Am I just boring?
December 8, 2006 5:38 PM   Subscribe

How do I make better small talk?

I never know how to keep a conversation moving or what to talk about. Especially in a new situation with new people. I consider myself intelligent, I can maintain a conversation when someone else is throwing out the topics, but whenever it's my turn to 'keep the ball in the air', I never know what to say.

It doesn't help that most of my interests aren't things you just leap into a conversation with. Science fiction, politics, computers and sports. Works fine for some situations, but a lot of time I feel like I don't have anything to offer to make myself seem more interesting. Being in law school means I have even less to talk about that regular people find interesting. Even with school friends I struggle with small-talk.

Im fairly sure this is a major reason why I have many acquaintances, but few good friends.

Is there some trick that I just don't get or am I really that boring?
posted by T.D. Strange to Human Relations (26 answers total) 80 users marked this as a favorite
How to be interesting.

Not exactly "how to make small talk", but if you've got interesting things to talk about, could kickstart the conversation.
posted by djgh at 5:47 PM on December 8, 2006 [3 favorites]

If you have many acquaintances but few good friends, it might not be small talk that's the problem. Small talk doesn't really help people become good friends - it's a social lubricant.

That said, my small talk conversational trick is to say, "Really? Wow!" as in, "You wrestled a gorilla? Really? Wow!" or, "You work in sales? Really? Wow!" The real trick of course is that you have to mean it - if you are genuinely interested in people, you can always talk about them. Most people enjoy talking about themselves.
posted by joannemerriam at 6:06 PM on December 8, 2006

Good book: How to Talk to Anyone

(Well, to be honest, it's not a very good book. It's a very good list of bullet points with a crummy book full of boring anecdotes wrapped around. But still useful.)
posted by smackfu at 6:09 PM on December 8, 2006

Couple of things here which make me wonder if "small talk" is really the main issue here:

Among men, at any rate, sports and PC are excellent topics for small talk. It's even become a one-liner in an awkward moment to say, "So! How 'bout them [insert team name]?" You could spend at least 5-10 minutes on this. PC? Are you kidding me? Griping to anyone about Windows/Microsoft, asking about the latest Apple development, even comparing PDAs are surefire ways to break the ice.

The second thing is the comment about "many acquaintances but few good friends." Small talk, as I understand it, is used to break the ice with strangers or pass the time with acquaintances/co-workers. I'm not sure how it applies to forming deep relationships.

But if it's small talk advice you want, the standards, besides the above, are the weather, travel, occupation, and, famously so in certain cities, housing (location, rent, etc.) The trick is to notice certain minor detail about the person you're talking to (Sherlock Holmes-style), and asking them about it or giving them your opinion about it (in a non-offensive, non-intrusive way). That's small talk, and it doesn't take a lot to engage in it once your realize the trick.

On preview: damn! too slow... what joannemerriam said.
posted by war wrath of wraith at 6:14 PM on December 8, 2006

Lucky you, NPR just posted a story about this very thing earlier today. "Mingle All the Way Through Holiday Parties."

The "Really? Wow!" thing works quite well. Have you ever tried just listening to someone talk about something in which you had absolutely no interest, and interjecting intrigued "Uh-huh?"s into their pauses? That seems to get people going on the topics they want to talk about anyway. And I've found that if I let someone discuss something in the slightest depth on their own, I'll probably be at-least mildly interested in what they're talking about, and have an interesting conversation.

This, coming from someone whose social graces are purely manufactured using such tricks.
posted by stewiethegreat at 6:14 PM on December 8, 2006 [5 favorites]

ask questions and listen
posted by unSane at 6:17 PM on December 8, 2006

I know exactly what you mean, TD. I have the same problem. I'm pretty useless in most situations with new people... I'm just not into small talk.

That being said, like you, I've realized that the rest of the world is, so, I've taken to collecting anecdotes. As strange as it may sound, I keep notes on things to talk about in my moleskine. When I know I'll be in a situation that will require small talk, I review my notes before going in. Sometimes it's weird things I find online or maybe a story about a friend. Other times it might actually be about something I did or something that happened to me. One of my favorites that seemed to get good mileage before I wore it out was my recounting of a bottle of wine that blew up on my wine rack.

It works like studying for a test. Take mental notes on what seemed to work and what didn't. It's tough, I know, but you can get better at it.

Another tip... I tend to be more talkative when I've had a glass or two of wine. No more, mind you, just enough of the ol' social lubricant to loosen the tongue a little. Your mileage may vary.
posted by friezer at 6:21 PM on December 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

There was a piece on NPR this morning about mingling (mingling, small talk. potay-to, po-tahto). Here is the link to the story on NPR.

