Make small talk a success

You ever notice nobody says “I love small talk!”. What’s there to love about talking about stuff that doesn’t matter. And you can’t really avoid polite conversation completely because small talk conversation happens when you meet someone new.

So, what do you? And more so, how do you make it enjoyable and then, have it move from small talk to a real conversation?

I figured out that there’s two quick ways to improve it. First,

Stop asking 2 questions: “Where are you?” and “What do you do (for a living)?”

This is quick but not so easy to execute. In many societies this has become the standard way to start conversing with someone. We usually don’t give it a second thought but it’s the main reason why small talk has a low chance of ascending into something more.

Why? It’s more or less back and forth. I ask you “Where are you from?” – you answer it and then you ask in return. The same goes for what we do in our daily lives.

That’s the reason why it’s difficult to execute because when you’re asked this question, it’s challenging to go against the societal norm of asking the question back. Then, what do you do?

Answer the question with a story. More importantly, answer it with your story.

It’s hard to imagine answering a banal question like “Where are you from?” with a story but it’s the 2nd strategy in ensuring small talk becomes a real conversation.

Instead of answering with the city or country or your usual answer, think of something you genuinely like or love about where you’re from. Like if someone’s from Paris, they would say:

I grew up in Paris and love the cafe culture where you can sit outside for 10 minutes in the morning before going into work and have enjoy a cup of espresso.  It clears my mind and gets me ready to start the day.  

From here, the conversation will have direction. Although Paris, on its own, may seem like an interesting response, it may only lead to someone asking about the city instead of you directing the conversation to something you authentically enjoy and like to discuss.

That is what will make it more enjoyable for you and give something to other person to connect to. The other person could be curious about the cafe culture or about better ways to start the day. Or they may share how much they detest espresso. Either way, there’s purposeful direction.

The next question, What do you do?, can be answered in the same way. What is it about what you do in your daily life (parent, manager, designer, etc.) that’s interesting or fascinating to you. Instead of getting the “title” right focus on the that part that you enjoy talking about and add in a few tidbits that you’ve learned along the way.

I used to the a quality control technician. Yeah, it wasn’t exciting. And it sounds like a quick way to dead end the conversation but here’s what I used to answer with:

I work in a lab and I'm responsible for checking the quality of a food ingredient that goes into about 80% of the beverages consumed in my country.  It goes into beer, ...

When I started answering this question this way, people could connect to the story. Very few can connect to “quality control technician”. Not even those of us who are one!

Whenever I did this, someone would jump in about one of the beverages or would be curious about how it could be in 80% of beverages. It peaked people’s curiosity, no doubt!

Using these two strategies, I’ve gotten out of the more small talk conversation to actually getting to know other people a bit better. It didn’t mean that we became best friends but it made for great conversations and a lot easier to talk to them again when I would see them another time.

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