For maximum enjoyment, you may want to listen to this while reading.
I cannot do small talk. I’ve done a lot of living and I sense that, like a lot of people, the same reoccurring fears are commonplace:
- I might bore you
- I might give you more information than you need or want
- I might go off topic
- You might find me eccentric (to put it diplomatically!)
- You might find me self-centered, egotistical and/or arrogant (Much to my chagrin. I think it is virtually impossible for me to be egoistical or arrogant since I’m not a social climber, I have no hidden agenda, I don’t have the confidence and do not want to have power over others.)
- You may not understand why I am speaking to you in the first place
- I may not know why I am speaking to you!
- After attempting small talk, I will spend hours – days – sifting through the conversation, looking for what I did wrong
However, if you really want to try and hold a conversation with a complete stranger then focus on asking them questions and just listening. As I tell my students: listening is more import than talking; that’s why we have one tongue and two ears.
While a stranger talks to you, think up more questions, based upon what they are saying. While you are doing this, nod in agreement; it gives the impression that you are listening, instead of planning more questions. Your questions will appeal to their ego; you might even learn something about them! I used to be a journalist, so I’ve had lots of practice. Trust me – it works. During this process, avoid talking about yourself. Chances are they are more interested in talking about themselves than getting to know you, so don’t bother. When you’ve run out of questions, think up an escape clause – I need to refresh my beverage, I have to check on a friend, I have to make an important call, I need to wash a camel – and politely make a swift exit. I guarantee the person you left behind would like to talk to you again, because you are nice – you do nothing but listen and ask questions; this is highly desirable. On the rare occasion that they ask you a question, quickly turn it around. I do this all the time. For example:
Colleague in Staffroom: How was your weekend?
Me: How was yours?
Colleague in Staffroom: Oh, great! My family and I went …
Notice how I completely avoided saying anything about myself, knocking the ball back into his court. Chances are, my solitary weekend wasn’t that great, but he doesn’t care about that; that’s not why he asked. In this brief example, they expect you to say a little about your weekend – preferably “good” – then let them get down to brass tacks, talking all about how their weekend was. Me, I don’t even bother saying anything anymore – I just go right to asking them how their weekend was. This is what makes me so popular around the office. I’ve learned this through trial and error. I recall people asking me how I was and when I replied “tired” or “stressed” they’d already be disappearing around the corner. If someone asks how you are, for God’s sake don’t tell the truth! Just ask them how they are, or you’ll be a pariah for the rest of your life. Good luck out there!