Given the number of articles on how to sustain light conversation, talking to people seems like an overwhelmingly unpopular and occasionally excruciating custom that doesn’t come naturally to most. You’d think that if so many people hate small talk, we could just do away with the practice entirely, but apparently getting rid of things that shouldn’t exist is not how the world works.
For my compilation below, I’ve drawn from articles and my own experiences. I’ve also consulted people who’re exceptional conversationalists as to what they attribute their conversation-sustaining skills.
1. Share details about yourself until you find common ground.
Keep throwing them out there until you find something that interests your conversation partner. The idea is to quickly bypass superficial niceties by offering segues into topics on which you can easily elaborate if requested.
Person: How are you?
Me: Not bad. I think any day I survive the DART is a good day. You?
Person: Oh, cool. I’m good.
Me: Sometimes I feel utterly alone in the world.
2. Ask them questions.
The content of conversation matters much less to people’s ultimate impression of you than how you made them feel during the talking. Get them talking about themselves by asking relevant questions.
Me: So what city were you born in?
Person: New York.
Me: What high school did you attend?
Person: Uh, Stuyvesant—wait, are you taking notes?
Me: What’s the name of the street on which you grew up?
Me: What’s your mother’s maiden name?
3. Have them bear the brunt.
This is actually a legitimate tactic I use. I have this friend who I used to see every day in class, and he’d always greet me by asking me what I’d been up to since I last saw him. I struggled to come up with interesting things to say for the better part of a semester before I became suspicious. Turns out he goes on the offensive as a diversion—best defense is a good offense and all that.
Person: Hey, how—
Me: *aggressively* HOWWASYOURWEEKEND?
Person: Uh… I, uh… let me think.
Person: I went kayaking. It was fun. You?
Me: This backfired.
4. Repeat the last thing they said back to them in the form of a question.
When you search for tips on how to sustain conversation, this strategy is what comes up most often, so presumably, it works. Parroting people helps with the flow and, more importantly, makes it their turn to speak without your having to actually contribute anything.
Person: … and what’s surprising is that it actually works.
Me: It actually works?
Person: Yeah. They’ve even done studies on it and everything. I can show you.
Me: I can show you?
Person: … Are you repeating after me?
Me: Are you repeating after me?
5. Be prepared with the basics.
Stock responses are always a necessary fallback if you’re not a fan of thinking on the spot; you can at least buy yourself some time. If all else fails, at least show people how you’re able to hear words and then say words back.
Box office employee: Have a great time!
Me: Thanks, you too!
Airport security: Have a great flight!
Me: Thanks, you too!
Lunch lady: Have a great day!
Me: You’re welcome!
6. Play a game.
The author of The Art of Mingling, Jeanne Martinet, recommends abandoning stiff formalities and injecting playfulness into small talk with strangers. She’ll ask for three characteristics of your company, for example, and then try to guess it. This success of this method, I’m assuming, is weighted pretty heavily on your ability to be a good guesser.
Me: Give me three hints about your job and I’ll try to guess what you do.
Person: Majored in chemistry. I treat people who aren’t feeling well, and the job’s pretty high pay.
Me: You’re a drug dealer!
Alternatively, if we take creative license with “game”…
Me: You interested in playing a game?
Me: Cool. I spy with my little eye… a ghost.
Person: A what?
Person: *looking around*
After all, as they say… in terms of conversation, if at first you don’t succeed, self-destruct immediately.
Seriously though, conversation is a two-way street. As long as you’re not completely unresponsive and do show interest, the demise of small talk is never wholly your fault. So whether you follow these tips, which mostly shift responsibility to the other person and make them feel bad instead, or simply find common ground in how inane conversation makes you uncomfortable, don’t give up. Worst comes to worst, just blame it on the other person anyway; I’ve found that usually helps.
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(Lead image from gotknowhow.com)