You don’t have to have social anxiety to be bad at small talk. In fact, plenty of people can be great at talking to people but fall apart when it comes to idle chit-chat with relative strangers. And despite the fact that technological advances have allowed us to make less IRL contact than ever before, small talk still remains an unavoidable part of socialising.
But research indicates that small talk is actually good for us. A 2014 study revealed that the more frequent the small talk, the happier people were – those who stuck up conversations with strangers on public transport felt more positive at the end of their journey than those who sat in solitude. In fact, judging by the positive results of the participants’ spontaneous tête-à-têtes, it seems as though most people suffer from what The Cut refers to as ‘pluralistic ignorance’: “Everyone is willing to talk but thinks everyone else is unwilling. That means there could be a train full of people who want to strike up a conversation, but it remains silent nonetheless.”
So, apparently we’re all secretly willing to engage in conversation with strangers – but just how do we get the ball rolling? We spoke to luxury lifestyle, behaviour and etiquette coach Paul Russell to give us his top five tips on acing small talk:
1. Recognise Its Value
Small talk is like social glue. It brings people together and helps them to bond. Yes, you may be talking about relatively inconsequential matters initially, but if you meet someone new and immediately launch into your intimate life history you’re far more likely to scare them off than engage them.
Used well, small talk can draw others to you, make you seem appealing and interesting and set the foundations for relationships that can develop and grow.
2. Lose The Fear
People can be terrified of small talk. They’re too worried that they might say something inappropriate, be rejected, or simply dread that moment when there’s a lengthy silence in the conversation. But there is absolutely no reason for any of these things to happen, nor for small talk to be built up into a monstrous task.
Remember, small talk simply means a pleasant conversation, a little chit-chat and getting to know someone better – it needn’t be onerous or daunting.
3. Be Prepared
If you have a social or work event coming up where there’ll be lots of people to chat to, spend ten minutes reading a news site or newspaper so you’ll have some topics to discuss.
Of course, the ideal scenario is that you’re already reading something interesting and are right in the middle of a gripping series on Netflix, but if not, just a quick peruse of what’s happening in the world gives you an arsenal of topics you can pull out as required.
4. Remember ‘ARE’
As is the case with most daunting tasks, once you’re actually doing it, any fear you may have felt tends to melt away. So, for most people, it’s just a case of needing to know how to make the initial entry into a conversation. A good technique to remember is ‘ARE’: Anchor, Reveal, Encourage.
First, you anchor the conversation with a comment that establishes common ground – such as, for instance, how lovely the event is. Then you reveal something about yourself, like the fact you had completely misplaced your shoes that morning. Then you encourage the other person to talk by asking them a question. Many people get stuck on one step, like continual anchoring or constant revealing, but the trick is to use the three steps and continue your conversation in this format.
5. Try The ‘Fascinating’ Approach
You can make small talk a great deal easier for yourself, as well as endear yourself to others, by drawing them out. You’ve used the ‘ARE’ technique and small talk is well underway. When your conversational partner tells you something you can say in return, “That’s fascinating, I’ve always wondered about…”.
Showing an interest like this is hugely appealing for others and takes the pressure off you to continuously make conversation. Make sure to listen attentively though, as this approach only works if you are genuinely interested in the response you will receive.