One of my biggest weaknesses is, and always has been, my lack of ability to make small talk. But I feel somewhat relieved that I’m not alone in this area, for small talk supposedly is a common issue for many Americans, especially introverts like myself.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
You meet somebody for the first time at a party or other social event, you exchange names and hellos, and then you stand there in deafening silence with a stupid grin on your face and with nothing to say. Inside your head, you desperately flip through the Handbook for the Conversationally Challenged, looking for something to fill the void, but you instead use coughs, yawns, or other body gestures to break up the monotony of the moment.
My personal go-to favorite is to smile awkwardly and audibly exhale while saying “Oh, man” or “Oh, boy” and “that’s funny.”
Sound familiar? Maybe you’ve been there, too. It can be an uncomfortable situation, almost to the point where you want to avoid saying hello in the first place. Sure, you may come off looking like an aloof, antisocial recluse, but at least you aren’t uncomfortable, right?
Wrong. Tucking and running is not the right way to handle this situation. And for as difficult as it is for me to engage in small talk, I’m still determined to forge ahead.
With that in mind, I set out to find better ways to make conversation and came up with the following list of small talk topics. I often find it surprising where a conversation can end up, and how off the beaten path it can get from where it began — and that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes all it takes is one single spark to set your conversation ablaze.
Small Talk Topics
- Analyze your surroundings
There is an awful lot to gain from paying attention to our five senses. Using our senses, we have — at least — five different small talk topics for conversation starters. Do you see something interesting going on? Point it out to the person you’re standing next to and share a comment about it. How about something you happen to hear? Is there a song on in the background that you like or did you overhear something interesting? Are you eating, or did you just drink something? Share your taste sensation with your companion and suggest they try it. Do you smell something good in the vicinity? Even if you know what it is, simply asking someone next to you what that enchanting aroma is will likely get them to respond to you. And finally, if you touch or feel something, share that. Maybe it’s really cold in the room. Or, maybe you share with someone, “boy, they really should turn up the AC in this joint.”
- Discuss current events
If you’re not one to pay attention to what’s happening in our society or country, you should really take a moment each day to do so, because there’s a wealth of information out there just waiting to be shared — thus, the social media movement that we’re living in. Maybe the Super Bowl is coming up and you ask someone if they’re looking forward to it. Maybe you comment about the latest political debate and ask what that person thinks of the candidates — careful with this one. Or, maybe you ask if they’re concerned about the outbreak in mass shootings or the spreading of the latest disease — like the Zika Virus, at the time of this writing. There’s always something going on in the world, thus, there’s always something about which to get — or share — an opinion.
- Offer praise for others
Humility is a lovely virtue that God wants us to exhibit, so try turning the attention away from yourself and offering up praise and compliments toward others. Give someone a compliment on their clothes. If you’ve seen them do something nice for others, let them know. If you’re somewhere where live music is going on, tell someone next to you how great you think the band is. And how about if you’re at an event with your significant other and you’re standing quietly in the corner while she’s making the rounds? Remark to the person next to you how great you think your significant other is at communicating. “Boy, she can really work a room. I admire that about her.”
- Get opinions on food and drink
One of the easiest and best small talk topics is to ask for someone’s opinion about what he or she is eating or drinking. It can work anywhere you happen to be — coffee shops, diners, restaurants, parties, backyard barbecues, etc. “What are you drinking there? Is it any good? I might have to get me one of those. How does that taste? Do you like nuts in your dessert? I’ve got a gluten allergy and can’t eat bread. Did you try the pasta yet? This might be the best latte I’ve ever had. If I eat any more cookies, color me blue and call me Cookie Monster.” There are tons of different variations of questions and comments you can ask — or make — about food and drinks.
- Acknowledge abnormalities
No, I’m not talking about physical ailments and deformities. In 2014, we had a cold wave in this country due to the “Polar Vortex.” My car battery died and I literally wanted to hibernate for the winter. There was plenty to talk about with that abnormality. Just this winter, 2015-16, we are having very mild temperatures due to El Niño. This doesn’t have to be limited to weather, either. The 2016 calendar year is dominated by another Presidential election cycle. Donald Trump is turning into one of the most abrasive Presidential candidates in history. The Golden State Warriors are winning games in the NBA at a record clip. Adele’s ’25’ album broke early sales records. Star Wars: Episode VII was released 32 years after Episode VI. Find something that strikes you as different than the norm and then ask someone about it for his or her opinion.
- Seek advice
People love to give advice — sometimes unsolicited, but that’s a topic for another day. But they’re flattered when someone comes to them for help. Depending on where you are at the moment you are trying to engage in small talk, you can ask someone near you for help. “Hey, how do I do this?” is a good question if you’re doing something constructive in the moment. “How’d you get such a deal on that? Can you show me where I can find this?” Understand and recognize when there is something you don’t know and don’t be afraid to reach out and ask somebody for their advice.
