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Tips to Help You Master the Art of Small Talk

Be prepared next time you have to socialize with strangers.
the art of conversation small talk skills tips catching up with someone

Photo Credit: Manchik Photography

We’ve all been there before: You’ve been invited to a party or work event. You realize that you will only know a few people there. That means you’ll have to face engaging in (gasp!) small talk. *cue the drama music*

In Jane Austen’s world, it was an art to navigate small talk with strangers with grace and ease. But, having not graduated from Austen’s charm school, small talk can seem a lot more intimidating. What do you talk about with someone you’ve never met before? Luckily, you just need to arm yourself with a few handy strategies. You’ll find that small talk isn’t all that complicated. You may even find yourself enjoying a conversation with a new friend. Just keep in mind a few dos and don’ts, and you’ll be a small-talk extraordinaire.

01. Embrace the Awkwardness

Striking up a conversation with a stranger is always going to be awkward at first. You’ve never met this person before. You know nothing about them. Yet now you’re faced with holding an engaging conversation with them. Intimidating? For sure. But, chances are, they feel the same way. Rather than let this awkwardness take over, accept that the first few seconds are going to be awkward. Plow forward knowing that the conversation will smooth out after that. Joanna Goddard, the mastermind behind the popular Cup of Jo blog, says, “A friend told me this years ago, and it totally changed my approach to parties . . . push through those first two seconds as if you’re opening a door to the conversation.” The trick is to take a deep breath and ask a question or make a comment to get the conversation started.

02. Compliment Away

If you are at a loss for what to say, it always helps to genuinely compliment your new acquaintance. Are they wearing an interesting necklace or fantastic shoes? Let them know that you admire what they are wearing to help put them at ease and start the conversation flowing. “That’s a fantastic necklace! Where did you get it?” “Thanks, it’s vintage.” “That’s amazing; I love vintage jewelry. Have you been to . . .? It has great vintage items.” And just like that, you’ve started a great, interesting conversation on a topic you have in common.

03. Ask Open-Ended Questions

To get the conversation started, it’s helpful to ask open-ended questions. Open-ended questions are those that require more than a yes or no answer. Try to turn the conversation into a story. Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker said in an article for TED Talks to aim for “questions that invite people to tell stories rather than give bland, one-word answers.” Instead of asking, “Are you enjoying the conference?” which requires only a yes or no response, ask, “There have been so many great workshops at this conference. What’s been your favorite so far?” Asking an open-ended question gives the conversation direction and helps keep it flowing.

Remember, you are striking up a friendly conversation. You are not interrogating the other person as a lawyer in a high-profile murder trial. Avoid bombarding them with question after question and treating the interaction more like an interview than a two-way conversation. You’ll risk alienating your new acquaintance. Try to listen more than you speak, and you won’t run the risk of sounding like a private investigator.

04. Do Your Homework

Come to your event prepared. Keeping on top of current events is always helpful. You can draw upon the latest cultural trends when you are trying to find common ground with your new friend. The Skimm’s daily news rundown or Verily’s own While You Were Out series can help you stay current. They’ll provide you with relevant topics to bring up in conversation. You’ve likely heard the advice to avoid politics and religion in conversation. That often holds true in cases when you’re meeting strangers or acquaintances. When you are engaging in small talk, you are looking for commonalities between you, not areas of disagreement. While you may be interested in their thoughts on global warming or the latest from the campaign trail, small talk is not necessarily an appropriate forum for those conversations.

Knowing random facts can help, too. These give you the chance to inject a little humor into the conversation. Fill the Silence (Did you know that chewing gum can get rid of a song that’s stuck in your head?) and Sad Animal Facts (Did you know that sheep can only remember fifty faces?) provide a wealth of random facts for you to store away. It’s always helpful to have a few go-to questions to ask if the conversation stalls. My go-to question is asking what fun vacations they have planned. It usually leads off a great discussion about places we’ve both visited, advice for where to go and where to avoid, and what’s on our bucket lists.

05. Use Your Secret Weapon

I am going to let you in on a big secret: People love talking about themselves. If you are at a loss for what to say, ask them what they are interested in. What are their hobbies? How did they find themselves in the line of work they are in? What are their opinions on the latest Jurassic World movie? (It was great, but nothing can beat the original!) I had a professor in graduate school who said that focusing on others in conversation is a win-win situation. The other person feels great because they’ve had a chance to talk about how amazing they are. In turn, they also think you are the nicest person ever because you’re so interested in what they have to say.

06. Exit Gracefully

When it’s time to move on to the next conversation, or you are leaving the event, try to be as gracious as possible when exiting. Even if the conversation is unpleasant, and you are eager to end it as soon as possible, exiting with grace is essential. Embrace your inner diplomat. Excuse yourself by letting them know that you enjoyed getting to know them but that you see someone else in the room you’ve been meaning to talk to. Or you need a drink refill. Or you need to check in with the host. That way, you are letting the other person know that you are leaving not because you want to (even if it’s true) but because you have obligations that you need to fulfill.

Jodi Glickman for the Harvard Business Review recommends sandwiching the “I need” statement between a “thank you” and future contact or action. For example, “Thank you so much for telling me about your recent trip to Miami. I need to run and say hello to Cynthia before she leaves, but I’ll definitely look up the hotel you recommended.” In a pinch, you can follow Slate writer Seth Stevenson’s advice to embrace the “ghost exit.” While a risky move, the ghost exist is seeking an opportunity to disappear quietly without announcing your departure. We advise you only use this in group settings.

Small talk doesn’t have to be a painful experience. A few go-to topics, open-ended questions, and remembering to focus on the other person will make you an excellent conversationalist. With a little practice, you’ll be well on your way to becoming as well-versed in conversation as an Austen character.