By Devika Pathak
Making small talk with strangers and acquaintances is the bane of most professional gatherings, weddings, family holidays, bathroom queues and dinner parties—who really likes to talk about traffic, the weather, or that one show on Netflix you only watched halfway, but now have to pretend to be really into the whole series because Sameer from Accounting won't stop talking about it.
But mastering small talk is a necessary evil—it seems humans actually need small talk. A group of researchers at Princeton University found that casual chit chat is an evolutionary tool used to establish closeness. "Talking is a social lubricant, not necessarily done to convey information, but to establish familiarity," said Asif Ghazanfar, PhD, a professor of psychology at Princeton and one of the study's co-authors.
[M]astering small talk taps into the power of acquaintances. Casual connections are proven to be much more helpful than close friendships in situations like trying to find a job...
That doesn't necessarily make small talk enjoyable, but "we need to get past the assumption that small talk is just meaningless talk, and understand that it's really about managing your relationship with the person," says Ingrid Pillar, PhD, a professor of applied linguistics at Macquarie University.
Here's how you can improve your small talk skills.
Make a plan
Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talksays, "As I drive to a party, I try to come up with two or three things to talk about in case the conversation runs dry." Try to think ahead, so you'll have a few good conversation starters that will prompt at least a few minutes of decent chit-chat. These can include something interesting that happened to you, a book you just enjoyed, a recent study you read, or even a new recipe you tried out at home. Spend a little time scanning newspaper headlines every day, even on topics that you aren't interested in, so if you reach a point of silence you can always start with, "Did you hear about that...?"
Ask open-ended questions
Asking questions like "What do you do?" will likely yield one-line answers that kill a conversation before it starts. Instead, try asking someone how they got into the business they are in, or why they enjoy their job—open-ended small talk questions that are more likely to elicit a more thoughtful, and therefore more interesting, answer. Keep an ear out for commonalities and new information that you can then respond to with follow-up questions. People love to talk about themselves and by asking broad, open-ended questions, you are giving your companion a comfortable platform.
Stephen R. Covey's popular quote, "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply," is one most of us can relate to, if we're honest. Yet, there is nothing worse than having a conversation with someone only to be cut off by them at the end of every sentence. But mastering small talk is mostly about listening well. Listening closely not only helps the conversation flow better, it encourages your partner to complete his or her thoughts and maybe share something insightful.
Share a problem
Though this may seem a bit too personal when it comes to a first meeting, asking for advice is a great way to get someone thinking and talking. Your problem could be as minor as where to go on your next holiday, but opening up like this and giving someone the feeling that you trust them can boost a relationship and make making small talk easier.
However, there are limits to sharing. "Oversharing can make you a bore. Though we can choose not to read the tedious everyday ramblings of our Facebook friends, it's a little more difficult to do this in person," writes Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Put your phone away
There is nothing more detrimental to a conversation than a phone. A 2014 study found that even the mere presence of an iPhone can lower the quality of a conversation, while conversations that take place without the potential buzz or beep of a phone resulted in more connectedness and deeper feelings of empathy between the conversation partners. Keeping our phones out has become such an ingrained part of our culture, we often assume it makes no difference to anyone. But the mere presence of your phone makes it more likely you will cut off your partner, pick up your phone mid-conversation, or vice versa.
If simply feeling more connected isn't enough, mastering small talk taps into the power of acquaintances. Casual connections are proven to be much more helpful than close friendships in situations like trying to find a job, as discovered by Mark Granovetter's study on the strength of weak ties. The best (and worst) part of small talk is that you never know where it may go, but mastering the art may help you direct it a little and perhaps even enjoy it.