Sometimes you just can’t skip the small talk. Yesterday, my office hosted a winter cookie party (more on that here). People from all corners of the office convened in a small lounge elbow-to-elbow to enjoy the scrumptious spread of sugary selections. While many of us do not enjoy small talk, it is customary at such events. I was as excited for the cookies as I was anxious about social engagement.
I have come to realize that small talk is not only a skill, but an art. Mastering small talk means that you turn simple interactions into actual discussions with relative ease. Eleanor Roosevelt supposedly said that “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” Never mind the validity of this statement, but I think that “small talkers” can be broken down in a similar way. “Great small talkers discuss anything; average small talkers discuss events; small small talkers discuss whatever is in eyesight.”
Small small talkers will comment on the weather, someone’s clothing, a painting on the wall that they’ve seen but never looked at, on what they are eating, etc.. In short, they are not very creative. Food and drinks can be a social crutch for these folks. What is the flavor of this cookie? Do you think these brownies were homemade? These sorts of openings are kind of like conversation non-starters. The flavor is pumpkin. No, clearly not. There really isn’t much of a follow up to these lines of inquiry. Sometimes, if you are lucky, these little openings can spin into a story about baking or childhood. However, for a rather reserved bunch, conversation about the food is about as bland as a sugar-free cookie.
Average small talkers discuss events. Did you hear about the Chinese virus that already killed six? Greta Thunberg is getting called out for her ideas on the economy. Discussing events at a social gathering among acquaintances can have mixed results. In a best-case scenario, people are all familiar with the event, they engage freely, share their views, and genuinely enjoy each other’s company. In a less-than ideal scenario, not everyone is familiar with the topic and many are left out without any real way to pick up the conversation again. Of course, there is also the worst-case scenario where people become heated by politics, religion, or other social taboos.
Great small talkers can turn any simple commentary into a real discussion. They discuss the food, the war in Syria (yes, it’s still unfortunately going on), as well as ideas. There is a big difference between ‘events’ and ‘ideas.’ With events, participants must be knowledgeable of the details and context in order to have a meaningful conversation. With ideas, there is no such knowledge barrier; anyone can engage. One simply needs to create a scenario and without much explanation, participants are free to concoct their own responses to the curious inquiry. Ideas can be simple. If you were to redesign this office, what would you do differently?
Great small talkers use techniques such as active listening, open-ended questions, enthusiasm, good eye contact, and openness. They continually feel the temperature of the room and know when to push further on a subject, when to pivot, and when to make light of something that was said. Great small talkers speak to everyone as if they are genuinely interested in every word that is being said. They ease you into the pool and gently lead you to the deep end.
I am not a small talker myself. I mostly just interject comments but am never really one to carry the conversation. Like most things, small talk at social engagements can be improved with practice…but practice is hard and I’m an introvert, so I’ll just perfect my Irish exit!