I’ve heard many people claim they hate small talk like it’s a mark of distinction. I’m not sure that’s something worth boasting of, though. Small talk gets a bad rap, but making it is a skill well worth having. It’s a skill that smooths the way for friendships and relieves uncomfortable social situations by getting conversation moving. It’s like the ex-lax of the conversational world! If you’ve ever attended a bridal shower or youth group function you have played games and “ice-breakers” designed to make small talk happen. The whole point of these is to ensure that everyone is comfortable enough with each other to enjoy a pleasant time even if they entered as strangers.
While silence is necessary for a healthy life, interaction with others is too. Conversation is the thing that helps strangers become acquaintances and even friends. Small talk is merely introductory conversation. It functions like a search engine for commonalities with a potential friend. Of course, if the talk remains small, the relationship will too. But that’s part of the beauty of it. Sometimes you want to make a strange situation more cozy with chit chat, even if you don’t intend to take these new folks home with you. Maybe you’re standing in a long line, sitting on a plane, or at a table full of strangers at a wedding. The person who can begin an engaging conversation with a diverse group is generally admired for their social ease.
Small talk can also be employed to keep an acquaintance an acquaintance. Perhaps the person you just met is angling to get to know you more deeply than you desire. Restricting the conversation to small talk gets this message across without directly rejecting their efforts.
The purpose of it lies in the conversation itself, not in the topic, so, what makes it “small” is that it is introductory. If you don’t know someone well, it would be odd to dive into intimate topics before surfing the areas you have in common. Who doesn’t wish they could surf? I think most people already knows this intuitively, but I’m here to offer a defense of the often maligned small talk. The very name “small” may suggest superficiality of though in contrast to having the command of grand and important ideas—and folks don’t wish to seem small of mind.
Oftentimes, it is introverts who claim a dislike of small talk—at least I’ve seen articles outlining the tendencies of introverts making this claim. Perhaps what they really mean is that they are uncomfortable in situations where they are surrounded with strangers—the very people we use small talk to transform into acquaintances. Well, that’s the discomfort that well crafted small talk is supposed to relieve!
Perhaps when people say they hate small talk, they have in mind the chatter of people who do it poorly. Someone endlessly talking, especially about himself, is as intolerable as the one word answerer. But, neither of these is proper small talk—just poor social skills.
In A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain humorously describes a chattering American youth traveling in Europe whose main occupation is making acquaintance with all the Americans he lays his eyes on and interrogating them in the most superficial manner and without even taking in their answers. “That’s the way I always do—I just go ’round, ’round, ’round and talk, talk, talk—I never get bored.” He asks the same loop of inconsequential questions—what hotel they’re stopping at, what boat they came over on, and so on—until they can escape or are driven to distraction. Twain catches on and answers the questions differently each time they come around, unnoticed by the lad, because the purpose of his talk is mainly to please himself.
Twain’s comments upon the young man’s departure echo the popular inclination to hate small talk, a proper response to its unskilled application: “And away he went. He went uninjured, too—I had the murderous impulse to harpoon him in the back with my alpenstock, but as I raised the weapon the disposition left me; I found I hadn’t the heart to kill him, he was such a joyous, innocent, good-natured numbskull.”
On the contrary, a person skilled in the art of small talk is a sort of hero. A magician. An engineer. An artist! They can facilitate introductions, entertain a group of reluctant talkers, draw out quiet but fascinating people. They know how to make other people socially comfortable. One who is very skilled can seamlessly referee a group discussion, temper the attention hog or even orchestrate a bit of match making.
There are a few things we can all do to improve in this under-appreciated skill. I fall a bit more on the introvert side and am sometimes apprehensive about entering a group or meeting new people. When my husband and I will be dining with colleagues of his, I pick his brain to learn what I can about them that will help me prepare to make conversation. It’s good to have a place to start and questions to ask certain people about themselves to pave the way for further discussion. People like talking about themselves and things that interest them—and it shows that your interest in them preceded your meeting.
It also helps to have some current event or topic of recent interest up your sleeve to pull out at the right opportunity. Reading books and articles on various subjects can aid you in this. I know that other people may be uncomfortable too, and it’s inevitable they will ask questions about me, so it’s a good idea to think of how I can answer those in a way that might lead to further conversation, rather than falling flat. Bring in other information to expand the possibilities. Rather than answering, “I’m just a homemaker,” when asked about myself, I can mention my kids, hobbies, interests and bring up a whole new line of conversation. It’s like playing scrabble. For a more interesting game, you need to open up the board for the other players.
When you keep your focus on the other person’s comfort, small talk becomes an act of charity. The aim of it is to forget yourself and your own awkwardness in an effort to help the other person feel welcome. Even if you claim to hate small talk, you probably need to engage in it on a regular basis. You’re probably better at it than you think. With a little more intentional effort, you can be a small conversation master in no time!