Small talk has gotten a bad reputation. Folks dismiss small talk as throwaway conversation that doesn’t matter. Not true. Small talk is the logical first step. Think back to how you met your good friends. To how the conversation began. Was it life-changing? Do you remember every word? Probably not. Small talk is the beginning of the conversation. It’s how we initiate connection. And it’s a skill worth having, both personally and professionally. So, grab a cuppa and join me in a little conversation. Small starts can lead to lasting relationships.
Small Talk is Too Hard. Not.
I remember as a child standing on the edge of our swimming pool. It was early in the season in Western New York and back then, the ambient temperature was nowhere near the enthusiasm level of two pale, winter-weary kids ready to swim. No heater. No solar cover. Just fill the pool with the garden hose and wait for the sun to do its job. It was a balmy 64 degrees. I’d dip my toe in, sitting on the side, legs outstretched over the water, getting used to the cold. It took forever.
On the other hand, my brother, nine years my junior, slipped the plastic nose plugs over his nostrils and got a running start, hitting the water fast and loud. In no time he was paddling around (albeit a little bluer) while I still dithered on the side.
Conversation is like that too. You can hang out on the sidelines, waiting for the perfect moment and the perfectly turned phrase, before you plunge in. Don’t. Take a deep breath and jump. The water really is fine.
Small Talk Starts With Observation
The question I get most often with small talk is, “What do I say?” Here’s a little tip to get you started. Look and observe before you initiate conversation. Searching for clues with your eyes before you open your mouth makes the actual act of starting a conversation so much easier.
If you’re at a business function, the intro is fairly straightforward, but you can personalize a bit, based on your observations and opportunity.
Small Talk Isn’t Always at the Water Cooler
At a recent conference, during the pre-workshop mixer where everyone is getting their coffee, there were just two of in search of caffeine and bagels. As a tea drinker, I found a bag, dropped it in my cup and pulled the lever on a carafe labeled with something like Iron Works Hot Water. And promptly splashed coffee all over my tea bag. Smooth. I turned back to the man watching me and said, “Well, I hadn’t planned on that. You’d think hot water would mean hot water. What do you call it when you mix tea and coffee together?” He joined me at the counter to search for the hot water, remarking that he was a tea drinker as well. We disposed of my mixture, discovered the actual tea tap and continued the conversation at the table, moving on to how we both knew the presenter. Ice broken. Conversation started.
Now, standing with my tea/coffee mixture, back to anyone else, I could have popped the liquid down the drain and headed into the meeting room. No harm, no foul. And no connection either. By poking a little fun at my situation and inviting someone else to share in the moment, I took advantage of the opportunity.
Small Steps for IRL Small Talk
What if the person you’d like to connect with isn’t attending the same conference as you? What if the encounter is more casual? No worries. Look before you leap. Most folks are open to compliments as a starter, just keep them genuine. Or feel free to mention that old standard: the weather. And don’t hesitate to offer a helping hand, remembering that everyone can use a little assistance now and again. Help is gender-neutral.
“That’s one handsome dog you have! May I say hello? What’s his name?”
“The sun feels good today. I heard it’s supposed to get up to 50 degrees this afternoon. Not bad for December.”
“Can I get that door for you? It looks like you’ve got your hands full…”
Smile First. Talk Second.
Most folks respond to a smile and a friendly hello. We’re wired to respond to friendly, open faces. And most times, without even thinking, we respond in kind.
It’s okay to go first. Sometimes we’re inclined to wait for others to make the first move. But these are small conversations, not blind dates. Jump in, make eye contact, smile and say hello. It’s multitasking at its finest and it’s a natural opportunity to connect. These brief encounters are the building blocks of future conversations. Better still, these small conversations connect you to your community. At work, at the local market, everywhere. You experience a greater sense of belonging when you engage with other folks.
Sharing the Gift of Small Talk
This holiday season, it’s easy to get caught up in the rush of a never-ending to-do list. But I’d urge you to slow down, just a bit, and notice the folks around you. Hold open a door. Initiate a conversation. Compliment someone’s effort. Notice the people around you. Every day. Keep engaging in small conversations and kindnesses and you’ll find that it becomes habit. A good habit that leads to a sweeter, more connected life. Year round. It becomes the gift that keeps on giving and growing.
Start Small Today
Yes, there’s time. And yes, there is always opportunity. And yes, practice makes perfect. Keep your eyes and your heart open for opportunities to reach out and engage, in real life. The benefits far outweigh the fear of rejection. And here’s the thing: most folks are hungry for authenticity. We all want to be noticed and appreciated for who we are. It doesn’t require grand gestures, financial obligation or even a big time commitment. It just requires that we take the time to see opportunity, and decide to be part of something bigger. Our community. Our real lives. Here and now. Truly a gift worth sharing.