Friday, March 28, 2014

Small Talk: A Necessary Life Skill

Madalena, Marketing Intern

In today’s society, avoiding conversation is easy. We go to the ATM instead of the bank teller; we go through the self-checkout instead of to the cashier; or we sit with our headphones in and stare at our phones, instead of approaching the boy or girl that has been in our class all semester. People try to avoid what they assume will be an “awkward situation” all the time, but we can’t avoid small talk our whole lives. It pays off to be bold—that is how you meet people and eventually grow relationships. The reality is, small talk is a necessary life skill we all must learn. 

If you need to break an awkward silence, it’s easy to fall back on the classic, “How about this weather we’re having?” But, talking about the weather can often be very cliché. Plus, if you really want to connect with someone, talking about today’s chance of rain probably won’t help. When you feel stumped, nervous or just downright anxious when you are talking to someone that you just met, remember that there are thousands of other subjects, and even more ways, to make small talk enjoyable. 

I’m not saying you should immediately dive into a random stranger’s deepest feelings and philosophical thoughts, but there are other ways to make the conversation move forward. Whether you’re chatting in line at the store, packed into a small elevator or among a new group of people, these suggestions will help you strike up (and keep up) small talk with practically anyone you meet.          

Start off by being in the moment:
You both are obviously in the same place for some common reason, so take that angle and go with it. The best way to initiate talking to someone could be commenting on your similar experience or surroundings. If you’re sitting next to someone outside a classroom, don’t be scared to ask, “How did you do on that last exam?” or “Isn’t our teacher hilarious?” it is an acquaintance, ask them about their week or weekend. Once you break the ice, introduce yourself and take off on a subject, then you can delve into the deeper questions. You never know what kind of mood people are in, but initiating a conversation may just make their day! 

People love talking about themselves:
Think about it, you know yourself better than anyone or anything, so there’s never a shortage of information. Ask people about their lives, and the conversation may unravel. If a person asks how you are, you should always answer and reciprocate with another question. It doesn’t have to be “how are you?” But ask them something, anything, to avoid silence and to try and initiate a conversation. Small talk is brief and typically doesn’t go very deep, but it can help relieve temporary awkwardness. 

Filling in that awkward silence: 
Don’t leave any time for the awkward turtle. If you sense the conversation is beginning to slow, jump in immediately with a new, random subject or question to keep it going (preferably something about them).

Ask open-ended questions:
The best way to keep a conversation going is to ask questions. If you ask open-ended questions, the other person can answer more elaborately, and the conversation could possibly progress. A question that leads to a one-word answer can stop the convo right in its tracks. Most open-ended questions begin with a “why,” “how” or “what” instead of “is” or “does.” Spin a question like “is math your favorite subject?” into “why is math your favorite subject?” The question leaves room for more interpretation and explanation. If you repeatedly get one-word answers, the person may just not want to talk, and you should politely exit the conversation. 

If you compliment them, follow with a question:
Any compliment you give is most likely going to end in a “Thank you!” To avoid the awkward pause that follows when they don’t compliment you back, ask a follow-up question, like “where did you get it?” or “how did you find it?” The question will lead into a longer story that may open up more conversation points. 

If you find something in common, elaborate:
Hear something that interests you? Go with it! If you start talking about a topic you both like, you can be more engaged and will definitely have more to say on the subject than you would on something boring like the weather. Don’t be afraid to ask about their interests to try to find a topic that interests you, too. 

Smile and keep eye contact:
Looking away all the time to try and think of something else to say can make the other person feel uncomfortable. And staring for too long may give them a creepy vibe (see meme below). Try only looking away when you are laughing or doing hand gestures to exaggerate what you’re already saying. And don’t forget to smile! If you smile and laugh, chances are they will join you. 

When to get out:
There are common social cues that can let you know when to get out of a conversation. If the person starts to get antsy, looks at their watch or looks around, simply wrap up with a reason you need to leave the scene, like “I better get going!” and end with a general comment that shows you enjoyed talking to the person. I always use the friendly, “It was nice meeting you, [insert name here]!” Saying their name again shows interest and that you were paying attention. It will help you remember their name in the future, should you meet again. 

Gain more confidence. Easier said than done, right? Confidence truly is a skill, and practice makes perfect. If you tell yourself you are confident and pretend to be, eventually you will realize it’s not as hard as it seems. Putting yourself out there and taking the initiative to talk to someone will build confidence over time. Positive affirmations never hurt, either. 

There’s really no reason to avoid small talk. Take a chance, be bold, and talk to someone! No matter how awkward you feel, the situation will probably only last a couple minutes, and you can use these tips to turn the conversation around. Meeting new people and making new friends is just one conversation away. And like I said, practice makes perfect!

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