Have you ever lingered in your car or played games on your cell phone or stared intently at a tray of appetizers for the specific purpose of avoiding small talk at a party? I have. I think we all fear the awkward silence that sometimes comes with making small talk with a stranger. Whether you're at a wedding, work event, or holiday shindig, the pressure to be a sparkling conversationalist can leave even the most confident of us cowering.
Every year, my husband gets invited to a holiday work party. And every year I dread going. After twelve years of attending these kinds of functions, you'd think I've gotten better at managing the anxiety I experience before going. But I haven't. I live in terror of getting stuck next to some conversational genius and not having anything interesting to contribute. Small talk makes me nervous and turns me into a sweaty, babbling idiot. My mind races with crash-and-burn scenarios. What if I become tongue-tied and awkward, and the person I'm attempting to speak with thinks I'm boring? What if I can't find anything worthwhile to contribute and our conversation dissolves into a tediously painful exercise marked by comments on the weather? I would rather wander around the room faking interest in potted plants than suffer through this.
Small talk is often seen as meaningless conversation motivated by social politeness. You do it because that’s the proper thing and you have no choice. If you're extroverted, you can probably be planted in any social situation and get the small talk started without too much pain. If you're introverted, however, holiday parties and other events with strangers will make you cringe.
Thankfully, I've come up with a number of strategies to help make small talk more palatable. While these won't completely remove the terror from the situation, they'll help make you feel a bit more comfortable should you find yourself facing an unavoidable conversation with a stranger.
- Ask questions: People, for the most part, love to talk about themselves. Asking someone questions allows you to steer the conversation towards whatever direction you're comfortable with. It also allows you to avoid certain dicey topics that are likely to cause awkward moments. Asking someone where they're from, places they've traveled, plans for the weekend, favorite stores, or hobbies will put you both at ease and could lead to some interesting stores.
- Bring up something you'd like to talk about: Have you been curious about that latest Anne Hathaway movie? Wondering what someone else is reading? What's your guilty pleasure TV show? A conversation about something fun and interesting can often turn into something more.
- Be a good listener: Nod and use other nonverbal listening cues to indicate to the other person that you're actively engaged in the conversation. A little encouragement goes a long way.
- Avoid potentially volatile topics: Politics, religion, money, personal details - just don't go there. You also might want to avoid trite discussion about the weather and the spelling of someone's name (I get this a lot.)
- See it through a positive lens: Small talk is a great way to make personal connections with relatively little effort. What we might think of as tedious chatter is actually a wonderful way to both socialize and network with influential people.