I come from a country where small talk is immensely important. It’s nearly impossible to stay in close proximity to another person for an extended period of time without learning everything about their line of work, near and far relatives and sports preferences.
Just recently, I was on a train traveling from the airport in Berlin, when a man noticed I was also Bulgarian. He started the usual conversation one foreigner would strike up with another (“What are you doing in Berlin? Work? Pleasure?”). But then he continued to bombard me with words for a good 15 min.
In the end, I told him this was my stop, bid him farewell, got off… and entered the train again two carts further. I realize, it was a cold thing to do, but I was getting properly tired of words at this point. The point of small talk is to alleviate the awkwardness of silence, but I’m perfectly fine with long, drawn-out silences.
That being said, is small talk really necessary?
Probably the first scientific observation of small talk can be attributed to the Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. In his view, the purpose of small talk is not to exchange information, but to establish bonds. He didn’t mean it in a good sense either. His exact words were “purposeless expressions of preference or aversions, accounts of irrelevant happenings, comments on what is perfectly obvious.”
It’s exactly how I feel about it, Bronislaw!
But, there are a whole plethora of various situations, where small talk has different rules and purpose. Perhaps Bronislaw’s definition is true to some extent, that small talk is intended to be “purposeless”, but in its actual execution it’s not without a purpose at all. Let’s take, for example, a manager and a newcomer. The manager, following workplace etiquette, doesn’t dive straight into work matters as the first topic of choice, but instead chooses to shoot a “How are you? How do you find it here?”. It creates a relationship between the manager and newcomer as humans, not just as boss-worker.
Understanding the different situations that warrant small talk and the unspoken guidelines that follow each one is the key to the successful practice of this fine art.
Imagine how weird it’ll be — after you see the person you want to talk to; after you make eye contact; right after you use your body language to convey you’re about to talk to them; you drop the most out-of-context piece of information about yourself. It has to be a really solid joke for this not to be totally awkward.
Start with anything that you have in common with that person. Right at the beginning, you need to establish a connection, a reason to why you’re talking to them. People are generally wary of others approaching them. Are you trying to sell them something? Do you want something from them? Make this connection at the beginning to alleviate any fear and help them feel comfortable with your presence by pointing out a commonality.
What’s the reason for you both being at the same place? Use your surroundings to point something out. Did you both witness something recently? Comment on that. Use something you know you’re both familiar with and follow the conversation from there.
Generally, it’s always a good idea to listen to what’s being said. Most people who enjoy small talk usually also like to speak. Nothing wrong with that. It makes the job easier. Your role is to listen carefully and think about what your conversation partner is saying. Is she telling you something sad? Something funny? Is she complaining about her work? Act accordingly — give your input, when it’s your time to talk (interrupting is a no-no).
One thing to do here is to repeat what you just heard, but with other words. It reassures the other party that you’re listening and you’re interested in the conversation. It’s a good time to mention that when I do this it doesn’t mean I’m not interested and simply want to pretend. However, my normal reaction would be just to nod and say nothing.
People that know me well, also know that I’m listening very carefully, but when I don’t have anything I find valuable to add, I just stay silent. You can’t do that with everyone. It’s important to show people you’re present and involved in the conversation. Otherwise, they might think they’re boring you and retreat in a defensive position; they might think you’re rude and not paying attention, or they’ll just think you’re a bit weird.
Don’t overdo this, though. If you keep rephrasing what the other person is saying, it’ll come back much worse than just staying silent. Modesty is key.
Another thing you should do is ask questions. When the person tells you a piece of information, focus on a part of it and ask them to elaborate. This also requires you to listen to the conversation, maybe. Even more important than a follow-up question is asking about something to prompt a conversation to begin.
You have to be sure you know what you’re doing, though. There is a couple of faux pas you can commit here. For example, some nationalities don’t like being asked: “what do you do?”. It’s a popular conversation starter, however, some folks can feel offended that you think they associate only with what they do for a living. I’m not even kidding.
Also, bear in mind when you ask a question, you have to be prepared to answer the same question afterward. Otherwise only asking things — one after the other — classifies as an interrogation, not a conversation. It’s also important to pay attention to the way the other person answers. If they’re enthusiastic — great, you’ve hit a question gold mine. If they give only one or two-word responses, don’t push it — they probably don’t want to talk about this now.
It’s time for one of the most powerful methods, which I’m most terrible at — giving compliments. Again, not overdoing it, it can just be a very pleasant thing to do. I’ve never heard a person not appreciate receiving a genuine compliment (suffice to say, complimenting someone in a sexually inappropriate manner is not a compliment at all). Meeting a person for the first time, there’s naturally a social distance between you and them. An innocent compliment reduces this distance and breaks the situation a little bit. Again, this is an advanced territory. Use this only if you’re sure it won’t backfire horribly.
At the end of the day, small talk may seem trivial, but not when its bigger intention is to create a connection. Its purpose should be to create a human-to-human bond, instead of merely to segue into a sales pitch or a request for a favor. In this day and age, we are so bombarded by ads and words that almost everyone can see through fake small talk. So is there a point in trying? I feel like to world would be a bit better if everyone just got to the point.