Small talk is the gateway to the conversation you want to have with people. In this article, you’ll learn how to make small talk, how it works beneath the surface, how to get better at it, as well as small talk questions and examples. And if you hate small talk, we’ll cover what to do about that as well.
You may think it is insignificant and superficial, but this casual chat is an essential step towards the deeper, more meaningful conversation you crave.
Before you can hope to share personal details or the most deeply held beliefs and values, you have to earn the trust and confidence of the other party. If you attempt sophisticated conversation without this framework in place, it would just not work.
Therefore, small talk is the most important ingredient. It is where you will establish your common ground and those areas where you can talk for hours.
Table of contents
- How To Make Small Talk
- How Small Talk Works Behind the scenes
- What To Do If You Hate Small Talk
- Get Better At Small Talk
- How To Get Past the Small Talk
- Small Talk Questions, Examples, and Topics
How To Make Small Talk
Cover a lot of “Conversation Ground”
A key to small talk is to cover a lot of ground with your conversation. Talk about a variety of subjects. Don’t get too deep in a subject, too soon, if you’re just getting to know someone.
At first, you’re trying to find those important points of connection, those special things you have in common that help you build the friendship. You will find those points of connection while you’re going from subject to subject.
Signal That You Understand
Constantly send signals that you “get it.” While making small talk, the other person needs to know that you understand their world.
Continue nodding, saying “Yeah!” “Of course!” and other utterances like that. This way, you keep confirming to them that you “understand them” and that you see eye to eye. This opens up the possibilities for longer conversations, staying in touch and building friendships.
Add Enthusiasm To Your Small Talk
As you would add salt to your cooking, add enthusiasm when making small talk. Not too little, not too much, just the right amount. You definitely need to be enthusiastic about what the other person is saying, even if it’s pretty normal.
Your goal here is to signal to them that you’re open to them sharing what they want to share, that you’re interested in hearing it, and that they have your attention.
Share Your Knowledge
During small talk, share some facts about the subject being discussed. Share what you’ve heard, what you’ve read, and what you know. Whether it’s about books, restaurants, work, holidays, traffic, or anything else: share the facts you know.
This might not be ground-breaking information, but it makes you connect gently over what both of you can observe and bounce-back information you have.
When You Agree, Say It
When making small talk, the other person or group don’t know if you are in agreement about even the basic subjects. They don’t know if you see eye to eye. To continue the conversation, and for both of you to be engaged in it, you need to signal that you guys agree on things.
When you find that you are in agreement, say it. Say “yeah!” “totally!” or “Yeah me too!” You don’t want to over-do it, but say you agree when you actually do. Again, even about basic facts, when you realize that you’re on the same page, people get more relaxed and want to talk more.
Share Facts About Yourself
As you’re going from one topic to another, add bits and pieces of information about who you are. Nothing private at this point, just the public information you can share while talking to a group of friends and mutual friends.
This is important because people need to know what you’re about before they can decide whether or not to continue getting to know you and building a friendship with you. At the same time, ask the other person to reveal the same type of information about themselves, through the questions you ask.
As the conversation goes on, you can start adding some personal preferences, opinions, and showing who you are through what you think. You don’t have to over-share at this point, but you can share the “I prefer this rather than that” type of opinions.
This makes the small talk evolve from just passing time to getting to know one another. This increases the opportunity for building friendship, as having opinions in common creates a stronger connection than commonalities involving neutral facts and information.
Find Out What It’s Like To Be Them
I once asked a couple of women explicitly this question “What is it like to be you?” I was on vacation and I was curious to know what life is like for someone living in Asia. While that question requires some explaining, and I don’t recommend using it unless you have the social skills to back it up, it’s still on-point.
When making small talk and getting to know people, try and find out, indirectly, how it is like to be them. How does it feel? What are the challenges? What’s enjoyable? etc. You want to get an idea of how things are (and how life is) for them.
This gives you many more possibilities for connecting as everything you say after that will be very relevant to them because you really understand them. They’ll start to feel like you’re an existing friend instead of a stranger. And this can be done just through small talk and not necessarily deep and intimate conversation.
How Small Talk Works Beneath The Surface
To get a better understanding of small talk and how to improve your skill in it, let’s dive into the hidden mechanisms behind how small talk works. It is interesting to realise there is a “structure” behind small talk – even if it seems random.
Create Connections and Friendships Through Small Talk
Maybe We Can Connect?
When starting a conversation with small talk, by starting a new subject or asking a new question, you are essentially trying to form a connection with the other person. Even behind something mundane like “Who do you think will win the game?” you are giving a connection a chance. It’s like saying “maybe we can connect!”
This is the case when introducing yourself during a networking event, you’re considering a potential friendship, partnership, or maybe just connecting during a dinner party and sharing ideas.
