say "So are you from (WHEREVER YOU BOTH ARE AT THE MOMENT) originally?" That gives them the chance to say, "Yes" or "No, I'm from " And then if you've been to Wherever, you can tell them how much you liked it when you visited. If you haven't, you can ask them what it's like.

But above and beyond any phrases to memorize or specific hacks, I would echo what Ideefixe says. It's a million times better to be a good listener than a good speaker. Memorizing a list of great conversation starters won't do you any good if you're too busy mentally rehearsing your next line to actually listen to the answer.

There's an old story about Disraeli and Gladstone, two political rivals of the Victorian Era. Somebody once said, "When I spoke with Mr. Gladstone, I felt like I was meeting the cleverest man in the British Empire. But when I spoke with Mr. Disraeli, I felt like I was the cleverest man in the British Empire."

It's much better to be a Disraeli than a Gladstone.

posted by yankeefog at 12:50 PM on September 5, 2012 [26 favorites]

Response by poster: Sorry to threadsit but can't resist one follow up question in response to all the 'be a better listener' responses. The thing is I do ask a lot of questions already (I've never had trouble thinking of questions), but maybe they're not the right questions because people still don't seem at ease around me. I always figured the problem was I was too much of a listener and not enough of a talker, but apparently people love listeners so I'm not doing something right. Any more specifics on what kinds of questions to ask when I'm listening?
posted by timsneezed at 12:56 PM on September 5, 2012

Read Dale Carnegie.
(His classic book on "How to Win Friends and Influence People" is so old that the copy-right is in the public domain, and it is now freely available on-line - as i have linked.)
posted by Flood at 1:05 PM on September 5, 2012

Best answer: Timsneezed, that's a very fair question. It's a little hard to tell you what you're doing wrong without actually witnessing you in action. It could be what you're saying; it could be your tone of voice or body language. For that matter, your words and body language could all be fine but coming at the wrong time...

Do you have a friend who is good at this stuff, or at least better than you? Could you ask them to watch you in a social situation, and give you pointers?

Alternatively (or perhaps in conjunction with that) could you recount a conversation that went poorly, and perhaps we could try to offer some theories as to why? (The disadvantage is that, if the problem was that you were missing or misunderstanding social cues, by definition you won't be able to include the cues you missed in your recounting. But perhaps we could offer some general theories for you to consider.)
posted by yankeefog at 1:13 PM on September 5, 2012

Best answer: I think one thing that can trip people up is that small talk questions need to allow the conversation to remain superficial. Questions you ask in listening mode that solicit personal information, even if that is not the intent, can sometimes make the conversation too heavy for day to day office stuff.

General types of always ok questions include: did you have fun at [x] thing? how was the weather at [x] thing? how long have you been doing [x] thing? etc etc etc.

Pay attention to how earnest (read: SUPER SERIOUS) you sound in the conversation, and make sure it is matching the other party. I have a friend who is really good at making conversation, but sometimes fails at small talk because he is so curious that you end up having to confess your whole life to answer his questions and it is HILARIOUS when he is hitting on girls but does not understand that questioning how they could possibly truly believe [x] vegan tenet is not an effective pick up strategy, despite his sincerity.
posted by skrozidile at 1:14 PM on September 5, 2012

Best answer: The thing is I do ask a lot of questions already (I've never had trouble thinking of questions), but maybe they're not the right questions because people still don't seem at ease around me.

You really might be doing everything just fine. Some of how people react to you is, for all practical purposes, out of your control. I'm not saying you can't improve your small talking ability, it sounds like you already have and I'm sure you will become more at ease simply with more practice. But don't feel like you're doing it wrong if you don't get the reactions that some other people might.

Though I'm naturally more on the introverted/less talkative side, I'm pretty good at small talk and being perky and asking questions when I have to or want to. Doing so is actually part of my job, sometimes. But I have a few friends (and my mom is like this too) who strangers and distant acquaintances just immediately, inexplicably, love to talk to. I could say something and a stranger would just grunt, then my friend could say the same exact thing and they'd go into long animated answers, delighted to be talking to her. My friends don't do anything I'm not doing. They have no magic or special skills. It's just how people react to them. This can be annoying sometimes, and if I thought about it too much I'd wonder why people who don't know me tend to decide I'm not worth talking to. But ultimately it doesn't really matter. And the upside is no one tries to talk to me on trains and planes.

