At some point in your life you will find yourself at a party, or a conference, or at an event where the only person you know, is you. Some people love the challenge of meeting new folk, some dread it. Starting a conversation with strangers can be one of the hardest things you will face. Avoiding deeply personal first questions is a sign of social awareness. It also reflects culture.
Anyone who has spent time in Asia will know that open discussions about weight, salary and the price of your home are all considered opening gambits for making new friends. Westerners rarely open a conversation with “How much rent do you pay?”, but they often have no problem asking “what do you do” as a way to get the ball rolling. Some would- rightly- argue that this question is a way of pigeon holing. What you ‘do’ often means ‘where are you on the social ladder as compared to me?’ If you are a primary care giver in a room full of banker wankers, the question can feel like a bullet to the brain, or even worse, the ego.
Looking for ways to make conversation that does not threaten or judge is very important if your world is all about meeting people. Imagine a politician or social worker wandering up to a group of people and telling them that the shoes you are wearing cost more than some people spend on food in a month. Lack of Sympatico can be a killer, especially when the person speaking has no self-awareness.
So, what is the secret to great small talk?
Good conversationalists know that asking questions and then listening to the answer is the key to getting to know someone. Behavioral scientists call it ‘empathic listening’, really listening to what is really being said, and the way it is being said.
Humans give off a host of clues through tone and body language, as well as words. A nervous person might answer a question whilst avoiding eye contact. Or that might be you.
Either way, an honest human approach works when anxiety is in the air. “ I’m usually pretty hopeless when it comes to making small talk, if you had any tips I’d love to hear them” all said with a smile is a great way to break the ice. So is “This seems like a nice group of people, but I don’t really know anyone. What brings you here?” let’s the other person know the score and allows for an exchange of information.
Open questions are very important. Any question that can be answered with a simple yes/no response is not going to get you anywhere. “I love your shoes/shirt/watch/sunglasses/bag….where do you shop ? ” is an easy way to start convivial chat. “Do you live around here?” can work, but it’s simply a much thinner thread.
When the time you spend with a group of strangers is limited, often it’s only the most superficial of topics that will be covered. This doesn’t mean it has to be dull, but it does mean it has to be done right.
If you are at an event with a host, a questions like, “How do you know…..X…..” is a great way to learn a bit of non-controversial information to build a follow up question with. If it an event with no particular host, or a place like a pub, a comment on the venue itself can start a conversation. “Wow, this place is busier than I expected, how did you manage to get a drink?” or “There are quite a few (or not many) places like this around here, how did you find out about this?” or “ Parking was easier ( or more difficult) than I expected, how did you get here?” all work as conversation talking points.
In Jane Austin’s day, the only polite public conversation topics were the weather and the roads. Some of that line of thought still holds true, but, generally, most people are slightly more open these days.
Braver souls might be tempted to announce “I hate small talk, let’s cut to the chase, if you could have any super power, what would it be?” and there is nothing wrong with that. Asking “Do you come here often?” is dire. Asking “Where is the best place you’ve ever visited?” can lead to a fabulous discussion.
Honesty always has a place when developing rapport.
Having said that, starting a conversation with “ Oh my God, what is that woman wearing?” may lead to disastrous follow up like “ That’s my girlfriend actually”……which then leads to conversation, and social, death.
The best tips for making small talk are simple to remember. Number 1, be polite. Number 2. Ask open ended questions and number 3, have a follow up question ready. The less you talk about yourself, the better. If you make a connection with someone, they will start asking you questions soon enough.
If you are in a situation where a cultural norm has been breached, take it with a grain of salt. Nine times out of ten no harm is meant, and no offence is intended. Being told you have a big nose by someone you have only just met may horrify you, but for the person stating this as a fact, it is – for them- just a statement. Not everyone is great at getting the ball rolling, but with the right attitude and a few well thought out opening lines, controlling the chit-chat, at least to begin with, is in reach of everyone. After that, let the patter flow until it organically reaches its full potential. You never know what you’ll learn.