Learning the Big Skill of Small Talk

I hate mindless chatter - but sometimes it's the only way to overcome something even worse: awkward silence.

By , Columnist

It’s Saturday, and we all know what that means: time to get out of work and get out on the town.

Maybe you’re catching up with old friends this weekend, getting to know a few new coworkers over drinks, or perhaps you’re looking to meet someone new. But regardless, unless your plans are with people you see regularly or know well, chances are you’re probably going to stumble upon some awkward, quiet moments.

So, what do you do?

Develop some small talk skills. Seriously. And while I’m certainly far from expert-status, read on for some tips I’ve discovered to make chatting up someone new a little less nerve-wracking and/or agonizing.

Take a deep breath. Don't wig out, girlfriend. Whether this person has been thrown into an awkward situation with you or they voluntarily approached you, know that you're probably doing them as big a favor as you're doing yourself by sparking a conversation, no matter how vapid or sparse.

Be engaged. I'm not talking unbroken direct eye contact for minutes at a time or anything. But it's easy to let yourself fall into a disinterested attitude when you're talking to someone you dislike or think isn't quite on your level... but I think a major part of interpersonal communication should revolve around letting people know that, YES, they matter, even if it's just for five minutes while they awkwardly hold a cocktail weenie on a skewer and try to figure out something intelligent to say. And hey, showing that you at least appear to be genuinely interested in what they have to say might help put them at ease and could facilitate a smoother dialogue. Win/win!

What's been going on in your life lately? Ask questions like: what books have you read lately? Have you heard the new insert-artist-here’s CD? Have you seen that new exhibit at the museum? What did you do today? I just saw such-and-such movie -- have you? I'm planning a vacation to some-exotic-place -- ever been?

Also, think about broad topics/concepts you may have in common with the person: where do you work? Do you like your job? How'd you end up there? Where'd you go to school? What did you study? Does that relate much to your current job? Got any future plans? Do you have a favorite author/book/show/movie/musician/album? Why? Are you a dog person or a cat person? Do you like to travel? What's your favorite place to visit? Are you from around here? (These are just ideas - don’t spring all these questions on someone, barrage-style!)

Take care when you share. In other words, don’t be, as Carrie Bradshaw put it, “emotionally slutty.” Over-sharing is a great way to stop a nascent conversation in its tracks. Funny anecdotes can make great ice breakers in an awkward situation, as long as they're not overly-personal or inappropriate.

When someone makes small talk a smooth transaction, PAY ATTENTION. You can learn so much from talking to other people - even if you’re not absorbing facts, you’re absorbing new behaviors and new ways of approaching new individuals. So, if you happen upon someone like my former boss who has loads of charisma and the ability to put anyone at ease, take note of what they’re doing and try to put that to work for yourself next time around.

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Emmie Scott is an English major-turned-marketing exec, with a passion for writing, humor, sharing knowledge, and "pink drinks." After hours, she started Are Toe Rings Professional Attire?, a blog for college grads and twenty-somethings looking to find their way through that daunting labyrinth called…

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