As long as you're being polite and friendly and interested in who you're talking to, and as long as you feel ok being around people (as opposed to feeling like you have to avoid them), I think this is an area where it's alright to be "good enough." If you never reach the level of getting strangers to love you, it's fine.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 1:16 PM on September 5, 2012

Best answer: Stop worrying about what other people think of you. In grad school, a coach mentioned 25% of people you meet will like you, 50% won't really care, and you'll turn off 25% nearly immediately.

Point being, you can't make people like you or respond well to you. What you can do is not care and not over-think it. If you're talking to someone, and it's not a great conversation, move on to a different conversation. When you're having a conversation that fits you, it will flow naturally.

If you watch great hosts at a party, they will do two things: 1) talk to everyone for a few minutes, making the rounds, and 2) when the momentum is going, they will have bigger conversations with the few people they got along with.

Great conversations are a real gift life has to offer. A lot of conversations are functional/transactional (work), many are habitual/situational (small talk), and then there are the truly wonderful conversations that come from nowhere, linger for a while, potentially change your life, and then disappear. Who knows where they come from, it's the spontaneity that keeps the mojo pumping I suppose.

In terms of 'hacks' to get people warmed up, one is to stop 'doing' and start 'being'. A conversation is a bidirectional flow of information. And you carry information from one person to the other. Sometimes you talk, other times you listen. When you talk, you're remixing all the times you listened. So the more you listen, the more you'll have to talk about.

Rehearse your opening lines in the mirror. Get a portfolio of ten things to say when you don't know what else to say. Lines, topics, nuggets of wisdom. Practice them so that they come naturally. Test them in the real world. Keep the ones that work, ditch the ones that fail.

Further, a lot of communication is about how you say things. I love listening to musicians speak. They live in an amazing world of sensation that I do not live in. I can listen to them all day. Then when I talk to people about music and have that infinite well of what I've heard from musicians, I get visibly excited about it. People enjoy listening to it.

I have a mate who is in finance and I could listen to him talk about finance all day. He loves it. He makes connections between things he reads and sees. He gets to amplified about, it's easy to listen. I guess that's the last point. The biggest hack of all is being enjoyable to listen to. And you're enjoyable to listen to when you enjoy speaking about something. Chances are that's less something you "do" and more something you "be".

I don't want to hear about your commute to work, about the dude who fell over in the tube and the guy that kicked him on purpose. I'll agree that's some sad shit but I don't want to listen to it, really. It's small talk. A negotiation to establish a common interest and carry a new conversation. "Wow, that's terrible. I feel bad for him." Where do we go from there? Do you want to talk about more sad shit? Because I don't.

I do want to hear about the motorcycle you are restoring, and how you had to drive two hours to pick up an exhaust manifold, and got home, got it fitted perfectly, shined up the chrome and sat looking at your own reflection. "It's wonderful to work with your hands and put something together, and then just sit and enjoy it". I'll agree, because I want to share in that moment with you.
posted by nickrussell at 1:22 PM on September 5, 2012 [12 favorites]

I found that I got over my awkwardness (or at least mask it) by talking to people at the train station or the bus stop. Or waiting in line at the supermarket. Just goofy things like "That is a great hat on you..." will either start a harmless conversation or even better, make a person smile. If you can say something nice to someone once a day, you will soon find yourself having a great conversation about anything.

I still feel awkward. I am still awkward. I am obviously a nerd and most times the non-nerds can smell the nerdy fear in me, but I just refuse to back down. I smile and say something nice. Like "That is a great lipstick color for you" or "Funny T-Shirt" or "Nice shoes."

