The Art of Small Talk That Isn’t Awkward
Who am I kidding? I’m the worst small talker I know
If there’s anything I dislike more, it’s small talk. Useful as lubricant for many social situations—first day of school, first day at work, etc.—small talk is polite but mostly awkward, and insincere. Honestly, I could just be really terrible at it. Terrible in the sense that when I start, I can’t stop and then proceed to bury myself in a heap of nonsense or my own grave. Case in point: seeing a colleague in the elevator after a long break. He and I are not particularly close, but polite society dictates that when you see a familiar face, you say hi, hello and how are you. Little did I know, his family suffered a loss during the holidays and while I could have stopped at “I’m so sorry,” it suddenly felt necessary to say something human and genuine. The conversation went like this:
Me: I’m so sorry. What happened?
Colleague: My brother-in-law died in a motorbike accident
Me: Oh, I’m really sorry. Was he wearing a helmet?
bear with me, it was a long elevator ride and I was getting really nervous
C: Yes, he was. It was a freak accident actually
Me: I see. Were you two close?
C: Not really
Me: Well, this is me. Sorry again, I’ll pray for your family (even though I’m agnostic)
Smooth. So now you understand why I and perhaps people like myself ridden with what I think could be social anxiety would rather not engage. But small talk strikes anywhere, at any time and especially when you least expect it. So while it is ironic for me to take on a writing assignment on the art of polite conversation, I took it for one selfish reason. I’d like to get better at it so I pass off as a normal human being that can make lighthearted conversation—one that you might even want to be friends with.
Polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters, especially as engaged in on social occasions.
“propriety required that he face these people and make small talk“
No matter how much I detest it, small talk is necessary. It’s an introduction; the way in before conversations about sex tales and dark secrets unfold. It’s also a way for you and the other person to gauge whether or not one of you is non compos mentis.
The little research I’ve done and a handful of successful small talk experiences have taught me to be more interested in the person you’re talking to rather than struggle to be interesting.
One encounter at the gym felt successful only because I didn’t fumble for words and made the talk about my acquaintance’s interests instead. Minutes later, I started to feel trapped in the conversation because he opened the gates of his childhood hell. So here’s lesson number two, don’t waste people’s time; in my case, I meant his because I was obviously not interested in his life or his parental issues and could have said, “It was nice seeing you but I have to go” instead of standing by the door for a dreadful 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, if and when the small talk starts to feel less contrived, a workmate who is quite the expert at making conversation suggests talking about your surroundings or the latest (Avengers) movie everyone wants to see. Keep it short and sweet, and save the rest for next time. They say it’s not about the category of talk anyway, but a matter of the other person or you not being all that interesting or interested.
Another balm for awkwardness per research is to say something nice and hopefully mean it. In fact, at an event I covered today, a girl told me she liked my skirt (a green pencil skirt with ruffled hem). Her flattery disarmed me and so we had a little chat about where I got it from, the food (like the crowd favorite ensaymada-flavored ice cream) and eating healthy. But for those who are really serious in managing each of their interactions perfectly, you might want to get advice straight from etiquette books (see: Modern Manners and Emily Post). Here’s their oft-used formula in summary:
So if there’s anything I learned from writing this article, it’s that small talk isn’t perfect, at least it won’t always be. That’s why it’s called small talk. And according to other people’s feedback, I’m not all that bad. They appreciate my openness and what comes off as guilelessness but is really candor with a splash of anxiety. Silence, they add is natural, and that neither I nor anyone should feel obliged to fill the air should people or a person stop talking (also might be code for shut up).
Most importantly, I found that the secret lies in having the desire to put yourself out there and connect with people. If you have zero desire and not feeling the connection, don’t force it. An obvious fact that doesn’t always occur to many is that there’s nothing wrong with leaving a conversation politely.
So, goodbye, thank you for reading this!
Art Alexandra Lara