- Ask about work or school
For the most part, people are either in school or in the work force. And even those who are not currently employed might have been employed at some time and are looking for a new job. Work and school are two of the biggest eaters of our time. They are activities that we often spend the majority of our time doing — especially for those who don’t get much sleep. Ask somebody what they do for a living. Ask them if they like it. Ask them what exactly that job does (if you don’t know). Ask them for more details if their explanation was confusing. Ask them how long they’ve been doing it and how long they had been aiming to enter that field. Do they like their job? Do they see themselves there for a long time to come? Just keep asking questions as if you were a reporter or a prospective undergrad studying to enter that field.
- Gather more information
Unless you’re an aimless drifter, nobody wanders into a particular setting without some kind of reason. Ask someone why they’re there. What do they like about the place and what don’t they like? Ask them if, like you, they’d rather be somewhere else. Ask them if this is a recurring event you’re at and if they had ever been there or done that before. Try to find out how long this event or place had been in existence. Are they aware of anything else like it out there? Surely you can’t be an expert on where you are, so ask others around you for more information. And if you are an expert, that’s all the more reason to share what you know about the situation.
- Cover the 5 W’s
Do you remember your high school or college English or journalism classes? (Actually, I think they teach the 5 W’s even earlier than that, but I can’t remember). What I do remember is that the 5 W’s are who, what, where, when, and why. They are the basics of information gathering. Some people even throw how into the mix — but not only is it not a “w”, it’s very closely related to why. Nevertheless, when you are out and about and are looking for small talk ideas, try interviewing someone — informally, of course; otherwise it’s just plain weird. Not only ask them who they are, but ask where they come from, why they’re there, what this place or event is all about, and when they found out about it. The “when” is a little more difficult to work into conversation, but challenge yourself to fill in the blank on that somehow.
- Focus on the weekend
”Everybody’s working toward the weekend” is not just a song title and lyric from the Canadian rock band, Loverboy. Although for most working people the weekend is just two days long, it’s the focal point of our attention — unless we’re workaholics. The majority of people just yearn for Fridays and dread Mondays because they know there is something they’d rather be doing on the weekend. And because our focus is almost always on the weekend, that’s a golden small talk topic to bring up. If you’re meeting somebody on a Monday or Tuesday, ask them how their weekend went and get details. If you’re seeing them Wednesday through Friday, ask them if there are any fun plans coming up for their weekend. And if it already is the weekend, ask them what they did today, or what they have coming up later in the day. The person will either delve into details — usually with enthusiasm and depth — or they’ll reluctantly say “nothing” or “just relaxing.” And even if it’s the latter, you can still remark how sometimes those are the best weekends, and that it’s good to kick back and forget about the rigors of the work week — which, in itself, can lead to an even deeper conversation.
So, what do you do with all this information? Well, if you’re like me, you’re not going to remember it all, so just start with one of those methods, memorize it, and put it into practice.
The other thing you can try is a mnemonic device to help you remember. I came up with an acronym to try to help with small talk. Keep in mind, I have not used this yet, thus I cannot speak to its success rate. But, hey — it just might work.
When trying to engage in small talk, remember the SMALL part of it:
- S: Smile
Approachability is one of the big aids in conversation. If you’re standing off in the corner and don’t look happy to be where you are, you appear much less approachable than if you were standing around others and smiling. People are more receptive to talking with those who are happy than unhappy.
- M: Mimic
Try to copy what others around you are doing. If it works for them, there’s no reason it shouldn’t work for you. At the very least, it shows others that you are engaged with what’s going on and it could always spur them to ask you a question. And if you see or hear others asking specific questions, do the same to those around you.
- A: Ask
One of the cardinal rules of communication that they teach those who are in the dating world — as well as in business and other aspects of life — is to ask more than tell. In practicality, somebody has to talk more than the other because a 50-50 ratio is hard to come by. But make it your goal to ask questions of others because other people — particularly in a casual environment — aren’t looking for someone to talk their head off.
- L: Listen
After you’ve asked someone a question, the next step is to actually listen to what they are saying. Don’t just ask a question as a means of passing the time. Pay attention to what someone is saying and listen for particular words, phrases or ideas that might trigger follow-up conversation.
- L: Learn
If you knew everything about someone, you’d be that person. Whether you’re a teenager on his first date or a married man of fifty years, there is always something new to learn about someone. So, when you are engaging in conversation with someone — even if it’s just small talk — try to pick up on something that you did not know before, and then learn it — in other words, commit it to memory, so that the next time you see that person, you can ask for an update on it. And even if you never see that person again, you have something new to share with someone else.