Now I talk to everyone. I make lots of friends. I'm still an awkward geek, but it seems I have lots of friends and I can conduct business a lot easier!
posted by Yellow at 1:35 PM on September 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'm not naturally social either and I (unfortunately) always come across as not comfortable with chit chat or talking to people who I don't know. Most chit chat topics (family blah blah blah) kill me and I'm sure I come across as a prickly pear. But I've noticed a few times that an acquaintance or someone I barely know does make a connection/or just makes me feel more comfortable engaging in conversation by just stating something along the following--and from there conversation quickly proceeds (for me):

"I really dislike chit chat (followed by a joke about chit chat and how mundane it can be)" or

"I don't feel comfortable when I first talk to people" or

"I recently started doing activity X because Y motivates me and initially I was scared to do it by myself, but it is a great experience...(followed by cool story about kayaking or something unusual)" or

I don't know if it is the vulnerability aspect or ....just knowing that the other person feels uncomfortable too facilitates a connection and that he or she has volunteered a little info.
posted by Dances with sock puppets at 1:45 PM on September 5, 2012

one alternative to 'what do you do for a living?' that I like is 'how was your day/week'?

It's open ended and familiar while not being prying and usually leads to lots of follow up questions, allowing me to relate to people on a basic day-to-day level.
posted by abirdinthehand at 1:50 PM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "I always figured the problem was I was too much of a listener and not enough of a talker, but apparently people love listeners so I'm not doing something right."

One thing I've noticed women do a lot in small talk, but men tend not to, is a lot of "affirming" of what the speaker has said. Men seem a bit more likely to go directly to the next question, especially when they feel weird about small talk, which can seem more interrogation-y. So a man's small talk might go like: "What's the last movie you saw?" "Big Fall Movie." "Did you like it?" "Yes." "What was your favorite part?" "The ending."

Whereas a woman might be more like, "What was the last movie you saw?" "Big Fall Movie." "Oh my gosh, I have by DYING to see that -- did you like it?" "Yes, I really did!" "Oh, I can ask you this because I won't be spoilering you: my hairstylist told me the chase scene was the best part of the movie -- was it? Or is she just easily impressed by fast cars?"

Adding a little bit in between the questions, positive sorts of things that help transition from one question to the next, can help small talk flow a lot. I was small-talking to someone the other day and asked what she grew in her garden, and she was like, "Gardenias, and begonias, and hydrangeas, and sunflowers --" and I said, "Oh my gosh, I LOVE sunflowers!" which is a sort of random thing to say because who doesn't love sunflowers? But just connecting to what she said and showing enthusiasm about it fired her up about talking about her garden and things flowed a lot easier. And now that I relate that story, I remember chatting with a bartender one time and he said he had just planted sunflowers, and I said, "Oh my gosh, I LOVE sunflowers!" and got exactly the same response, he talked about his garden for like half an hour. Your affirming/connecting responses don't have to be brilliant, just enthusiastic.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:21 PM on September 5, 2012 [10 favorites]

Whereas a woman might be more like, "What was the last movie you saw?" "Big Fall Movie." "Oh my gosh, I have by DYING to see that -- did you like it?" "Yes, I really did!" "Oh, I can ask you this because I won't be spoilering you: my hairstylist told me the chase scene was the best part of the movie -- was it? Or is she just easily impressed by fast cars?"

Eyebrows McGee has it. Asking questions is all well and good, but asking questions, nodding, MmHmming, and asking more questions doesn't a conversation make. You need to participate. A conversation is primarily about relating to another person. The person you're trying to draw out needs to learn about you too. If you don't offer any information of your own (feelings, thoughts, anything personal), even if it's a brief phrase in between asking another question, the other person is going to feel either interrogated, or like they're in a therapy session.
posted by JuliaIglesias at 10:24 PM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

A big part of the SIRC guide to flirting applies also to social small talk: the impersonal interrogative opener, posture, body language, turn-taking, reciprocal disclosure etc.

Also, just like in flirting, be aware that not everybody wants to chit-chat, it's nothing to do with you.
posted by Tom-B at 7:06 PM on September 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Be aware that you might be thinking they're not interested in talking, but they actually are. I'm total ass at "getting" facial features, so I only can assume that human beings have a wealth of "get me out of this conversation" abilities that they would use if they needed to. Conversations also don't need to go on forever, if you're feeling emotionally taxed, you won't perform well either.
posted by Wuggie Norple at 4:22 AM on September 7, 2012

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