You’re invited! To the company party, a friend’s wedding or maybe a community group outing—whatever it is, it’s on your calendar. All great chances to meet new people. But maybe events like these, the ones that require you to make small talk, bring you more anxiety than excitement. You think, I won’t know anyone there. I really should go—but I don’t want to. I hate small talk.
Small talk has earned a bad rap, because to many people it represents meaningless and trivial conversation. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
A recent study published in Communication Research has found that those who engage in any of seven types of quality conversation experience increased well-being and happiness, alongside a reduction in their stress levels. Small talk has its benefits as well; a 2021 study published in the Academy of Management journal found that, despite the distraction caused by engaging in small talk, “employees who engaged in more small talk during their workday reported increased positive social emotions, which translated into greater [organizational citizenship behaviors] and well-being at the end of the day.”
Ideas for how to make small talk
But increased well-being and positivity aren’t the only benefits of small talk. Engaging in small talk can open the door to interesting and meaningful connections—if you are aware and listening. These tips can help take the stress out of small talk and create a quality conversation:
1. Get your mind right.
If you spend the week anticipating and worrying because you know you will feel uncomfortable, you’ve set yourself up for failure. Remember why you are going—to celebrate a friend on their special day, to meet others who share your interest or to connect with your coworkers.
2. Decide who you’d like to meet before you go.
Take a look at who else will be there and plan to meet those who might share something in common with you. This might be someone who knows a mutual friend, a fellow baseball fan or a business owner living your dream.
3. Read a lot.
The more you read, the more trivia or facts you pick up that can turn into conversation material. It can be online or in books and journals, but it can help drive a conversation with someone you don’t know much about.
—Angela Ruth, Truework
4. Be interested in things to be interesting.
I find people have nothing to say because they don’t seem to have any interests. That makes them uninteresting. However, people with hobbies and interests always seem to have a topic or an opinion to share, and they can use that as a launching point to get someone else involved in the discussion.
5. Make a game out of making small talk.
Trick your mind into making it seem easier and more fun by playing a game with yourself. Commit to at least an hour. Plan to meet at least five people. Challenge yourself to learn two new things. This mental shift can help tame the anxiety and make the conversation more fun.
6. Relax and be present in the conversation.
Rather than try to plan what you will say next, relax and focus on what the other person is actually saying. Listen. Be present in the conversation and the other person will notice. They will feel appreciated, and the conversation will flow naturally.
—Adelyn Zhou, Chainlink Labs
7. Take responsibility for meeting others.
Don’t wait for others to approach you. Say hello first. If you always expect others to make the first move, you’ll be disappointed. And the more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll be.
8. Don’t be the sidekick.
Rather than shadowing the one person you already know, branch out. Meet others on your own.
9. Have your ‘go-to’ small talk questions ready.
Starting a conversation with a new person can be hard. Try, “How do you know _____?,” “What is keeping you busy these days?” or “What brought you to this area?” It doesn’t have to be complicated, just something to get you started and form new acquaintances.
10. Ask thoughtful questions, and then follow up.
I despise small talk, but I love to connect with new people and learn about them because there is always something interesting to glean. If you actually care, it will show. Ask thoughtful questions and really listen to the answers. Then ask great follow-up questions based on their response. Your boring small-talk chat will quickly evolve into something meaningful.
—Darrah Brustein, Darrah.co
11. Be interested.
Asking questions is the secret ingredient to interesting conversations. Stay away from yes-or-no questions and instead start with easy questions that feel natural. Just make sure to listen for an interesting comment to explore and build upon.
As an example for how your questions might flow:
- How do you know Allison?
- I didn’t realize you were a graphic designer. What kind of design do you do?
- Why did you decide to get into graphic design?
- Oh, I went to school in Miami, too! Where are your favorite places to go when you go back?
- Do you think of Miami as home? How did you make the move from there to here?
Within just a few questions, you can move to more substantial conversations.
12. Really listen to others talk.
People love to talk about themselves. I’ve gotten a lot of great business information by just listening to what people have to say, whether it’s work-related or not. Often, it’s about reading between the lines and listening to what they’re not saying to get a good understanding of the type of person they are, what they want and how I can supply that need.
—Duran Inci, Optimum7
13. Ask about a person’s life, not their job.
I never ask someone what they do anymore. Instead, I ask how they spend their time. Questions like this one open the door to more interesting conversations. If the person’s initial response is work-related, I follow up with, “What do you do when you’re not working?” Just keep asking questions and share comments that relate their story to yours.
—Mamie Kanfer Stewart, Meeteor
14. Learn their story.
I have found that it helps to ask questions about the person you’re talking with. Everyone has a story to tell, and if you enable them to tell it through asking questions, you will not only master small talk, but start the process of building a strong and meaningful relationship.
—David Ciccarelli, Voices.com
15. Be yourself when making small talk!
No one likes a fake networker. In the interest of being more outgoing, don’t be someone you aren’t. Putting out effort doesn’t mean being fake.
16. Share something very honest.
If you want to make small talk bigger, share something that’s very honest about a topic pertinent to you. When you let down your guard, you’re more likely to have more genuine and productive conversations that turn into meaningful connections and not just another business card for the drawer.
—Dan Golden, BFO (Be Found Online)
17. Compliment and shift.
Everyone loves a nice compliment. Find something that you can genuinely compliment the other person on, then shift to a question so as to avoid any awkwardness.
18. Talk about the environment around you.
Ask questions, respond to the answers, and if you ever run out of things to say, make a comment about the architecture, artwork on the walls, a bird singing outside, whatever. The world is rich with things to talk about if you can stop worrying and move your center of focus away from your own mental and emotional state.
—Justin Blanchard, ServerMania Inc.
19. Plan a graceful exit for when you’re done making small talk.
Every conversation runs its course, but finding a natural end is hard. Just say something simple like, “It’s been great to meet you, and I hope you have the best vacation next week,” before excusing yourself to do something else. Then, move on.
20. Look for others who want to connect.
I recently went to a large celebratory event and only knew the busy host. I noticed another guest taking her time at the snack table and introduced myself. We had a great conversation while those around us caught up with longtime friends.
21. Be an introducer.
If you are talking with someone and another guest looks a little uncomfortable, remember the times when you were that uncomfortable person and try to include others by inviting them into the conversation.
22. Don’t be the ‘hammer looking for the nail.’
Your favorite topic isn’t everyone else’s. You might love your new grill or your favorite book or TV show, but don’t assume everyone else is interested. Gauge the temperature of the conversation and flow with it.
23. But try to find common ground to make small talk about.
Try to find something that you have in common with the person and your interest will be genuine. Look for anything: hometown, college, sports, dogs. Try to identify something about the person you are talking with that you can relate to; this will make small talk easier and you will come across more genuine.
—Diego Orjuela, Cables & Sensors
24. Don’t expect too much.
Not every get-together will result in new friends. That’s OK. You still accomplished your goal of going when it was easier not to, and you were there supporting a friend or coworker. That is enough.
25. Get in the habit of making small talk.
Don’t constrain this habit to social events. Say hello to the person next to you on the plane before you grab your headphones (I’m working on this). Talk to your waiter. Ask your Uber driver about their day. The habit of saying hello and listening is a muscle you can develop by working on it a little every day.
Try some small talk. You might be surprised where it takes you.
This article was published in August 2016 and has been updated. Photo by Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock