Lots of people tell me, "I hate small talk."
And in truth, small talk can be tiresome sometimes. When you're discussing a topic you don't care about, it's natural to get bored.
Small talk can be doubly frustrating when you've craving deep interactions. After you've experienced true heart-to-heart conversation, how can you go back to discussing the weather?
It's understandable to feel like small talk is a waste of time -- the "busywork" of social interaction.
Understandable -- but wrong.
Small talk has huge potential to help you connect with others. Let's look at the three reasons why.
1) Small Talk Prepares You For Connection
Just like stretching helps prepare your muscles for exercise, small talk helps prepare people for intimacy.
When you make small talk with someone, you give them the opportunity to get used to you and to settle into the conversation.
Moreover, people expect deeper conversations to be preceded by small talk. Even if you are comfortable skipping straight to the "meat" of the conversation, it will throw others for a loop. It's kind of like shaking hands when you meet someone -- if you don't do it when they expect it, it comes across as weird.
2) Small Talk Communicates Interest.
With small talk, what you communicate is more important than what you say.
If you say something insignificant like "What do you think of the weather?" you are communicating that you want to hear my thoughts. When you crack a lame joke, you are communicating that you want to make me laugh. All of these things communicate that you like me and you want to get to know me better.
This is important because it paves the way for deeper interaction. Deeper interaction involves risk. If I share my personal beliefs with you, I risk you starting an argument with me. If I share a personal struggle, I risk you responding with cruel callousness. So I need to know it's safe before I go deeper.
When you communicate interest, you communicate safety. You communicate, "I care about what you have to say, and I'm open to you sharing it." Obviously, this isn't a perfect guarantee -- sometimes people will be very pleasant in small talk and still respond poorly when the conversation goes deeper. But in general, when you show interest during small talk, you help people feel comfortable going deeper with you.
3) Small Talk Establishes Common Ground
Small talk lets you discover what you have in common.
You can find the topics that get both of you excited, the parts of your stories that you're eager to share. This will naturally lead the conversation into paths that are more intimate and meaningful.
Not only does this give you fuel for more conversation, but it also helps you form bonds with the other person. When you discover common ground, you start to imagine life through the other person's eyes. As Donald Miller says, small talk lets us ask, "What do we have in common so I can understand you through the lens of my own experience?"
While deep heart-to-heart conversations are very intimate, small talk can be intimate too. Heartfelt friendships will begin to form even before the first deep conversation -- because small talk allowed the friends to discover how much they resonate with each other.
The Value Of Small Talk
If small talk feels like busywork, you're missing the big picture.
Instead of treating small talk like a chore you have to get through, make small talk an opportunity to make a connection. When you begin small talk, ask yourself:
- How can I help the other person feel comfortable?
- How can I communicate interest and friendliness?
- How can I discover common ground?
Let these questions guide you, and you'll find big value in small talk.
Thank you for this advise. It will help me at work and at family dinner.
I started this job 6 months ago and recently gave my supervisor a ride to the store. It was pretty silent on the way. She did all the small talk work and I am thankful. I think I mentioned my niece but probably should have asked about her family instead.
At family dinner my brother’s girlfriend was nice enough to talk to me and I was falling asleep during it and I’m super embarrassed about it. Also my siblings never want to get ‘deep’ at family nights and I feel like we’ll never know each other without it and I don’t have time to see them on other days of the week.
I got to your website after seeing your ted talks video and I would like to see a Dr for help on my communication problems. I don’t know if it’s ADD or what but I have difficulty reading/focusing/organizing/communicating
My little brother says I should be a preacher because I explain things well but I feel like people only understand me after a long talk.
Thanks for this blog. It and the video Ted talks will help. Have a good one, fellow rambler. Congratulations on your focus and success.
Thanks Daniel 🙂 It sounds like you have good thoughts to share, and you are working hard to figure out how to communicate better with others. I appreciate your encouragement, and I’m excited that you are working to improve yourself. Good luck!
I like what you said about establishing common ground: “What do we have in common so I can understand you through the lens of my own experience?”
I used to struggle with small talk , in fact I used to stutter so bad I could’t even say my own name…fast forward 9 years and I’m doing alright.
I like to tell my clients who have trouble with small talk to do 3 things:
1. Listen to their conversational partner
2. Make an observation about one thing they said
3. Ask an open-ended follow up question to keep the conversation flowing.
Great article, I hope it’s okay if I share it with my readers?
Of course 🙂 I’m glad you found something valuable in it worth sharing.
And I absolutely agree — I think your 3-part strategy is really useful. Simple but works in a lot of situations.
That is very well explained. Small talk allows us to get a hint of what type of person we are talking to, what they’re interests might be, and where there may be commonalities.
One thing I would add, is that in small talk it is important to try and make the conversation easier for the other person. You do this by listening to what they say, and then making a statement, or asking a question that relates to what they said. For instance, I once was talking a guy who had just finished Uni doing sports coaching and told me he was looking for work. I then asked him “so you want to be a PE teacher then?” I can’t remember his answer to that but the point was that I listened to what he said and made an educated assumption about what he wanted to do. It made it much easier for him to answer me, than if I had said “so what job do you want to do?” because that way he found have had to have thought hard about his answer, and how to explain it.
Small talk is not much fun if you’re having to think hard about how to answer a question, and as a consequence, people who don’t invest much into the interaction can end up as loners, because people find a talking to them hard work, and not very enjoyable.
Yet, Susan Cain, the author of the Introvert Advantage, says introverts — presumably many, if not most, of those folks to whom Daniel is preaching — don’t need to make small talk, or shouldn’t push themselves to do so, or feel guilty if they don’t want to do so, or aren’t that good at doing so.
“The highly sensitive [introverted] tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic. They dislike small talk. They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive. They dream vividly, and can often recall their dreams the next day. They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions–sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. Highly sensitive people also process information about their environments–both physical and emotional–unusually deeply. They tend to notice subtleties that others miss–another person’s shift in mood, say, or a lightbulb burning a touch too brightly.”
― Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
As an introvert myself, Dan, I can only say that if someone tries to follow all the tips, all the advice, as well as read your book on becoming more sociable, outgoing, poised, extroverted, breezy, controlling body language, making eye contact, yadda, yadda, yadda, that person is going to be very, very, busy to the exclusion of many other things. . . such as life and living!
You make an excellent point — for introverts, small talk can be frustrating and unpleasant. I think the challenge is, as Viktor Frankl said, to find meaning in the suffering 🙂 If you view small talk as an odious chore, it will feel very unpleasant, and you will be very unmotivated to do it.
But if you can find meaning in it, then even though you don’t like it, you will still find a degree of satisfaction and purpose in it. That’s what I’m talking about in this article. Small talk isn’t a pointless chore. It exists to help the other person feel valued and comfortable. And helping someone else feel valued and comfortable is meaningful, at least to me. So when I’m tempted to groan at the thought of another bout of small talk, I can remember “This small talk has a purpose — and I care about that purpose.” That helps me engage in small talk with a positive attitude.
Of course, if an introvert is able to find another introvert and skip straight to deep conversation, then great! But since most people need small talk to feel comfortable, it behooves even introverts to learn how to offer it 🙂
In many respects, Dan, you’re a modern-day retread of good ol’ Dale Carnegie!
Very helpful and just what i need – practical advice and good sound reasons for doing things. I have never been good at small talk and, until reading your blog, never understood why people would want to engage in it. Now I see the purpose in it, so will be motivated to do it, and maybe even get better at it! Thank you!
As parent of a boy struggling with these issues, I cannot thank you enough for your work. I will be introducing all of this insight to him. I know it help.