Small talk is one of those necessary little difficulties of life. I don’t know about you, but when I’m required to make small talk with strangers or acquaintances suddenly I don’t know what words are and even if I did I can’t think of anything remotely interesting to talk about. Yeah, weathers good. Foods good too, yeah. Bye. Fortunately, Gretchen Rubin has ten ways you can make small talk a more productive and easy experience:
Small talk can be a big problem. I want to be friendly and polite, but I just can’t think of a thing to say. Here are some strategies I try when my mind is a blank:
1. Comment on a topic common to both of you at the moment.
The food, the room, the occasion, the weather (yes, talking about the weather is a cliche, but it works). “How do you know our host?” “What brings you to this event?” But keep it on the positive side! Unless you can be hilariously funny, the first time you come in contact with a person isn’t a good time to complain.
2. Comment on a topic of general interest.
A friend scans Google News right before he goes anywhere where he needs to make small talk, so he can say, “Did you hear that Jeff Bezos is buying The Washington Post?” or whatever.
3. Ask a question that people can answer as they please.
My favorite question is: “What’s keeping you busy these days?” It’s useful because it allows people to choose their focus (work, volunteer, family, hobby) — preferable to the inevitable question (well, inevitable at least in New York City): “What do you do?”
A variant: “What are you working on these days?” This is an especially useful dodge if you ought to know what the person does for a living, but can’t remember.
4. Ask open questions that can’t be answered with a single word.
If you do ask a question that can be answered in a single word, instead of just supplying your own information in response, ask a follow-up question. For example, if you ask, “Where are you from?” an interesting follow-up question might be, “What would your life be like if you still lived there?”
5. Ask getting-to-know-you questions.
“What newspapers and magazines do you subscribe to? What internet sites do you visit regularly?” These questions often reveal a hidden passion, which can make for great conversation.
6. React to what a person says.
In the spirit in which that that comment was offered. If he makes a joke, even if it’s not very funny, try to laugh. If she offers some surprising information (“Did you know that the Harry Potter series have sold more than 450 million copies?”), react with surprise.
7. Be slightly inappropriate.
I can’t use this strategy, myself, because I don’t have the necessary gumption, but my husband is a master. Over and over, I hear him ask a question that seems slightly too prying, or too cheeky, and I feel a wifely annoyance, but then I see that the person to whom he’s talking isn’t offended–if anything, that person seems intrigued and flattered by his interest.
8. Follow someone’s conversational lead.
If someone obviously drops in a reference to a subject, pick up on that thread. Confession: I have a streak of perversity that inexplicably makes me want to thwart people in their conversational desires–I’m not sure why. For instance, I remember talking to a guy who was obviously dying to talk about the time that he’d lived in Vietnam, and I justwould not cooperate. Why not? I should’ve been thrilled to find a good subject for discussion.
9. Don’t Try to Talk about your favorite topic
Along the same lines, counter-intuitively, don’t try to talk about your favorite topic, because you’ll be tempted to talk too much. This is a strategy that I often fail to follow, but I shouldfollow it. I’ll get preoccupied with a topic and want to talk about it all the time, with everyone I meet, and I have a lot to say. My husband is a martyr to the subject of happiness.
How about you? Have you found any good strategies for making polite chit-chat?
Gretchen Rubin is one of the most thought-provoking and influential writers on happiness. Her books Happier at Home and The Happiness Project were both instant New York Times bestsellers, and The Happiness Project has spent more than two years on the bestseller list. Here, she writes about her adventures as she test-drives the studies and theories about how to be happier.
A Menu Of Options For Making Small Talk | The Happiness Project