Small talk – love it or hate it?

It's an important skill

How do you feel about small talk? Those quick interactions with colleagues while the kettle boils, or with the taxi driver or the stranger stuck in the same queue as you.

Small talk refers to the informal, polite, light conversations we have when we don’t know the other person well, (or even at all). Even if we’re only talking about trivial topics (typically the weather if you’re based in the UK), small talk is an important way to make connections, build rapport, and nurture relationships.

I love a bit of small talk. I relish being able to learn something new or make someone smile. It makes me feel good too.

I know that a lot of people find small talk pointless, uncomfortable and even embarrassing.

Getting a dog was a small talk accelerator for me. It’s easy, from asking about names, what breed and of course the slightly edgy sniffing bums chat.  My dog is called Gary so that makes people laugh and that makes me happy.

When I work with people to help them be less afraid of networking and improve their networking skills, I encourage them to practice small talk at every opportunity. In the coffee queue, school gates, on the bus, basically anywhere.

According to research by Gillian Sandstrom, Senior Lecturer in the Psychology of Kindness at University of Sussex, in addition to helping us feel less uncomfortable at business networking events, these brief but pleasant exchanges can enhance health and happiness, lifting mood, energy, and overall well-being. It that’s not reason enough Sandstrom’s indicates that people view ‘minimal social interactions’ such as a smile, compliment, or quick chat as an act of kindness and also builds what’s called relational diversity, which is a unique predictor of well-being.

I love it when I find research that backs up a hunch I had (yes I hear you confirmation bias naysayers). Small talk can enhance happiness and wellbeing and can be a valuable source of learning and connection.

Whether you love it or hate it, small talk is a skill and an important and inevitable part of human life. Find opportunities to practice. Everything becomes easier with practice and small talk is no exception. Chat to the barista, the shop assistant, the person in the queue. Anyone. Be deliberate. Here’s my quick tips to practice your successful small talk.

Quick tips for successful small talk 

Minsdet If the thought of ‘small talk’ sends shudders down your spine consider reframing it into something more palatable for you. Remember small talk interactions help you and the other person. Could you reframe it as a ‘micro conversation’ or an ‘insight investigation’ or  a ‘mood booster’.  Find a term you can feel enthusiastic about.

Pick your topics Pick topics where there is already a connection. For example, If you’re waiting in a queue in a restaurant ask the person in the queue if have they been before, if yes ask them what can they recommend? If no, why have they picked this place?

Keep the weather chat short  Weather is a great opener but if you stay on weather too long, generally speaking its boring for everyone involved. Move on quickly.

Ask them something about them For example, what they did at the weekend. Then ask them more things about that. We all like to be asked about ourselves.

Give someone a compliment (but don’t be creepy!) Nice shoes is fine, lovely smile is creepy. Be genuine in your compliment but sense check it on the creepy scale before you open your mouth. Often people will tell you where they got the shoes and you’re off on a conversation.

Avoid questions about marriage, kids, work religion and politics All of which are potentially be sensitive or controversial. I don’t have kids and I am happy with that, but so many times people have asked whether I have kids and then been really awkward when I say no.

Be an active participant If someone asks you how you are, and you respond ‘fine’ you’re not being an active participant in the conversation.  Offer up a bit more and include some detail the other person can work with. For example, ‘I’ve just come back from watching the rugby and loved it.’

Notice After a small talk interaction just notice how you’re feeling. How’s your mood? Are you smiling?

Charming exits While the exact circumstances will dictate how you navigate your exit, for small talk, it’s better if you’re the one to politely move on. You don’t want to be the person talking about the rain while the other person edges away. Keep it light, ‘lovely to chat must get on’.

I see small talk more as a chance encounter and its one of the things I teach on my ‘how to network’ programme. If you’d like some some tips and tools to improve your networking skills then drop me a line.  

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