In case you didn’t pick up on it, I am incredibly introverted. The thought of making small talk with strangers or folks that I don’t know very well fills me with dread. Small talk is an art and I’ve never been particularly interested in art. However, given the nature of my work (read: office culture), I am unfortunately in the situation of having to come up with things to say to random people all.the.time. Since I am working at a new job, the expectation that I will be friendly and bubbly to everyone all day is elevated.
I am able to play the role, but as my fellow introverts can appreciate, it is completely exhausting. I have a quota of energy that I have to dedicate to people each day and depleting that precious resource on meaningless, superficial chats about the weather seems very counterproductive. To clarify, I don’t feel this way because I hate people. It’s because I hate forced idle chatter, which has never come naturally to me. I like to think about my responses, which means that the fast paced tennis ball match of small talk makes me uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, I have not found a way to eliminate small talk from my life, but I have compiled a list of my best tips to make small talk (somewhat) less painful and cringe-worthy. I also have a list of helpful resources for my small talk challenged pals to refer to.
- Conversationally Speaking: Tested New Ways to Increase Your Personal and Social Effectiveness
- Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life is Your Hidden Strength
- Small Talk Hacks: The People and Communication Skills You Need to Talk to Anyone and Be Instantly Likeable
The Introvert’s Guide to Small Talk
Prepare in advance. I come up with a list of meaningless drivel in advance of when I think that I will need it. I have a hard time coming up with small talk appropriate topics on the fly, so I am a lot more comfortable with having a list of material to draw from as required (remember, I’m a list person).
Ask questions, but don’t interrogate. A typical introvert listens more than they speak and that is very true for me. I’m a lot happier asking others open ended questions and encouraging them to tell me stories than actually having to share anything about my personal life. Like my work-life balance, I guard my personal life fiercely and I don’t want strangers to know anything about it (a bit of an oxymoron considering that I have a public blog, but remember – I’m anonymous to most people! Somehow, it makes sense to me).
However, if all you do is ask questions, then people will begin to feel interrogated. Think about what you’re comfortable sharing in advance of a known small talk heavy event (such as going to the office each day, attending a networking event, or being dragged to a cocktail party) and stick to it. You can still keep things high level and generic while letting people feel like they are getting to know you a bit. If you think about what you are willing to disclose, it’s much easier to slip your pre-approved facts about yourself into the conversation.
Avoid your hot button issues. It is obvious not to talk to strangers about religion or politics. In fact, there aren’t many friends who I can talk to about these issues either (note: if you’re curious, I am spiritual but not religions and I’m also uber-conservative). I tend to avoid current events discussions as a general rule because they are almost always turned into political debates. I have a hard time keeping quiet when I feel someone is saying something ridiculous, so it’s not a good mix for me. On top of the obvious, I think we all have personal “triggers” to avoid. In my case, I can’t talk to the average person about animal rights or dog training because my facial expressions always give my thoughts away.
Don’t worry about smooth transitions. It’s small talk, not an essay. If a topic isn’t working for you, change it. You can absolutely go from talking about the weather, to your next vacation, to your career. I see small talk as a high level, repetitive highlight reel that can be adapted to most situations and people. Remember, you didn’t start off knowing any of your friends, so at one point you made small talk with them, too. You never know where a conversation might take you (so stop imagining that you are home on your couch with your dog…not that I’ve ever done that…).
People won’t remember everything you say, but they will remember how you make them feel. Try not to fret over awkward silences, which usually aren’t as long as you think they are. Be warm, inviting, and engaging because it’s your attitude and expectations that are going to set the tone (if you think that all of your conversations are going to suck, then they will). Most people love to talk about themselves, especially to a captive audience, so you can throw in tidbits about yourself while letting the other person do most of the heavy conversational lifting. If you come across a fellow introvert, at least you can sit in silence and recharge for a while!
Be easy on yourself. If you’re an introvert, chances are you have messed up a personal interaction once or a hundred times. Don’t beat yourself up over it or replay it over and over again in your head. Take it as a lesson learned and use the experience, no matter how awful, as ammo to improve for next time. I know it’s not easy to let go, but small talk isn’t easy either so try not to sweat it. Practice will help you get better at it – I swear!
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