If there's any advice I can give you on small talk, here it is: I've probably said this elsewhere on this subject, but people will advise you to just ask questions of the other person because people just loooove talking about themselves. I for one completely hate this and will immediately hate (with a burning passion) anyone who does this.
posted by zippity at 6:22 PM on December 8, 2006

What I find helpful is to include a question in any sorts of statements or responses I make to people. If they're talking about their job in the art field, I might mention my enjoyment of art, then ask them if they're specializing in a particular area or whatnot. That way, the person you're talking to tends to feel less alienated, and less like they have to worry about explaining what they're talking about (maybe they won't talk about the art field because they're not sure it'd make sense to you, etc). I assure you; some of the people you make small talk with feel JUST as awkward as you do.

That said, I agree with joannemerriam. I don't think it's small talk that's the problem in your situation. Maybe it'd be helpful to take a step back, look at your good friends, and think, "How did I become good friends with these people? Why do I remain good friends with these people?" and try to incorporate some of those values into what you are as a person.

Uh, this came out sounding really new-agey, but I can't think of any other way to say it.
posted by Verdandi at 6:23 PM on December 8, 2006

oops stewiethegreat beat me to the NPR story!
posted by zippity at 6:23 PM on December 8, 2006

I'm not so good at small talk, either, and I mostly don't care to be, but in some situations (especially in business, or when meeting potential dating partners), it's very helpful. So I've tried to improve over the past few years.

Generally, here are my rules for small talk:

1. Practice. The more you chat people up, the more comfortable you'll be doing so, and the more easily you'll come up with good stuff.
2. Talk about the current situation. Sure, ideally, you'll be able to find something interesting about the other person and gab for as long as you'd like. But getting to that point is like pulling teeth if you're like me (and it sounds like you are).
3. If possible, find something interesting about the other person and gab as long as you like. A lot of people to like to talk about themselves and a few key things they're interested in.
4. Avoid politics and religion, especially if you're exceptionally opinionated. (Unless, say, you're a hard-core Democrat, and your small-talk partner is wearing a "Middle-Class White Guys United Against Bush" t-shirt. In that case, you're set.)
5. Give the other person an out. He/she may hate small talk, or think you're a doofus, or have something important on his/her mind.
6. Get comfortable in silence. Small talk is nice, but should your small-talk-fu fail you, it's not the end of the world.
posted by joshjs at 6:36 PM on December 8, 2006 [2 favorites]

These are all great points, but I agree with unSane - ask questions. LOTS of questions. People will not notice that you're not good at small talk if they're busy talking about themselves!
posted by suki at 6:48 PM on December 8, 2006

I think there was a Seinfeld routine (give it a chance) where he talks about how to have a conversation with someone you know nothing about or have nothing in common with. It's something I'd sort have done without realizing it before I heard Seinfeld’s bit.

Basically, you interview people. Think talk show host. Except, ask the person about things you're actually interested in, so you'll care what they're saying and want to keep talking. (I don't know if Seinfeld mentioned that last part.)


Conversation A:
you: "So, what do you do?"
other person: "I work in a paper factory. How 'bout you?"
y: "Metermaid."
o: "I see."
y: "Yep."
o: "So, some weather, huh?"


Conversation B:
y: "So, what do you do?"
o: "I work in a paper factory. How 'bout you?"
y: "Metermaid. What do you do at the paper factory anyway?"
o: "I'm in charge of the cafeteria."
y: "So, who decides what gets stocked there?"
o: "Actually, that's up to me and Bob."
y: "That sounds interesting... how do you decide what to stock? Could you just pick whatever you want? Do you have some sort of catalog of stuff you can pick? Do you get to pick the catalog?"(etc.)

I think you/one can always think of something that would be interesting to talk about or learn about no matter what the context -- you just need to manage to get "deep" enough into the topic (whatever it happens to be) to find the cool stuff.

At first it may seem weird to ask odd and/or detailed questions to strangers, but, hey, I think it ends up being fun for everyone involved. People probably like talking about those sorts of random things, since they're probably engrossed in these minutiae themselves.

Not sure if this is technically small talk, but it makes for interesting conversation.
posted by sentient at 7:12 PM on December 8, 2006 [6 favorites]

The conversation is about whatever the other person is most interested in. That goes a long way.

To be interesting you also need to have interesting experiences or intersting news to discuss. MeFi is filled with interesting trivia. It isn't as good as real world experience, but it ain't chopped liver.
posted by caddis at 8:00 PM on December 8, 2006

sentient is exactly right. Asking questions isn't enough; it's asking good, probing questions that works. You can start out with, "So what do you do?" or "So where do you know (host's name here) from?" but the answer is the key to asking better questions that will draw the person out. Listen carefully, and then ask a more narrow question.

