I had a very awkward encounter when I tried to make small talk at a party recently.
I was chatting in a small circle, and a woman was lurking behind me, solo. It was kind of distracting. I wanted to be polite, so I invited her into the group to join our conversation. But I was met with an abrupt, “No thanks—I don’t feel like talking.”
It was weird.
Her honesty was out of place. But her frame of mind? I’m pretty sure it was a common one. Because who wants to make small talk, exactly? Almost no one. But almost everyone has to, and pretty regularly too—at a job interview (at least the opening of one), a networking event, when meeting your S.O.’s parents, a corporate social gathering, in a long elevator ride with a colleague, during a meet-up.
So here’s how to tackle some of that inevitable small talk with ease (and like you mean it):
Yep. The most important step is actually nonverbal. Nothing beats the power of a smile to make people warm up to you in an instant. Sometimes people are actually unaware of their very serious facial expressions (resting bitch face, anyone)? Smiling also gives other people (and you!) a boost. It’s scientifically proven.
2. Find common ground.
Common ground doesn’t have to mean that you and the other person are both black belts in karate. Common ground can be based on anything at all: being from the same town, the people you both happen to know, a love of Serial or The Leftovers. Even an appreciation of the food/drink/music present works well. When in doubt, discuss the setting.
3. Ask open-ended questions.
Engaging the other person always happens by asking questions, especially those that can’t be answered with a yes or no response. Questions like “How did you two meet?” “How do you know Sally?” and “What are you doing this summer?” all open up easy, light dialogue.
With a little luck and some back and forth, the common ground should keep expanding: “Oh I love Florida,” “We met online also, funny story…” “Sally and I worked together too….”
Sounds simple, right? But it’s an oddly underutilized and highly impactful communication tool. Pay attention to what the other person is saying. Don’t check your watch or phone. Don’t let your gaze dart around the room, scoping out other people to talk to. And don’t just wait for the next opportunity to speak. Listen. Hey, you might even learn something!
5. Loosen up.
Our body language is even more important than what comes out of our mouths. Studies show that up to 93 percent of how we communicate is interpreted nonverbally. So pull back those shoulders, lift up your chin, uncross your arms, and look your conversation partner in the eye.
6. Keep it carefree.
Small talk is not the time to share our darkest moments or debate the most recent national budget proposal. The art of conversational flow is the art of keeping a conversation going with upbeat energy and an optimistic undertone.
The point is not to outsmart the other person, to win an argument, or to prove a point. Negativity repels, so avoid any topic that can go south quickly.
If a conversation takes a dive into religion, politics, or anything divisive and/or unpleasant, redirect it as soon as you can. A swift, “So crazy, isn’t it? Hey another interesting thing in the news this week was…”
7. Exit with grace.
Many of us dread small talk because we worry we’ll get stuck talking to someone boring with no way out (except being rude). A solid strategy here is to use the phrase “I need” to excuse yourself—“I need to call my husband/say hi to the speaker/use the restroom/get a drink/food/fill in the blank.” To sweeten your exit, mention something you enjoyed about your conversation: “I really enjoyed speaking with you about skiing, Paul. I hope we’ll chat again soon.”
Then off you go, guilt free.
The next time the need for small talk arises, remember that the people around you probably aren’t crazy about it either. But it doesn’t have to be dull, awkward, or peppered with uncomfortable silences. We humans have to connect. It’s how beautiful relationships can form, if you give them an opportunity. You might even have fun.
So take a deep breath, pocket a couple of these tips, and remember: In any anxiety-inducing social situation, you don’t have to dazzle or be brilliant and charming. You just have to be nice.