For anyone who has ever felt ridiculously awkward in social situations.
“I F*CKING HATE SMALL-TALK.” — Says everyone, ever.
Hating small-talk seems to be a pretty common sentiment nowadays.
A while ago, I even encountered a student organization on campus that is working to “Ban Small-talk, and embrace Big-talk”!
With all the casual reluctance and even organized social movements, small-talk sure seems like one of the most despised parts of our social lives. That’s why I was so surprised when I stumbled across the book How to be Good at Small-talk: The Rules of Connection in 30 Seconds by Japanese Author Saito Takashi. Why would someone write a book dedicated to such a hated topic? (There is no English edition of the book, so the title is a rough translation from the Japanese title.)
The book makes a case for the importance of small-talk and tries to answer the following questions:
Could quality small-talk really be the key to a good social life?
How could we make small-talk easier and more pleasant for everyone involved?
How could we use small-talk to further our relationships in our schools, businesses, and families?
The Importance of Small-talk: the Meaning in Meaningless Conversation
Here’s what most people get wrong about conversations: It’s not just your words that are saying things!
People despise small-talk because the words spoken don’t convey much meaning. We all know that the weather is pleasant outside, we all know that your dinner was microwaved leftovers, and we all know what happened at Superbowl the other day!
But words are not the only part of a conversation that conveys information. Our expressions, emotional presence, energy, and physical posture all do something to the people we interact with. And this kind of information exchange is what small-talk does best.
Small-talk breaks down emotional and physical barriers and create familiarity between the two parties involved. This establishes a common baseline emotional state that allows for more meaningful conversation. Think: the appetizer or a drink before the main dish. Perhaps not as exciting as the main course, but definitely elevates the entire experience.
Small-talk is also a statement of intention: it conveys to a stranger your friendliness and acceptance. Small-talk often sculpts first impressions of your personality when you meet someone.
Even among people who are already familiar with each other, small-talk facilitates further emotional bonds by allowing people to enjoy each other’s company in a stress-free way that does not require the mental energy needed for deeper conversations.
How to Small-talk Skillfully
The author argues that small-talk is a skill that can be refined through practice. The book breaks down the elements of small-talk and what we can do to become better at it.
The first five seconds
The first five seconds of any encounter is crucial if you want to escalate the encounter into a good-old exchange of pleasantries.
The author suggests that instead of simply saying “hello” and calling it a day, say “hello + X”. The X part can be anything that is relevant to the other person that serves as a catalyst to kick start a conversation. For example:
- Good morning! Wow, did you see the construction across the street!
- Hello! Nice weather today, huh? I’m so glad spring is finally returning.
These conversations don’t have to be engaging or entertaining, they simply serve as a signal to others that you are open to having a casual conversation.
Another way of conveying openness and acceptance during the first five seconds is to give a compliment on something visual about the other person. Something like: “Wow! I love your earrings! Where did you get them?” It doesn’t matter how or what you compliment the person on, but the fact that you do it. Compliments, however trivial, makes the other feel seen and appreciated.
Continuing the vibe
Having a conversation is like playing catch: you gotta keep the ball flowing!
Avoid making conclusions to the conversation or offer summarizing opinions. Instead, always reply with questions, and allow the other person to continue the conversation easily. Comment on what the other said and redirect the spotlight onto each other to naturally extend the conversation.
Lastly, our body language also matters and can greatly impact the vibe of the exchange. It is best to sit at an angle instead of directly facing each other. And find something to do with your body and hands, like sip coffee or go for a walk during the conversation to take the pressure off the words you are saying.
Avoiding conversation killers
The worst conversation killer is an overactive ego and concern for one’s image. Stop thinking about yourself, and be genuinely interested in the person you’re conversing with! Especially if you are bad with words, keeping the spotlight on the other person is the best way to enjoy the conversation.
Another conversation killer is perceived judgment. People don’t want to be judged or put down. If your replies give the impression that you are not accepting of others’ opinions, the conversation can quickly die for fear of judgment. One way to resolve this but still express your honest opinion is to acknowledge first and refute later. First, point out the validities of the other’s points and parts you agree with, then express your own opposing views. This can look like: “While I do agree that … I had a different experience …”
Advanced Small-talk: Beyond the 30 Seconds
To continue building rapport beyond the first thirty seconds, you’ll need to customize your small-talk towards your targeted audience.
Map out their likes and dislikes
First, map out a person’s likes and dislikes and find commonalities between the two of you. Mutual likes and dislikes are the best bonding vehicles there is.
If you can create a reliable system that maps out the likes and dislikes, values and thought processes of a person, you can reliably structure conversations to suit both of you. Talk about what excites them, what they value and how they think about the world. Reflect on your similarities and offer your own experiences.
Additionally, the best way to get good at small talk is to practice. We live in a society where you can get by with very little conversation: you can order delivery and get food, and buy tons of stuff off Amazon, all without initiating a single conversation or saying hello to anyone.
Practice your small-talk skills! Talk to baristas, librarians, and waitresses, and ask about their days. Not only will you improve your ability to converse with anyone, but you’d surely bright-up someone else’s day as well.
Note: Spoken from personal experience, do not try this on US airport security employees. That will only bring unnecessary suspicion and will potentially make you miss your flight!
Prepare conversation topics
It’s also good to have a couple of conversation topics on hand that will work for most people. Some of these topics include:
- What are you doing with your free time lately?
- What are you excited about recently?
- Tell me something good that happened to you today!
These topics are like social lubricants that allow you to transition into positive, fun exchanges quickly. Keep in mind that these conversation starters should elicit positive emotion and remain lighthearted.
A Book about Small-talk, a Book about Relationships
How to be Good at Small-talk: The Rules of Connection in 30 Seconds by Saito Takashi seems to be a book about small-talk but is really a book about establishing and maintaining relationships.
Although sometimes relationships come naturally, more often it is the result of intentional maintenance and diligent effort. By learning how to converse better, we can bring the benefits of small-talk to others: light conversations help people destress and take their minds off what is troubling them in life. And by facilitating quality small-talk, you can improve your social life and bring happiness to others.
Thanks for reading! Connect with me at https://twitter.com/vickieli7.