Poor small talk. It gets such a bad rap. It can feel forced and awkward, which makes us all want to avoid it. But it's nothing to be scared of - in fact, small talk offers a unique opportunity. Small talk isn't an interview for a job or friendship. It's nothing more than a casual chance to learn something. Perhaps you'll learn that you don't like the person you're talking to - that's the worst case scenario and certainly a possibility. However, if you channel your curiosity and listen well, you might pick up tips on traveling to Tanzania. Or hear a new perspective on the latest news event. Or get a lead on a new dog sitter. So embrace it. Enjoy it. 'cause learning is good.
Here's how to navigate small talk (and even some sticky situations) with ease.
START WITH AN INTRO
The basics: make eye contact, smile, say nice to meet you and offer a handshake. If you're meeting a close acquaintance (extended family, dear friends of dear friends, etc.) and a) you feel comfortable, and b) you sense the other person is as well, then an open hug or European-style "kiss, kiss" may be appropriate. When in doubt, leave it out.
The sticky stuff: if you forgot the person's name with whom you are entering into conversation, don't sweat it. Simply say, "Would you kindly remind me of your name again? It has slipped my mind." And if someone doesn't remember yours or even that you've met, you can start with "you may not remember, but I believe we met at ____ a few months ago," to help your counterpart and take the pressure off him or her.
People love to talk about themselves. The easiest way to both strike up a conversation and keep it going, is to ask a question. But what question to ask, you ask? A layup like "how do you know our host?" will instantly break the ice and provide you with information from which you can derive additional questions.
For extra credit, make it a habit while en route to social gatherings to remind yourself who will be there, what you may have discussed with them last time you saw one another, and brainstorm questions about common interests. As the Boy Scouts say, "be prepared."
... AND ANSWER THEM
If your counterpart has taken the lead and is asking you questions, be sure to give up more than a "yes" or "no" answer. Indulge a bit to keep the conversation going. When someone asks, "what do you do?" answer with more than "I'm a writer." If you say "I'm an art critic for The Denver Post," it'll give your counterpart more to work with.
STICK TO SAFE TOPICS
Skip talking about the weather... as well as sex, drugs, money and politics (at least until you know you both are comfortable engaging in those subjects). Comfortable topics include arts, entertainment, sports, travel and hobbies. Questions like "do you have any summer trips planned?" or "have you seen that video of the dog who sleep walks?" keep the conversation light and fun. Broach talking about family, work, school and news with slight caution; while these may be happy topics for you, they may feel too personal for someone else.
LOOP IN OTHERS
If your conversation is dwindling, don't hesitate to loop a friend or two in stoke the fire. As you introduce everyone to one another, share an antidote or two about each person to help the conversation along.
It happens. Every conversation comes to an end eventually. If you've carried on for hours and the party hostess is kicking you out, swap numbers and set up a follow-up opportunity to continue your dialogue. If you're choosing to end the conversation (which is absolutely allowed - you're not trapped) a great way to do so is by saying you need to do something, such as "chat with so-and-so" or "grab a refill." You might consider following that up by saying, "want to join me?", which gives the other person some say in the decision. Don't be offended if he or she "needs" to go do something else, too.
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