When bringing up a new topic – you’re giving the conversation more life, you’re extending it, and giving a stronger foundation for the friendship.
Take Turns During Small Talk
We’re In This Together…
During small talk, turn-taking needs to be pretty equivalent. The time each person speaks should be pretty much the same. If you’re more of a listener, you can listen more and let others speak more than you, but later, not during small talk.
This is important, because small talk presents who you are to the other person in the first place, and prepares the right environment for you to speak freely for a duration that comes naturally to you.
Pauses during small talk should be minimal: to make sure that you quickly establish the “we get each other” reality and the “we have things to talk about” and the “we should continue this conversation and maybe consider a potential friendship” point.
Because while you’re talking to strangers or friends of friends, these questions are asked subconsciously. And you don’t want the answer to them to be “not sure.”
Keep The Flow Of Small Talk
I’m Listening; Keep Talking…
To move forward with Small Talk, we need to know that we’re understood (that we get each other) [I’m a financial analyst <don’t get it – blank stare> … “I work at an insurance company and I analyze the profitability of our products” <don’t get it – blank stare> “° ok forget it ! you don’t understand my world… °”] ;
Conversational support indicators “we get each other”; “we see eye to eye”; “you are interesting”; “continue talking, I’m listening” uh-huh, sure! really? no way! Omg! Yes! Obviously! Of course! Yeah, I agree…
Sometimes, you should stop giving these cues, to signal that you’re about to speak. Some people will continue to talk as long as you keep giving them these signs.
But to get a chance to contribute, stop giving these indicators for a few seconds – and just listen, it will calm them down, and prepare for you to take the turn to speak. Remember, it’s essential that you do contribute, especially if you’re just getting to know the person or some of the people in the group conversation.
Small Talk Damage Control
Actually, What I Mean Is…
The more you understand each other, the better that small talk is and the more likely it will lead to longer conversations, and friendships.
- Do you mean this? Or that? (…answer…) oh ok, got it! [ Let me make sure I understand you well… I’m following what you’re saying, but I’m interested in understanding you with more detail and nuance ]
- “Actually, what I mean is…” [ I may have not expressed myself the right way… ]
- “Well that’s what I thought at first, but then I found that it’s not quite right, because…” [ We are alike! I used to have the same opinion/vision as you, but then I found that the reality is different… IOW, there is nothing wrong with you that you thought of things that way ]
- (…) “I don’t know if you’ve heard about this subject, but I find it very interesting…” [ Are we on the same page? Do you need me to fill you in with some details so we can continue being on the same page? ]
Avoiding Small Talk Landmines
Omg, I can’t talk to someone like you! Bye!
To move forward with small talk there should be at least some remote chance of a friendship. More importantly, there can be no friendship-stopper from the get-go (no landmines).
For instance, think of someone who has total disrespect for your field of work, or total disregard for what you have to say, or intolerant towards something you care about – you would just end the conversation as soon as possible.
This is the same for those with creepy body language, or who makes a creepy remark – or indeed anything that makes you feel very uncomfortable. These should blow up the whole conversation and prompt you to start looking for the nearest exit out of the conversation.
Having The Same Goals Behind The Small Talk
Wait, Why Are We Talking?
To move forward with small talk, you need to have somewhat similar goals for why you’re talking; what is it? Just passing time during a flight? Meeting new people at a networking event? Meeting your friends’ friends? Killing time during an all-day family reunion?
When making small talk, you’re constantly negotiating the reason why you’re talking – and what that talk might lead to:
- Do we have things in common?
- Should we keep talking?
- Could we become friends?
- Are we having a good time talking?
- Do we have friends in common?
- Is it possible that we might help each other in the future in some way?
- Would it be useful to stay in touch?
These underlying questions are being asked and negotiated as you’re making small talk. What you expect and what they expect from the conversation should be similar.
Validate Each Other Through Small Talk
Do You See Me As I See Myself?
To move forward with small talk, the image of us we want to portray is accepted and reflected by others. For example, if I want to project that I’m a respectable person or knowledgable person – and the other is not accepting this image and making a point that I’m not respectable or knowledgable – then that’ll stop the small talk.
People like to have the image of themselves validated in the reaction of others. If this image is contradicted by the comments or actions of the person replying, then it will eventually end in a loss of self-confidence and pleasure in the exchange. Therefore, if when conversing you want to extend the relationship, then you are going to have to offer some validation to the other.
Negotiate Social Status
I’m Better Than You At This, You’re Better At That
During small talk, we negotiate our roles and status relative to each other. Here are some examples of statements we make to show our status. There is the information we are giving [then there is the implied meaning of our role in the conversation].
