• Project Adulthood

How to Make Small Talk as an Adult

While no one likes small talk, pretty much everyone likes friendships. But to make deeper connections with others, you need to start with small talk. Here's how.

Where do I start?

Stop putting pressure on yourself. Not every conversation you will have will be, nor should it, engrossing. Small talk isn’t necessarily about the information you exchange with the other person(s). Rather, it’s about building rapport, comfort, and trust.

Remember that quote by Maya Angelou, “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”? This is especially true when it comes to small talk.

Just remember: You’re trying to establish an emotional connection, not get an A+ on your small talk skills.

Tip: Hate small talk? You may want to move to Sweden. Just kidding. But seriously, as Allie Edwardsson in the BBC Reel “How Sweden survives without small talk” says, “[a conversation] has a meaning even if you’re talking about the weather. But the meaning is not the weather. [...] The meaning is, let’s have a little connection.”

Okay, so how do I actually start a conversation with someone?

There are many ways to open up a conversation. Ideally, you want to find common ground with the person you’re approaching. Try:

  • Commenting on the situation/environment around you. For example, “This cafe has the best coffee in town, hasn’t it?”

  • Giving a compliment. For example, “I love your coat. Do you mind me asking where you got it?”

  • Mentioning a common interest/person/similar background. For example, “Have you seen the latest episode of X?”

  • Asking for advice/opinion. For example, “Do you know the best place to get lunch in town?”

  • Talking about a shared experience. For example, “I really enjoyed today’s class. The new teacher is great, isn’t she?”

Tip: Check out the F.O.R.D framework, avoid R.A.P.E (religion, abortion, politics, and economics), and don't get too personal (the other person doesn’t need to know about that weird spot on your tongue). Above all, read the room and change the subject if the other person looks uncomfortable.

But what if they hate me/think I’m stupid or boring/don’t want to talk to me?

Whether you have a tendency to talk too much or are too afraid to say anything in fear of being judged, you’re probably a victim of something known as the spotlight effect — a phenomenon where people think others pay more attention to them than they actually do. Tip: Studies show that more frequent small talk makes people — even introverts — happier.

Yeah, but what if they’re boring?

You can always learn something new from speaking to someone, but you need to ask the right questions.

To quote the self-help guru James Altucher, “Whenever I am on someone else’s podcast, I ask questions. If I learn one thing, then it’s a win for me. Whenever I am meeting someone for the first time, I ask questions. I am more confident asking questions and learning than I am answering them. Because of the math: there are more questions than answers in the world.

So, what are the “right” questions? Basically, anything you want to know an answer to, anything you’re curious about.

If you ask questions just for the sake of asking them or to be polite, it’ll show (if you’re bored, chances are the other person is also bored), and the conversation will inevitably stall. Worse, you won’t succeed in establishing a connection with the other person.

Tip: To see how James Altucher does it, listen to his podcasts.

So all I have to do is ask questions?

Definitely not. While being a good listener and asking relevant questions is important, if you don’t share anything about yourself, the other person won’t be able to ask you any questions in return, and the interaction will feel one-sided at best.

It’s those awkward silences, man. They kill me.

Even if the person you’re talking to brings up a topic you have no interest in/have nothing to say about, there are still plenty of ways to continue the conversation.

Say an acquaintance starts talking about the TV series The Wire. You’ve never seen The Wire, so you can’t discuss it. But you can:

  • Ask them about it & why they like it so much.

  • Talk about other TV shows you’ve seen & ask them if they’ve seen them too.

  • Bring up TV shows and films about to come out this year that you are excited to see.

  • Ask them if they’ve ever been to Baltimore (which is where The Wire is set — you’ll know this if you ask them what the TV show is about), and do they like to travel?

  • Ask them about their pastimes — what else do they enjoy doing besides watching TV shows?

  • Since the show is about police officers, ask them if they ever wanted to be a policeman. Then, segway into general career topics or ask them what they would like to do if they weren't doing X.

Tip: Don’t just bombard the other person with questions and your own opinions. If you want the conversation to be more natural, give the other person a chance to think about what you just said and answer you. You don’t have to fill every silence.

Not everyone wants to talk, though.

True. Not everyone will want to engage with you, and that’s okay. If the person you’re trying to talk to is giving one-word answers and/or isn’t making eye contact, drop the conversation and move on.

It’s important to remember that their lack of interest is in no way a reflection on you. Maybe they’re having a bad day. Perhaps they have something else on their mind. Don’t give it a second thought.

Speaking of body language, watch your own. Don’t cross your arms, make sure you maintain eye contact (but don’t be creepy) and smile. If looking at the other person directly makes you anxious, gaze at their eyebrows instead — they won’t know the difference.

Tip: Put down your phone. On top of just being good manners, research shows that not using/having your phone out visibly improves the overall quality of conversations.

What if I have enough and want to leave?

If you feel like the conversation is dwindling, and you’ve no interest in reviving it or if you've simply had enough social interaction that day, end the conversation politely by saying something like, “I have to go now, but it was really nice meeting you.”

That seems pretty doable.

Told you!

Tip: If you need more help, check out Dale Carnegie's classic, "How to Win Friends & Influence People." Here's a free PDF version of the book, and here's a quick summary.

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