Learning How to Talk Small

Wolf of Wall Street

As an introvert and an efficiency machine, I detest small talk. It has always been a necessary evil, but in my mind, is something that wastes time and breath. You do not want to hear about my day: how the dog got sick in my shoes and how my office mate is having bowel issues. Even if this does happen, I will respond to the obligatory “How are you?” with “Good, you?” There is no underlying motivation that small talk seems to carry, yet everyone seems to subscribe to it.

In my daily life, I used to try to avoid small talk as much as possible. If I send a text that says “thinking of you”, I’m quite literally thinking of you. In my cubicle life, though, small talk reigns. Even I’m guilty of it – each Monday, I ask how so-and-so’s weekend was; each Friday, I ask them about their plans.

The social cues and contracts of small talk override even my dislike of impersonal chirping of weekend plans – no matter what we like to think, small talk is here to stay. Its privilege of being a social norm gives the idea of small talk staying power, and therefore, is a force to be adapted, not fought against. As much as I can, though, I like to make my small talk count – it can be a great conversation-starter, as you can ask questions and actually get to know the person you’re talking to. Conversation is a give-and-take, though, so be sure to give a bit too.

I’ve learned to make my small talk count with the following tips:

  1. Body language says it all. Does the person look attentive, or have their eyes already glassed over? Are their feet pointing towards you, and do they have an “open” body posture (arms not crossed)?

  2. Understand the other person’s motivation. Do they always come to your desk with tasks? Are they open about their private life? Say you do not know many personal life details about this person, which means they generally like to keep both separated. Keep conversation geared toward work to ease any anxiety they may feel from combining their personal and work lives.

  3. Gently ease the direction you wish the conversation to go. Do you want to ask them about that memo, but they’re too busy replaying the 10 mile hike from this weekend? Let them finish the story, and give signals that you’re ready to move on. Mention how the memo process is like running a race, and swing the conversation back to the memo (and subsequent timeline).

  4. Be self-aware. I have a few different tells that I do when anxious: I fidget with my ring on each hand, and scratch my nose a lot (no idea why). Though this takes time, becoming self-aware and training yourself to fidget in a more subtle way (or not at all) makes small talk seem that much more mundane.

Are you a small-talk champion, or do you see it as a necessary evil? Does it make you nervous, and how did you get over the nervousness?