#3: How to Make Small Talk.

How to Make Small Talk.

There is nothing small about "small talk." It's a critically important skill, and easier than you think to learn.

Why is small talk so important?

My new friend Shad, who is turning out to be a learning experience in and of himself, called “just to say hi.” This is code for, “I want to hear your voice, but I can’t or don’t want to have a deep conversation with you right now.” I get it—not every phone call has to be a long, meaningful walk down the path to connection. The problem is that “deep” it the only conversation I know how to have.

So even though I wanted to honor his unspoken request, I couldn’t help myself. In the short span of 7 minutes I brought up my dad, my life’s purpose, and money. “It’s all good,” he said about my dad. “It’ll work itself out,” he said about my life’s purpose. “You’re smart—you’ll figure it out,” he said about money. It had to have been as frustrating for him as it was unsatisfying for me. By the end of the call I felt like a conversational failure.

Well, I like feeling like a failure even less than I like going to the dentist (no offense to mine, who is really good) so as soon I got back to my computer, I set about the task of learning how to master “small talk.” It didn’t take me long to realize that there is a difference between small talk and what I’ll dub “short talk.”

Small talk is what you do with someone you just met. Short talk is what you do with someone you know when you only have a few minutes to talk. When I flubbed the conversation with Shad, I had a short talk problem, not a small talk problem. Let’s tackle small talk first, and then I’ll show you how one slight modification to the small talk strategy will make you a master of short talk.

Small talk—contrary to a long held belief of mine—is not a waste of time. It serves the important function of establishing whether or not the person I’m making small talk with and I are going to have a second, deeper conversation later. It’s the skill that lands you a new friend, a first date, or a second interview.

How many times have you been asked in an interview, “So, what do you like to do when you’re not at work?” And how many times have you responded with a list of hobbies?” “I read, write, quilt and like to bake.”

No matter how exciting the list sounded in your head, it felt as flat to the interviewer as it did to you the moment it came out of your mouth, and it probably didn’t get you much more than an ambivalent “Okay, thanks.” I painfully remember this part of the interview with my current boss, and now that I think of it—cringe—I told Shad the exact same thing when he asked me what I liked to do “for fun.” It’s a credit to my technical (and, uh, “other” in the case of Shad) skills that both men hired me.

How to make small talk.

So, what do I wish I would have said instead? “At heart, I’m a really adventurous person. I love to travel, go backpacking, and I could spend all day on my road bike and not get tired of it. My life has changed a lot recently, though, and I’m finding that right now it makes a lot more sense for me to focus on indoor hobbies. It’s been a big adjustment, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Think of all the possible follow-up questions! No, really—take the time to think about what these men could have asked me in response: What’s your favorite country / backpacking trip / bike route? What hobbies do you focus on now? What changed about your life? What makes your current life so wonderful?

Okay, so obviously my revised response generated a lot of follow-up questions, in addition to just simply being more interesting. But did you catch the little something extra my response accomplished? A little something that was both more subtle and more important? It began to communicate a little about me and my values without giving too much away.

I shared that I value being active, adventurous, adaptable and positive. And that’s important, because I catch someone’s interest not with what my life looks like, but why it looks the way it does. And to that end, the most interesting follow-up question is, “What changed about your life?”

“Oh, you know, I went and had a baby. (Insert sheepish smile.) My story is such a cliché, really. I was never one of those girls that dreamed of getting married and having a family. In fact, I always imagined that my life would be too busy to have room for a child. But now that I have a son, I can’t imagine life without him. He adds more joy to my life than any adventure ever could.” 

And boom—we’re in business. Meaning I’ve turned myself into a human being and brought the conversation with me. The small talk technique reminds me of the one-two punch boxing strategy: daze ‘em just enough to knock ‘em out.

What else did I accidentally learn along the way?

To adapt (there’s that value again) the small talk strategy into a short talk strategy, I’m going to modify my response to elicit a laugh and a light-hearted follow-up question. How’s your day? might lead to “So good so far! I managed to walk the entire way to work without slipping on the ice, and was able to delegate all but one of the items on my to-do list to my staff.”

Shad could ask me about the weather or about what I was going to do with all my free time at work now that I no longer had any work to do. Either option is easy and impersonal. He opted for both.

Adaptable was a better word to use than adaptive in this blog post. Although there is some overlap in definition, a person is adaptable when she is able and willing to change in response to her circumstances. A thing is adaptive when it has been engineered to change in response to feedback.

Lastly, the Urban Dictionary definitions of one-two punch are disgusting.

What were my sources?

Nothing extremely authoritative. I read a lot of lay-person ideas for making better conversation and picked the ideas that made sense to me. For the last two thoughts, I consulted Urban Dictionary and Grammarist.com.