It’s very common for people to find small talk cringy or unnecessary, to the point that some even try to actively avoid it. Small talk can be challenging; it’s not just casual conversation but a key element when it comes to building rapport with someone. In this article, I will cover some small talk training that will help you level up your conversation skills, making small talk a breeze!
The Importance of Small Talk
Small talk is a critical part of building rapport with someone. In the beginning, people can be reserved when speaking, so they need to be warmed up, and small talk provides this opportunity. There are two types of people you need to consider:
What’s an Oven?
An oven is someone whom you have never met before, and you are looking to build a relationship with them. We call them “ovens” because, like preheating an oven before cooking, it’s necessary to warm them up before you can dive into discussing potentially impolite topics.
What’s a Microwave?
A Microwave is a person you are familiar with; these can be friends, family, colleagues, or clients. Unlike an oven, where you need to preheat, with a microwave, you can start the conversation right away. With people you know well, you don’t need to engage in chit-chat; the relationship has already been established, and there’s no requirement for preheating.
Overcoming Small Talk Anxiety
Any kind of social anxiety comes down to perception. In other words, how we perceive ourselves will impact our anxiety in a particular situation. If we see ourselves as stupid, ugly, unfunny, boring, overweight, dull, quiet, loud, etc., we need to delve into why we feel these emotions.
Small talk anxiety is also an abstract concept, so think about the specific situations where you feel anxiety building up. It could be, for example:
- Chatting with someone at a networking event
- Speaking to large groups of people
- Conversing with a colleague at the start of a meeting
- Meeting someone new at a party
- Engaging with the cashier at the supermarket
- Introducing yourself at a job interview
- Placing an order at a restaurant
- Joining a new social group or hobby
- Talking to someone on public transport
Identify your specific social anxiety triggers so you can address them; the more specific you are, the better you can develop coping strategies.
Small Talk Do’s & Don’ts
Small talk training includes some important do’s and don’ts to consider when you find yourself in a situation where you want to engage in small talk:
Start with a Greeting
A nice, warm, and friendly greeting is the best strategy to begin small talk with someone. Saying, “Hi, my name is… how are you?” is simple and straightforward enough; you do not need an overly analyzed greeting. Pair it with a smile and a handshake, and you have the perfect greeting for small talk.
Show Genuine Interest
Dale Carnegie once said:
“To be interesting, you must be interested.”
Topics such as the weather may not be very interesting, so try to begin the “pre-heating process” by asking questions about them that genuinely interest you, such as:
- What do they do for a living?
- What led them to pursue that career/job?
- What are they studying at university?
- What challenges do they face in their job or course?
- Where are they from?
- Why did they move here?
- Have they discovered any fantastic food spots?
- What’s their opinion of the city/town so far?
Ask them questions you are genuinely interested in knowing the answers to; if you go through the motions asking the same old questions without sincere interest, it may come across as insincere, which can harm your charisma.
Talk about Controversial Topics
Avoid topics such as politics, religion, conspiracy theories, or personal finance—anything that could seem too personal. If you start with these topics, you might put off the other person. Stick to questions about themselves initially. Once you’ve built enough rapport (pre-heated them), you can open the door to more profound topics like those mentioned above if they relate to their interests.
Avoid Checking Your Phone
Constantly checking your phone signals to the other person that you are not interested, that you don’t care, or that you have someone more important to meet. This significantly impacts your charisma; our aim is to make the other person feel wanted and cared for. If you’re checking your phone, you won’t achieve this, and the result will be that they do not naturally warm up to you.
Don’t Rush the Conversation
You might be tempted to skip over small talk to discuss things you’re genuinely interested in, and that’s okay; the time will come. Let’s go back to our cooking analogy:
If you don’t preheat your oven and just begin cooking your food, it’s likely that your food will not be cooked correctly.
If you try to skip over the small talk process, then yes, you may still discuss more significant topics that mean more to you. However, you may find that the person is hesitant to engage because you haven’t sufficiently carried out the pre-heating. This will result in the other person not fully bonding with you and the topics you discuss. At best, you may strike gold and find a topic they are interested in, but most likely you will come across as pushy rather than charismatic.
Small Talk Icebreakers
Comment on Your Environment
- “Wow, did you see that exhibition over there?”
- “What motivated you to come to this event?”
- “Who do you know at this party?”
- “I love your laugh; it’s contagious!”
- “You are so confident; I love it.”
- “I really like your outfit; where did you get it?”
Interests or Hobbies
- “What do you do outside of work?”
- “What do you do in your free time?”
- “What keeps you busy?”
- “What do you do for a living?”
- “What is the biggest challenge in your line of work?”
- “What made you want to pursue that career?”
A key element of small talk is the ability to actively listen to what the person is saying. You do not want to fall into the trap of asking question after question, rephrasing each question, until you eventually run out of things to say. By actively listening, you pay attention to:
- The words they are saying
- How they are saying them
- The tone they are using
- Their body language as they speak
For example, if you ask someone, “What do you do in your free time?” and they respond by saying, “I play football” with a smile, raised eyebrows, and a playful tone in their voice, you know they are excited about this topic. You can respond with, “Wow, you look really excited to talk about it! Why do you love it so much?”
Some scenarios will not be as obvious. For instance, if you ask someone, “What do you do for a living?” and they respond with, “Well, I work in IT consulting, it’s okay,” in a low tone, sounding somewhat sad, with a non-descriptive facial expression, you may discern that they seem unsatisfied. Pay attention to these cues and respond accordingly, like asking, “You said that as if it’s a bad thing; would you like to change careers?”
Active listening is crucial because it helps you pick up on cues, words, and tones that will help you build upon the small talk you are having.
Finding Common Ground
Small talk is all about finding common ground where you can continue building the relationship. It’s not as challenging as you might think; you just have to be able to ask open-ended questions.
Open-ended questions are questions that start with:
Here are some examples that you can use in your small talk situations:
- “How did you end up doing what you are doing?”
- “What do you love most about your job?”
- “Why did you want to work for that particular company?”
- “What’s the biggest challenge in your job?”
Interests or Hobbies
- “How did you discover your passion for X?”
- “What is it about X that you enjoy so much?”
- “Why did you choose to do X instead of Y?”
- “What sparked your interest in X in the first place?”
- “How do you know the host at this party?”
- “What are your thoughts on the venue?”
- “How did you hear about this event?”
Use open-ended questions to encourage the person to open up and find common ground. It isn’t just about both of you being interested in a particular topic or hobby; it could be that you are both passionate or have a shared enthusiasm for something, and you want to bond over that.
In conclusion, small talk, often seen as a trivial form of conversation, serves a vital purpose in building connections. It’s the bridge that leads to meaningful discussions and the foundation of rapport. We explored its significance, tackled the anxiety it can evoke, and discussed the dos and don’ts.
Remember, small talk isn’t merely a social obligation; it’s a tool for discovering shared interests and passions. So, embrace it as a chance to warm up to others and uncover the common ground that connects us. With practice and charisma, small talk can become a skill that opens doors to more profound and meaningful conversations.