“ I know everybody here…” [I can help introduce you to people – higher social capital in this place]
“ I drove 100 miles to get here for her birthday. I mean, Ashley and I are good friends since primary school…” [I’m an old friend of hers, I’m probably closer to her than anybody here]
Sometimes the negotiation of status is more subtle. Look closely at this exchange:
Person A: “ I manage a coworking space right now, and I’m looking into jobs in Corporate PR – that’s something I’d like to work on.
Person B: Oh, that’s interesting.
Person A: Yeah. How about you?
Person B: Well I coach CEOs and higher management in terms of their day-to-day efficiency and productivity.
Person A: “Oh that sounds great!” [I have access to senior management, which makes me valuable for anyone looking to network or who is looking for a new job, or a new partnership, etc.]
Person B: “Yeah, you’d be surprised how even the most successful people are still trying to optimize and become more productive on a day-to-day basis.”
Person A: “Yeah that’s how they got successful in the first place I guess!”
Person B: “Absolutely!”
Person A: “well, it’s good to have you here, Brian, you like the event? ”
Person A: “Yeah it’s pretty good, very interesting people – it’s the first time I discover this community ”
Person B: “Yeah it’s a pretty good group – I’ve been coming to these events for a while, had the chance to get to know pretty much everyone here, with a few new faces every once in a while – so far so good.” [we have a good group – I confirm – and I know everyone, so I am valuable to you in this situation]
Hate Small Talk? Here Is What To Do
Even though you may hate small talk, you need to see it as an essential part of your social skills. Without successful small talk, you will struggle to make deeper connections with others. Before people are happy to share personal details or strongly held beliefs or opinions, they are going to need to trust you.
Therefore, you will need to offer small talk to slowly reveal who you are and the amount of common ground you share. From early beginnings with factual information shared, you can move to simple opinions, before encouraging more detailed responses.
The steps for successful small talk include:
- Start by focusing on simple facts, such as why you are there and who you are
- Move on to sharing simple opinions and showing enthusiasm at the opinions and ideas of the other person
- Encourage deeper contributions by offering agreement and enthusiasm.
If you hate small talk and prefer deeper, more meaningful conversations then…
- Determine which kinds of deep/meaningful topics you like to discuss
- When making small talk, quickly mention those deep topics
- Watch for the reaction of the other person, see if they connect or know anything about those subjects
- Even if they don’t know about, are they curious?
- If they’re interested at all, then you’ll be able to spend more time talking about those subjects, instead of making small talk.
How You Can Get Better At Small Talk
So, the route to deeper conversations starts with small talk. So, as much as it is a challenge, you will need to take steps to get as good at this part of social interaction as you are at longer, more personal exchanges. Here are some essential steps to small talk genius.
1. Practice small talk anywhere and everywhere
Wherever you and whomever you’re talking to, it’s an opportunity to practice your social skills. Coffee shop, waiting in line, talking to your family, anywhere you are, practice small talk. Even at the checkout, exchange some pleasantries with the operator – mention the weather or the price of an item.
2. Practice the 5% Rule
Talk 5% more than usual in the next conversation you have. Push yourself to talk just 5% longer than you’re used to. Once you’re comfortable making small talk for 5% longer than before practice talking an additional 5%. In this way, your small talk will grow bigger and bigger with each attempt.
3. Talk to people who are very different from you
This is an opportunity to grow by challenging yourself to make small talk with people very different from you, whether they are older/younger; from a different background than you; a different field of work, different socio-economic class; etc.
If you’re already doing this: great. But if you’re not, then it’s a really good way to have a better perspective on life and gives you an amazing ability to make small talk. It’s easy to talk with people who are like you, but when you talk to those who are different, your small talk skill improves faster.
4. Practice “Isn’t It Great” conversation starters
A way to improve small talk is to strengthen your creativity in conversation. A creative conversationalist who is positive can find the positive aspect of pretty much any topic. Take “LinkedIn” for example, “Isn’t it great that we have a way now to reach most professionals in the world?”
You can do this with any subject: “It’s so cool to have this coffee shop around near my home, it’s calm, you can do your work, but it’s also social, you can meet with friends here…”
Why would you do this? By being a person who seeks to lift up the other, you will become known for your positivity. People enjoy talking with positive people much more, as they feel safe that they will walk away from the small talk feeling good about the experience.
5. Practice talking about subjects you know almost nothing about
Another way to get better at small talk is to stretch your ability to talk. Stretch it to subjects you don’t know much about. The way to do it is to ask questions and share what you have heard.
Be upfront about your lack of knowledge in the subject and say things like “Oh you work in Insurance Finance… uhh, is that like actuarial work?” or “I don’t know much about this but I heard that (…) is that true?” or “The only thing I know about this is (…).” By going into subjects you don’t know much about, you force your small talk skills to get better.
Each of these steps will challenge you to get better at small talk. The more you practice, the easier and more natural small talk will become.
How To Get Past The Small Talk
The way to move beyond small talk is to excel at small talk. If you want to get to more meaningful conversations, you need to make those connections with people that facilitate this.
I get this is a tough truth: you can’t avoid it, you need to pass through it, so get good at it by doing it lots. Oddly, like exercise at the gym, the more you do it, the more you enjoy it. It will start to come naturally to you – and will feel less painful.
If you need some help to get to this zone of pleasurable small talk, try to focus on these points:
- The other person wants to connect with you, as they are attempting a friendly conversation – a huge win for the day
- Consider the small talk as a challenge rather than an ordeal – think about how you could learn to enjoy rather than endure small talk
- You are not going to be successful every time and you can’t be fascinating with every utterance – so lessen that pressure and remember the importance of enthusiasm and avoid the strain of effort!
- Whatever the other person says pretend it is the first time you have heard it – as it is likely the first time you have heard it from them. Go with it and give them credit for trying small talk with you.
- Listen out for that moment when the other person gives you a nugget – that moment of really interesting conversation – and maximise on this topic.
Small Talk Questions, Examples, and Topics
Small talk is important. It helps to break the ice before a serious conversation and it also helps to fill gaps in conversations, you know those moments when the official business is on pause or has been completed where the parties involved sit sıtaring at each other- moments that quickly become awkward.
Small talk also helps with relationship building as it is through these conversations that the amicable nature of individuals is revealed. But small talk does not come easy for everyone.
If you have trouble coming up with what to say in your ‘small talk’ moments here are some suggestions that should help.
1. What’s the most useful advice you’ve ever received?
- How did it help?
- Have you shared it with others?
- Did it help them?
- Do you still follow that advice today?
2. What’s your favorite movie/novel/song?
- Why do you like it so much?
- How often do you revisit (watch, read, listen) it?
3. Are you a staycation fan?
- Why/why not?
- What are some of the places you visit on a staycation?
- Which experiences do you find most worthwhile?
4. What do you think the next big invention will be?
The current rate of technological advances indicates that the next remarkable invention could be in travel, communications or health.
It could be robots with human intelligence or machines that perform surgeries without human intervention or a method of transportation that cuts travelling time in half. Undoubtedly, this question will spark some healthy discussion.
5. As a child/teenager, what was your career plan?
People usually have careers in mind from their childhood days. For most, the selected career will change over time, but for a few it remains constant. Ask these follow-up questions to encourage further discussion:
- Has that changed? Why/why not?
- What attracted you to that career?
6. What piece of technology do you own that you think you couldn’t do without?
Technology is interwoven with life in the 21st century and this is projected to continue and intensify as the years go by.
Consequently most if not all the people you’ll meet up with in a ‘small talk’ context will have some form of technology in their possession. This is a great opportunity to talk about their pros and cons.
7. What piece of technology do you own that you think you could live without?
This one is an alternate version of the previous question. Essentially, you’ll be discussing the least necessary technological item.
8. If you woke up tomorrow and discovered that you had the power to change one thing on earth what would it be?
This is a pretty broad question as it gives the responder the scope to choose one out of many ‘earth issues’ to target. It could be world hunger, global warming, the inequality in wealth distribution or the restoration of an extinct species. Whatever the response is though, you can extend the discussion with questions like:
- Why did you choose that issue?
- How do you think that change would affect life on earth?
9. How do you feel about the flexi-work week/work from home prospects?
This is a good small talk topic because of its current position as a topical issue in the work world.
- Do you think working from home would suit you? Why? Why not?
- If you could complete the week’s hours of work in three days and take the other days off would you do it? Why? Why not?
10. Do you travel by plane frequently? If so which airline do you believe offers the best value for money?
This is a good way to start a conversation on positive and negative travel experiences. Another question that could be included here is ‘with which airline have you had the least pleasant experience?’
More Small Talk Examples
- What do you think of this place?
- What brings you here?
- How do you know X?
- What do you like most about our city/ town?
- Did you hear about X on the news today?
- Can you believe that X happened?
- How was your journey here today?
- Do you think the sun will come out soon?
- Did you go on vacation this year?
- You mentioned X last time, how is this going?
- Do you remember how I mentioned X? Would you like to know what happened next?
- How is the house move/ house renovation going?
I hope this article helped you learn what you need to know about small talk. Please know that you will master this conversation skill if you apply yourself. I’ve learned it myself from scratch and taught thousands of people how to pull it off and become great conversationalists.
I’ll leave you with this last tip: don’t take it too seriously. The purpose of socializing is to have fun, relax, and connect with your fellow human beings.
Strive to enjoy the conversations you’ll have. Even if they seem like a daunting challenge at first, there is a lot of fun you can have talking to people, so just stick to it and have some fun!
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