The big deal about small talk

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. 
Do you struggle with making small talk? How do you handle it? Got any tips or tricks to help turn conversations with strangers into meaningful connections? 


    1. I'm totally the chick who gets lost on my iphone to avoid social interaction - which probably makes me look like a snooty bitch. However I do this because I'm not a good initiator of conversation and am really nervous meeting new people. My go to is to ask other people questions because I really do like to meet new people and to learn stuff about them. I'm just not good at getting the ball rolling. - Samar

    2. It's taken me a long time to get comfortable with small talk. I'm still not really. I've overcome the shyness, but my big problem is picking topics that people want to talk about. Sometimes i assume people are like me and will know a lot about a certain topic and they really don't!

    3. Thanks for this post! I honestly struggle with a fear of small talk myself, and it's great to hear that other people are in the same boat as myself. It's almost gotten more awkward now that I'm a stay-at-home mom. Inevitably, there's the question "So, what do you do?" "Um, well, I watch old Stephen King movies on Netflix and have a blog where I take non-naked pictures of myself and post them on the internet?" Thrilling conversation. I'm glad you posted some tips so chatting up strangers can hopefully be a whole lot less nerve-wracking. Your posts are always awesome!

      ~Grace of

    4. The good thing about introverts is that we tend to be good, your advice to "ask questions" is great, especially if the other person is an extrovert....with any luck they'll talk about themselves on and on, they usually do!

    5. The only networking event I've ever been to where I didn't feel completely awkward was one of Jeff Pulver's Social Media Breakfasts. And that's because there was a structure to the mingling. Everyone was given a nametag and a sheet of blank white labels. As you met someone new, you were supposed to "tag" them with a word written on the label. It turned awkward small talk into a fun, ice-breaking game.

      Now, your next cocktail party won't have name tags, but if you consider each new person as a secret participant in a game where you're trying to figure out their "tag," it might help.

    6. I'm not a huge fan of small talk! good tips though:D


    I love my readers! Comments are welcomed and appreciated.