How to Make Small Talk Less Awkward
I hate small talk.
At least, I used to. In social interactions, I used to plaster on a fake smile, fumble my way through uncomfortable questions and answers, and secretly wish I could be shoving toothpicks up my fingernails because anything would be preferable to having to make inane conversation with a stranger.
Eventually I changed my tune, though, because succeeding at small talk is a fundamental social skill. Why? Because apparently we have nothing better to talk about than the weather. Just kidding! (That was the old me talking.)
Small talk is an important social ritual that allows you to discern friend from foe. Seriously. If you can’t talk about the weather without contention, what the heck can you talk about? Engaging in small talk helps you establish common ground so that you can move to more important territory. You have to start here.
Unfortunately, with more and more of us working remotely, opportunities to make small talk have gone the way of the VCR. It’s just too easy—perhaps even expected—to keep conversations focused exclusively on the matter at hand and avoid all the awkwardness of “So… how was your weekend?”
If this is your experience and you want to improve your social and networking skills, here are some tips:
If all your interactions with other people are “small,” well, that’s a problem. But if none of them are, that’s a problem, too. Stop waiting until everyone else has joined the video call before you jump on. Get in there and discuss how much better you like your commute when working from home or why you chose that virtual Zoom background. A waste of time? Not if you care about getting work done—productivity requires people which require relationships which require connections which require … small talk. (Sorry.)
Develop a Formula
When I first realized I was terrible at small talk, I started googling conversations starters. I needed help. And sure, it can be helpful to have a few go-to questions that you carry around in your back pocket.
But most of the questions I came across were just … weird. I can’t imagine just throwing out, “So, what’s the funniest thing that ever happened to you in your current job?” into a quiet room in the hopes of getting a conversation going. Or, “Tell me about your best day ever!” Or, “What’s the weirdest food you’ve ever eaten?”
So arbitrary! I mean, that’s exactly the kind of awkwardness I’m trying to avoid by googling conversation starters!
What’s more helpful is to have a framework, and the best framework I’ve found came from a parenting book I randomly came across at the library while searching for something completely unrelated. From Happy Campers by Audrey Monke, here’s the formula:
- Say something. You can share something small about yourself or make an observation about your current surroundings. Keep it light, short, relevant, and focused on finding common ground.
- Ask a question. Same rules apply—keep it relevant and non-threatening.
- Listen to the answer. With undivided attention. Put your phone away. Stop multitasking. Even on video when you think the other person doesn’t know you’re actually checking your email or updating your calendar, they know.
- Show interest. If you’re actually listening, you will likely have an appropriate emotional response naturally. Be engaged.
- Acknowledge similarities or differences. “Me too!” automatically demonstrates common ground. But even if you have the opposite experience, by sharing it in a light, non-threatening way you send the message: We’re good.
- Ask follow-up questions. Just keep going, like the Energizer bunny.
The key is to create context and spark a topic within that context. If you’re meeting someone after lunch and you had a funny or amazing or weird meal, you can share that and then the questions “What’s the funniest thing that ever happened to you in your current job” or, “Tell me about your best day ever!” or, “What’s the weirdest food you’ve ever eaten?” are no longer random.
Establish a setting and then find common ground within the setting. This is why topics like the weather or food or work or current events are typical small talk generators. It’s an easy “common ground” win. You can definitely be more creative if you like. The point, though, is to use the light, relevant, commonality as a launching point to connection.
Note Your Mindset
Making small talk, or having any conversation really, is like a ball game. You toss the topic back and forth. Toss, catch, toss, catch. Don’t hang on to the ball too long and don’t make it hard for the other person to catch. If you’re really bad at sports like me, sometimes you throw wide or you drop the ball… but then you good-naturedly pick it back up and keep going. If your conversation partner is lacking in skills, avoid the 90-mph fastball pitch and lob the topics lightly and gently.
Here are some suggestions for making small talk less nerve-wracking or boring and more fun:
Be curious. A curious mindset keeps you learning and growing, helps you connect with others, and even can boost your happiness. It’s also really useful for keeping conversations going.
Be awkward. There are worse things in life. The more you’re willing to be a tad uncomfortable, the more your comfort zone grows. Having a wide comfort zone is a wonderful asset.
Give. Attention is one of the greatest gifts you can give another person. Don’t give so much attention that the other person feels uncomfortable, of course. Focus on giving attention in a way that makes the other person feel connected and comfortable, and the conversation will flow more smoothly.
Relax. Breathe. If you can just breathe and be comfortable in your own skin, the awkwardness level of the conversation will ratchet down about 5,237 points on the awkwardness scale.
Here’s the bottom line: Small talk isn’t going away. Or, perhaps, more accurately, it has been going away and that’s a problem. You need to be able to have light, pleasant conversations with your coworkers and team members to succeed at work. It’s worth the time and a little discomfort. Make small talk.