If you haven’t read “How to be Polite” by Paul Ford, please do so immediately because it is lovely. What struck me was this paragraph:
Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.”
Which is really good advice and got me thinking about small talk. Small talk is a really important skill because it helps to make everyone comfortable in a situation where either the conversers don’t know each other well or you are somewhere where you need to watch what you talk about. As fun as it is to talk about sex and politics, it’s not always appropriate, which is where small talk comes in. Small talk also allows you to get to know someone so that you can then get to all the deeper fun conversations (or you can always follow my example and get really drunk and overshare- boom you are best friends!)
Talking about the weather gets a bad rap, but honestly, it’s something we all have in common, it’s easy to talk about, and with climate change, there is always something new and exciting going on.
A good way to build a chit-chatty conversation is to find something you have in common- usually something about the event or the place you are at. Then make a comment about how you relate to that commonality. Then ask them a question about the commonality and them. Then try to ask more questions and give more comments about yourself, trying to keep the questions and comments balanced so you don’t overwhelm someone with questions or bore them by talking about yourself. Extra credit: if someone walks up to you during this chitty chatty exchange, bring them in! Tell them what you are talking about! Ask their opinion! Talk for a few minutes then excuse yourself and go talk to someone else. This is called “mingling.”
Small talk is hard! It takes practice, so don’t be hard on yourself if you aren’t good at it. When I was a pre-teen, my mom actually got a bee in her bonnet about small talk and she would take me out to dinner and be like “okay, now give me some small talk.” I was so bad at it that I would be absolutely silent in the car over because I had to save up all the interesting news from my day to talk about over dinner! Jaya thinks this is bananas, btw, but it really did help. I didn’t get REALLY comfortable with it until going through sorority rush for a couple of years- as a chapter, we would actually practice having conversations for HOURS so that we didn’t sound awkward or weird to potential recruits. Then I got REALLY comfortable with it when I started going on a million first dates via OkCupid and had the same conversation a hundred times.
So practice on a friend! Practice in a mirror! Go out for drinks with strangers from the internet! Because when you have it, you can talk to anyone and make everyone comfortable and they will call you charming.
Speaking of making small talk! Come make small talk with us at our One Year Uncommon Courtesy Anniversary Party! Saturday, September 13 at Otto’s Shrunken Head, New York City. 7pmish. Add yourself to our Facebook event.
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