Also, small talk tends to break down after about two minutes if only one person knows how to do it. So if you're asking all the questions, and the other person doesn't seem interested or just doesn't seem to know how to bring up a new topic, learn how to float away gracefully. Something as simple as, "Oh, is that Mark? I haven't seen him in ages. Excuse me," works just fine, though with a bit of finessing you can generally manage to foist your poor conversationalist onto some other sorry soul.
posted by brina at 8:07 PM on December 8, 2006

A couple things that I have found to be helpful is to keep updated on the news and always keep in mind a couple of news stories that you can simply chat about... it's a good starting point to discuss social issues. You can decide if you want to keep it light or jump into stuff, though jumping in and saying, "Hey, how about that abortion bill, huh?" may not elicit the response you're hoping for.

The other thing is to get people to talk about themselves, like joannamerriam said. Most people I meet are only more than happy to talk about their past. If you're talking to old friends, simply ask them what they have been up to lately, what's important at this point is to listen carefully and see if you can either a) pick out threads that you can relate from your own life and hopefully grow the conversation from there; or b) pick out threads you want them to elaborate more on. People generally don't mind being given the chance to brag, so if they're talking about an accomplishment or something that happened and if you're genuinely impressed, lavish the attention on them, and chances are they'll just keep on going.

I think it just takes practice... and if you're ever looking for some and have some extra time, just look around you. Busses are good places to chat people up... it's something that I used to find nerve-wracking, initiating random conversations in public situations, but if you can get comfortable doing that, social occasions where you have a common connection are, by comparison, a lot easier.
posted by perpetualstroll at 8:42 PM on December 8, 2006


1. Ask people questions about themselves. Not super-personal questions (if you find yourself asking "Oh, you say you're divorced? What went wrong?", you have gone down a bad road), but questions that give them a little light something to talk about. The point is to get them talking so you can find common interests. Once you know that you're both interested in cameras, or both have relatives in San Diego, etc, you can talk about that more naturally.
2. If you're talking with someone who can hold their own -- ie someone who is asking you questions -- then ask similar questions back. This is the simplest idiot-proof conversation method.

You can sustain this kind of approach for 10 minutes easily if the other person is even minimally cooperative. If after 10 minutes, the conversation is forced (eg if the other person isn't asking you any questions reciprocally), or if it's obvious that you don't have similar senses of humor etc, then you can find a reason to talk to someone else. If the conversation is flowing, you just have to think of more questions, more funny anecdotes, or more observations about the common interests you've identified. Small talk of this sort is good to grease the social wheels, and also very useful for identifying people that you'd like to talk to for longer periods.

Also see previous questions on this topic:
and here is some stuff I said previously about what casual conversation is for.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:56 PM on December 8, 2006 [2 favorites]

(er, that second link should go to the comment below it. In the one below there's a list of all-purpose safe conversational openings.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:00 PM on December 8, 2006

Two links that might help...

(1) I asked a similar question a few weeks back.

(2) I found this page very helpful. The book, while great, really comes down to these points and, unless you've got lots of time, is not really worth reading once you know the basic principals.
posted by JPowers at 10:58 PM on December 8, 2006 [1 favorite]

Having a few killer anecdotes can go a long way, especially if you're looking for a break from the question/answer format. You can lay out bait for them too, so you're actually asked to tell the story. For example, I've had the rare privlidge of being chased by a bear. The bear story fills up a bit of time (only a couple minutes though) and usually leads to interesting paths of conversation (i.e. connections with Alaska, travel, etc.).
posted by craven_morhead at 8:07 AM on December 9, 2006

Ask people to talk about themselves.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:40 AM on December 9, 2006

I try to find people who hate small talk too. In fact, you can wait until you see someone who is hanging back, approach and introduce yourself and awkwardly say "I hate small talk" and shake your head. this sometimes works great, and if they respond in kind you may be able to get past the weather, the team, the office and talk about something interesting on a "deeper" level. OR they will look at you funny and go find another drink.
I hate being asked too many questions, I get suspicious.
posted by henryis at 12:51 PM on December 9, 2006

craven_morhead: You were chased by a bear? Really? Wow!
posted by reklaw at 2:11 PM on December 9, 2006 [2 favorites]

I like "The fine art of small talk" by Debra Fine. It has lists of things to talk about and specific advice on keeping the ball in the air.
posted by rjs at 6:57 AM on December 10, 2006

Reklaw, see I was in Alaska and...
posted by craven_morhead at 6:59 AM on December 10, 2006

Best answer: Your problem is that you are not nice. Sucks for you. When you become nice, you will have many good friends.
posted by caddis at 10:39 PM on December 17, 2006 [2 favorites]

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