Could We Just Get On With It?
The holidays come with their obligations. The running, the gathering, and the inevitable holiday parties. The parties with friends and families can be true memory makers, filled with traditions and great reunions. The parties with coworkers and strangers can be a little intimidating, filled with small talk and expectations.
Small talk used to make me crazy. It was painful to listen to the ritual, empty conversation that didn’t go anywhere. It felt so inauthentic — people saying things and pretending to care about them. I’d try to participate but it was energy draining. “Could we just get on with it?!!” Small talk seemed such a time waster. How could so many people spend so much time getting no where, talking about the weather?
Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything. — Mark Twain
I admit I didn’t understand. As a result, I not only wasn’t good at it, but I was disruptive.
I’d try to add humor, switch it up a little, and every attempt would fall flat. People who small talk like their small talk a certain way.
My aversion to small talk made networking events and big company meetings excruciating. An introvert with a mile wide shy streak, I could sense a small talk conversation 60 seconds before it started. I practiced defensive networking. I’d walk around, smile, and hope someone as uncomfortable as I was would discover me. My fear of babble was getting in my way. Worse, I was probably telegraphing something like disdain.
My inability to small talk wasn’t working for me. It was time for a new view: If so many people found it useful, maybe there was something to it. Maybe I should pay attention, do some observing.
What I found out is that small talk comes in more than one flavor. The second flavor might be what has left many of us with a bad taste.
Don’t Let the Small Talk You Hate Ruin the Small Talk that Makes Relationships
The first thing I noticed when I started observing is that small talk has a pattern and purpose. You’ve probably noticed it too. Small talk is used to fill silences. What I didn’t catch for quite a while is that small talk comes in two forms — one that serves people who already know each other and another for people building relationships.
The Small Talk that Builds Relationships
Small talk is a space filler and a social lubricant. People use conversation to move together over time. It’s a social bonding ritual in which people define relationships, set boundaries, find similarities and differences. Small talk enables people to learn another’s social position, validate similar interests, and establish a platform for a continuing conversation … “Oh yeah, Jesse is my movie buddy. Love talking movies with him.”
When relationships are new, small talk is how people learn each other’s boundaries.The opening remark and it’s response follow the rules of a conversational dance. It really works so easily and doesn’t have to be insincere or shallow if you know these rules.
- Small talk starts with an agreeable statement or question. Start a conversation by noticing something, such as “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” or “That’s a stunning necklace!” Smile and make it easy to talk to you. A simple agreeable statement or question is a way small talkers of making a positive initial connection. If you don’t feel comfortable talking about the weather, or the food, or the latest techie gadget, comment on something about the other person. Share something you’ve noticed that you’re enjoying at that every moment
- The response to the first question or statement usually builds on the first question or statement. Respond with a little more than was asked for … “Yes, I live for the tulips on Michigan Avenue.” or “Thank you! It attracts amazing people. Are you always so great at noticing nice things?”
Accept the invitation the opening agreeable statement or question offers you. Continue the conversation by sharing something, passing the conversation back, and listening to your new acquaintance. Offer only as much detail as fits your new relationship.
Starting the conversation is actually the easier way. Notice something worth commenting on in an agreeable way.
If you’re at that holiday party with strangers and coworkers, remember this to have more success in starting a conversation. Don’t approach two people talking, they’re probably having a deeper conversation. Look for a group of people standing together. Then look at their feet. The way we stand gives away how engaged we are. The person most open to a new conversation will be the one whose feet are pointing away from the conversation.
A little practice at the agreeable opening statement or question made my experience of small talk so much more refreshing. Now I find it’s a great way to open doors to new relationships with amazing people. I highly recommend it.
If Small Talk Is So Good, Why Does Everyone Hate It?
Small talk shows up in other situations. One in particular may be what has earned small talk it’s bad name. That would be the small talk that happens before someone, particularly someone in authority, uses to find a common ground and an even relationship right before he or she delivers bad news. I call that “the three things before the but.” You may have experienced it. For the naive or new to the experience, it’s a kind of being blindsided. To those who have previously experienced it, it’s still painful because once burned it’s easy to recognize what’s next. An example might be …
You’re a fabulous writer, a charming person, and very charismatic, but … you’re fired.
The worst part of this version of ritual, warmup conversation is that it doesn’t matter how true the “three things before the but” may be, the way that they’re used to deliver the hard news renders the three compliments unbelievable. The three compliments were pulled together to manipulate the tone and smoothly move the conversation. This conversational tactic destroys trust.
Have You Found a Way to Make Small Talk Work for You Yet?
People who say the “three things before the but” aren’t building relationships.
People who smile and talk about the weather while shaking hands and stealing your wristwatch aren’t building relationships.
People who smile big, talk about the weather, ask about your kids, but forget your name over and over aren’t building relationships.
They all may be using the art of talk as a social lubricant, but their using it to serve themselves not a relationship.
It’s not the small talk that’s the problem or the opportunity. It’s the motive that drives it.
Choose wisely and you’ll find that small talk can open a world of new relationships. Break the ice, invite others in, and sincere small talk can build you a network of amazing people.
Though I never think of it as small talk when I do it. I think of it as fun conversation.
Have you thought about small talk lately? Have you found a way to make it work for you?
–ME “Liz” Strauss
Work with Liz on your business!!
I’ve spent a couple of days on Twitter. Actually too many to count. My first tweet was March 16, 2007 and