Updated: Aug 6
The need to communicate quickly in bits and bytes online has left some of our key in-person soft skills lagging.
My version of heaven is a crowded room full of people I have never met before. Interestingly, the same scenario used to be my husband's vision of hell. My fear is I won't be able to talk to everyone in the room and hear their story. My husband feared that he would have to speak to someone he's never met before and make small talk, but luckily those days are long gone.
The art of making small talk comes naturally to some people, like my Dad. There is a saying where I grew up, "You never met a stranger," which means someone can effortlessly strike up a conversation with anyone. My Dad never met a stranger, and suppose I inherited that trait from him. One key difference is, My Dad did not grow up using social media; his communication style was up close and personal.
Today, many of us are consumed with our screens and communicate in short bursts of bits and bytes because it's easy. For some, the cost of the convenience of electronic communication is visible in waning soft skills. As a result, many of us need to work on our soft skills, and small talk is one of them.
Unfortunately, making small talk isn't a simple task for everyone. For some, it's a struggle; it may even be pure agony. But you can learn how to make small talk and not cringe at the thought of it.
First, you need to open your toolbox of social codes and pull out politeness, respect, empathy, a sincere sense of curiosity, and a little diplomacy. Then, add confidence, and you're ready to make small talk. Let's examine some potential situations where you could practice small talk.
The best small talk starts by assessing the situation, coupled with friendly body language and a respectful, positive statement. You can follow-up with an unassuming question, one that is also empathetic and sincere. In certain circumstances, when it's appropriate for you to introduce yourself, be polite and confident. The only difference between making professional or social small talk is the degree of formality.
It is essential to "read the situation," however. For example, you meet a stranger on a plane, your seat-mate. Before you strike up a conversation assess; do they have their earphones on? Are they wrapped in a blanket, and putting out a "do not disturb" vibe? Then, be respectful. Leave them alone. If you make eye contact, smile and leave it at that.
I've been on overseas flights and not said a single word to the person seated next to me, to respect their vibe. On the other hand, you might be seated next to someone who wants to share their life story. If you're not in the mood, be polite and tell them you want some quiet time to rest during the flight.
If you find yourself in a crowded room, chock-full of people, none of whom you have met before, assess the room, and look for someone to approach. Etiquette dictates that you avoid approaching parties of two, since they could be in an intimate professional or personal conversation, and you could be an unwelcome intrusion.
Preferably, look for bigger groups of people or a single person who may feel just as out of place as you. Once you have decided on a group or person for your first interaction, observe the body language. Pick up on any clues that signal this is not a good group to approach. Signals to stay away could be that everyone in the group has their heads close to each other, and they seem to be whispering. Or, everyone is leaning backward with their arms crossed over their chests, and they are frowning. If it feels tense, go to another group.
The best groups to approach are laughing, smiling, and have open body language. But, be prepared for "inside" jokes. If that's the case, be diplomatic, and don't ask to have the joke explained.
Suppose you want to approach the single person. A good icebreaker is to mention something positive about the event, occasion, or circumstance, then introduce yourself. Say, "Hello, what a nice event. My name is..." These days with COVID, a gentle nod of your head and a smile will suffice in place of a handshake. The person should respond to you, either with a cordial comment, or a single word. If it's the latter, you have some work to do.
You can add, "I've been looking forward to this event; I haven't been to this venue before." If you only get a nod from them, realize they do not want to make small talk, and say, "It's nice to meet you, I hope you enjoy the event." Not all interactions are winners; you did an excellent job — but it's likely time to move on to the next group.
Next, in our crowded room scenario, approach the group that's laughing. Walk over and find a spot with the most room to join. Wait for someone to finish their thought, and if it demands an immediate response, wait, smile, look them in the eyes, and politely say, "Hello, may I join you?" Be confident when you speak, and watch your body language. Behave as though you're delighted to be there meeting these people. You can't fake this, be authentic. After you've asked to join the group, someone will say, "Yes, please join us," and you're off.
The group is waiting to learn more about you, so use your positive icebreaker and say, "What a lovely affair. How do you do? My name is..." Then, briefly add the "why" you are attending the event. "I'm here to represent my firm, and we are in the plastics business."
Or, it could be, "I'm a friend of the groom, we went to college together." This short introduction will lead to comments from members of the group. Once you have established yourself, be curious, and ask questions with respect and diplomacy. Avoid the "How far along are you?" Or, "How long have you been retired?" faux pas questions that assume. It's best not to assume anything.
The most successful small talk questions are those offered with genuine curiosity. For example, you could ask, "The buffet is fantastic. Does anyone know who the chef is?" Or, "Are any of you in the plastics business? I know several industries are represented tonight." Keep things positive or neutral. Small talk is not the time for negativity or controversy. Don't say, "The traffic was horrible. I couldn't find a place to park. I'm starving, and the food here sucks." These all might be true, but no one wants to hear your problems; they probably had the same experience. As a guest, it isn't polite for you to complain about the food. Plus, people are drawn to positive people. Keep it positive, and you will leave a good impression.
It's also an art form to know when to move from one group to the next. Spend a few minutes with each group; remember you have a whole room full of people to meet. To exit the group, again wait for someone to finish their thought, and say, "It's lovely to meet you all; I hope our paths cross again soon."
If this is a networking event, and you have made good contact after you said, "It's lovely to meet you ..." to the group, lean into the person and say, "I'd like to continue our conversation, may I email you?" Hopefully, they say, "Yes" and offer you their card, or let you know how to contact them. Remember to be discreet during the business card exchange unless you want to provide your business card to each person, which could seem a bit much. You will have to determine if that is appropriate.
If you effortlessly make small talk, congratulations. If you need to get better at this skill, realize that the only path to success is practice. Take advantage of any situation to work on this soft skill. Small talk can be a momentary exchange, or it can lead to a new friend or an extensive network. Arm yourself with your social codes, and you will soon master the art of small talk.