I work mainly with people who need to use English at work. Most people come to me because they want to improve their speaking skills, but generally it’s not the technical presentations or the detailed descriptions of their products that cause the problems.
No! It’s the small talk. I know it’s not only my language learner students who struggle with this. Many people don’t enjoy it in their first language either.
You never know exactly what the other person is going to say, or whether they will keep the conversation going. Nobody wants to stand there, feeling awkward, and wishing that they had a brilliant reply or an idea that would keep everyone talking.
I talk a lot at work and I can get most people into a conversation about something or other, but I do struggle to gather up the energy to do it sometimes. Small talk can drain me in a way that a passionate conversation about something that I care about never will.
I believe I’m not alone. There are more people like me who either can’t be bothered to fight to make themselves heard, or who don’t see the point of talking about something which is completely irrelevant to them, just to have something to say.
When I asked one of my friends why he doesn’t like small talk, he said that he didn’t want to be false and pretend to be interested in topics that bored him. I can understand this, and I feel like this sometimes, but I find it easier to focus on small talk as a tool for getting to know someone, rather than the topic, which could indeed be at best superficial and at worst a bit dull at first.
I’m not here to say it’s ok not to get involved in small talk, though I do understand it will never be a favourite pastime for some of us! We may always need to work a bit harder than those to whom it comes naturally. But I would like to offer you some tips on how to engage in the activity, even if you don’t particularly enjoy it.
Why is small talk important?
When I was younger, I had a guide dog who helped me to get around because of my visual impairment. She was a big, happy golden retriever and many people loved her.
The problem was, it was always the same. I’d settle down on the train after a long day at work, on my long commute out of London ready to read my book. Then people would decide they wanted to talk to me.
“What’s your dog’s name?”
“How old is she?”
“Isn’t she a good dog?”
“Do you know your dog’s beautiful?”
Yes, I did know my dog was beautiful, and her name and age were the same answers I gave when someone else asked me a couple of hours before!
There is nothing wrong with the questions, but when you go through the same ones again and again, it can feel a bit pointless. A bit like talking about the weather, a popular thing to discuss when nobody knows what else to say.
The thing is that the questions weren’t always pointless. Sometimes they were just a way to start a conversation.
Sometimes it never went past the “what a pretty face” stage, but sometimes it ended up with me finding out from one lady about a charity that helps lost dogs, another man recognising me from a previous conversation and giving me train information that hadn’t been announced, and a third lady became a good friend with whom I went on a couple of weekend breaks and who introduced me to some of her friends. A group of us even ended up spending Christmas together!
Without those seemingly pointless beginnings, or the general questions that I’d answered a million times before, the rest of the relationship would not have developed.
So what can you do if you don’t enjoy small talk?
Here are some tips.
#1. See it as a means to an end
Don’t think “this is pointless/boring/a waste of time”, but see it as a way of getting to know the other person and for them to get to know you. It’s the wrapping paper on the Christmas present! You can’t get to the present inside unless you first take off the wrapping paper! Don’t feel pressured into believing it’s something you’ll grow to love. Maybe you won’t, but it’s often part of the job, so if you don’t love it, settle for developing strategies that will help you to make the most of it.
2. Find common interests
If you’re worried that you’ll run out of things to say, think of some ways you can keep conversations going and avoid awkward silences. These include things like finding common interests, asking questions based on what the other person has just said, and bringing other people into the conversation.
#3. Set a time limit
If it’s a social event and you’re really not looking forward to it, set yourself a time limit. Of course it’s better if you try to enjoy yourself, but if you really struggle, it’s easier if you know you’re leaving at 10 o’clock, rather than waiting for the last person to leave. This is easier in larger groups than on a one-to-one or small group basis, but it can give you something to work towards.
Many of the online meetings that we attend now do have set time limits, and it’s easier to make your excuses and leave if things are going on a bit!
#4. Move around
This is harder in the online space, but if you’re at a physical event, try to move around. This won’t work at a sit-down meal with allocated seats, but maybe the people in a different group are talking about something to which you can contribute more. You won’t know unless you go and find out!
5. 1 to one conversations are often easier than large groups
Sometimes it’s easier to take the initiative with just one person than to find a way to fit into a conversation that is already going on, perhaps not in a direction where you have anything to say.
Can you start up a conversation with someone who’s on their own? They may well thank you for it!
6. Ask questions and actively listen
You don’t have to do all the talking. Sometimes it’s enough to ask good questions. You’d be amazed how much some people enjoy talking about themselves! Of course you don’t want it to be too one-sided, but getting other people talking is a good way to remain part of the conversation and not have to talk as much, if this is something that you feel less comfortable doing.
We call it small talk, but conversation is a give-and-take process that involves talking and listening. To be good at conversations, you have to be good at listening as well, and people definitely value it if they feel someone is really listening to them. Also, you can learn so much about other people if you actively listen, which makes it easier to develop a better relationship with them.
7. Start small
Bear in mind that you might find small talk uncomfortable, but approaching people that you’ve just met for the first time with deep and meaningful conversations has the potential to make them feel uncomfortable too! It’s all about balance! Maybe your conversation partner will get away from trivial things that you find boring, but it’s usually safer to start with safer topics!
The key word there is “start”. We never improve skills that we never use!
So, whether you love it or hate it, small talk is a part of our daily lives, and it does help to make connections with people in a way that other forms of communication can’t.
See whether you can try to make it something that works for you, rather than something to be avoided at all costs!
Find out more
If you would be interested in more articles about language, communication, and getting your message across well, you can sign up for my monthly newsletter using the form below: