Small talk is one of those things in life that it pays well to be good at -- but also pays equally well to move beyond as quickly as possible. When you've just met someone new, dwindling on small talk can be one of the most stultifying "nowhere zones" to end up in. Many a great new connection has been lost by the conversationalists' inability to move past this sometimes daunting formality.
So what exactly is small talk, why do we engage in it -- and most of all, how do we get past it and get to real conversation?
Wikipedia has this to say about small talk:
“[S]mall talk is a bonding ritual and a strategy for managing interpersonal distance... it helps new acquaintances to explore and categorize each other's social position.”
In laymen's terms, what that means is that small talk is how we get to know the basic facts about one another. “What's your name?” “What do you do?” “Where are you from?” – all that is small talk. Small talk's also used by friends, family members, or acquaintances who haven't seen each other in a little while – a way of catching up. “How's the job going?” “How's your daughter?” That's small talk.
And while all that is fine and good, it's feels infinitely better to get beyond small talk and get to the meat and potatoes of conversing with other people – getting to know them better.
Scientific American has even published a podcast here about a recent study with the following findings by researchers on the happiness level of study participants who engage in different levels of conversation to different extents:
“[T]he happiest participants spent 70 percent more time talking with others than the least happy people. But more than just measuring amount of time spent talking with others, they also found a difference in the type of conversation happier folks engage in.
“The happiest participants had twice as many substantive conversations and only a third as much small talk as those who are least content.”
Apparently, according to the latest science, not only is getting past small talk good for your love life – it's good for you overall.
The problem that a lot of people have with small talk is that they can't get past it. Ever have one of those conversations where you've met someone new (or ran into someone you hardly know) and the two of you are both trying to make conversation, but you both just keep circling around and circling around and not finding anything to connect on? You can never quite get out of that awkward place of one person asking a question, the other person answering, and the conversation never really getting started?
“So where you from?” a man asks a woman.
“I grew up in Los Angeles; moved here four years ago. You?” she answers.
“I'm from Portland,” he replies.
“I see,” she says. “What do you do?”
“I'm an accountant,” he responds. “I count dollar signs, mostly. How about you, what's your profession?”
“I'm in the administrative office at the university downtown,” she tells him.
“That's great,” he says. After an awkward pause, he asks, “So... how do you like working at the university?”
“It's ok,” she says. “Nothing special. How do you like being an accountant?”
“Well, it pays the bills,” he tells her. She offers some polite laughter, and he laughs in kind, and then there's another awkward pause.
“Ok, I should probably go get another drink,” she tells him. “It was really nice meeting you.”
“You too,” he says.
What happened? They didn't get past small talk, and the conversation ended. Now, it may have very well been the case that she liked him and he liked her, and both of them were in fact interested in getting to know each other better, but eventually the failure to move beyond small talk made the conversation feel progressively more awkward and less comfortable and eventually the social pressure was too great for them to endure – and the woman, in this case, ended the conversation (and that uncomfortable awkwardness) by exiting it.
Why does it feel awkward when people fail to get past small talk? It's because they end up talking about stuff they don't care about and they fail to relate. Does the guy above really care how much this girl likes working at the university? Does the girl above really care that this guy is from Portland? Not likely on either count. The function that small talk provides – or is supposed to provide – is as a jumping off point into getting to know each other. But that never happened in the conversation above.
What went wrong here was that both partners in the above examples missed opportunities to get to know each other better and build a real conversation (and get past small talk) by getting personal and delving into meaningful topics – instead of staying on superficial levels. How does one do that? By asking pointed questions to get the other partner in the conversation to divulge more meaningful and more interesting tidbits and information.
After our gentleman notes that he's from Portland, the lady may say:
“I've never been to Portland. What's it like, and why did you leave there for here?”
What she's done is asked him to tell her some of his story. “Why did you leave there for here?” invites him to go into his background. Once he begins relating the details of his life, his situation, how he came to move to this new town they both find themselves in, suddenly she knows much more about him and has more to relate to him on – and make more interesting and meaningful conversation on.
Similarly, after she notes that she works at the university, rather than asking the pointless question of how she likes it, he might say:
“Really? My friend works there too. What do you like better, being around college kids all the time or getting to work in the middle of downtown?”
He's given her a couple of interesting options for telling him about what she likes. Now she can tell him about how she likes being around young people, or what she likes to do downtown. He's just handed her a few different ideas she can use to branch out in the conversation, rather than staying on the same boring topic of her job at the university (which she probably doesn't really want to think about a whole lot in her free time – unless of course she sees it as her calling!). He's also noted that his friend works at the university – giving her the opportunity to ask him who his friend is (maybe they know each other), what she does there, etc.
If you're picking up a trend here, you've got a good eye; in each case, I've given you a few examples on how people can get to relating to each other better. Because that is what getting past small talk is really about – it's about reaching the point where the two of you are relating to each other and connecting to each other under mutual understanding.
A failure to get past small talk is a failure to relate to another person.
And that's really all it is. And that's why it feels so awkward. When you're speaking with someone and you just can't get past small talk, what you know instinctively is that you're just not relating to her. And she feels the same.
It can be terribly frustrating, especially when both of you want to be relating to each other (and moving beyond small talk), and it's just not happening. But here's a secret: once you master the art of getting beyond small talk, you can connect with almost anyone. The reason why is, most people want to be building new connections with other people, but often don't know how or aren't very good at it. It only takes one of the people in a conversation to be able to move the pair past small talk; once you're past it, you're conversing on a deeper level and relating to each other and conversation flows along far more smoothly and naturally.
So let's go over how to get past small talk, and get you relating to the new people who come into your life. First, here's one more invaluable piece of info on what connecting to people really is all about: it's about getting them telling you about themselves.
A really cool study I saw quite recently found that how connected to you a given person feels has nothing to do with how well that person knows you, and everything to do with how well that person thinks you know her. Which means that the more she tells you about herself, the more connected to you she feels. Because of this, when all she's told you is where she's from and what she does, she doesn't feel connected at all. But once she's begun telling you her dreams, hopes, passions, motivations, and story, she will begin building that connection more and more. Helping other people to feel you know and understand them is what relating to people is all about, and that's what getting past small talk really is.
So without further ado, here are some of the best ways to move past small talk.
Ask the right questions.
Some of the most powerful questions you can ask are:
- “What do you like about that?”
- “Why did you decide to do that?”
- “Why are you doing XYZ instead of ABC?”
- “If you could do anything else instead of XYZ, what would it be?”
The reason these questions are so powerful is twofold.
It breaks your conversation partner out of autopilot. By the time someone's reached the age of 20, he or she is so used to being asked the standard small talk questions that the answers come without thought. But we don't want her answering on autopilot. When she's on autopilot, she's failing to connect with you; instead, you want her thinking, putting in some work in the conversation, and building a connection. When you get her thinking about things like what she likes, why she's doing what she's doing, or what else she could be doing instead, you get her telling you about herself and building that connection.
It moves instantly beyond the trite. How often does she get asked why she decided to become a photojournalist, or what else she might do instead and why? How many people are generally interested in what she really likes and wants to do? People love to talk about themselves, their passions, and their motivations, and when you give them the chance to do so with you, you've instantly broken past small talk.
Relate to what you hear.
Always try to relate whenever possible to what people tell you. So when someone says, “I'm from Portland,” you can say, “No way, I have a really good friend from there. It's rare to meet people from Oregon. How'd you find your way down here?” When you let someone know that you relate – something as simple as saying, “I've been to that town a few times,” or, “My friend can't stop talking about that restaurant,” or, “I've been trying to get up the nerve to try that sport forever,” you set them at ease and reassure them that they're not talking your ear off about something you don't care about. It relives the social pressure on them and allows them to relax and know that you're relating.
Offer more detail.
The number one reason people can't get past small talk? A failure to get enough information to make conversation on.
When you go back and forth with another person, giving each other near-one-word answers for each question, the conversation dries up soon. e.g.,
“Where are you from?” a woman asks a man.
“New York. You?” he says.
“I'm from DC. How do you like New York?” she replies.
“It's a great town. Ever been there?” he asks.
“A couple of times. Have you been to DC?” she says in turn.
“Once or twice,” he responds.
There's nowhere to go with that conversation. But if you throw some details in, it starts to look like this:
“Where are you from?” she asks.
“The City That Never Sleeps. I love it, but it's nice to be out of the concrete jungle for a bit. Where do you hail from?” he says to her.
“I'm from DC. How do you like New York?” she says back.
“You know, it's a great town,” he tells her. “I used to live in a place that didn't have any public transportation; I'm grateful for it now. And there're always lots of different things to do; it's nice being in a town where you never have to worry about getting bored. What do you think of our nation's capitol?”
Now, this conversation is primed to go somewhere. The man in question here took the opportunity to give his new connection some information about himself to work on; he mentions living in a place without transportation, and living in a town with lots of different things to do. Now, instead of making polite conversation that doesn't really scratch the surface of either party, he's given the woman he's speaking with the chance to ask him, “Where did you live before?” or, “What kind of things do you do in New York?” (which she'll likely ask him after answering his question about how she likes DC) and he can go into some detail on his background, and ask her about hers.
Note that conversation is all about leading into topics; there needs to be a progression from one topic to another. That's why you'll never see a conversation that goes:
“Where are you from?”
“Melbourne, in Australia. Have you ever skied the Alps?”
“Oh. Too bad.”
It doesn't make sense. The poor person asking where this guy is from is going to be scratching her head, wondering why on Earth he asked her if she's skied the Alps. But you could see a conversation like this:
“Where are you from?”
“Melbourne, in Australia. I was just traveling in Europe, though – have you ever skied the Alps?”
“No – did you do that while you were there?”
Or like this:
“Where are you from?”
“Melbourne, in Australia. Have you ever skied the Alps?”
“Hmm. Well, the reason I ask is, I first left Australia about two months ago, and my mission was to ski the Alps. I got seriously sidetracked though – that's how I ended up here. I'm planning on getting back to Europe and skiing those Alps before I make my way back to Melbourne though – seeing how charming and adventurous you appear, I thought to suggest you come with me.”
Remember to tie a train of thought back to the preceding thought – either at the beginning of the thought (how it's normally done), or by explaining the relation at the end of the thought (less common – more of an advanced conversational technique) – and you can relate just about anything to anything and make it natural. Forget to do so, and the conversation seems to randomly jump from topic to topic and thought to thought – so it's important to remember to tie it all together!
If you follow those three basic rules for breaking past small talk
- Ask the right questions
- Relate to what you hear
- Offer more detail
you'll be flying by it and getting to building connections fast in no time. Ideally you want to spend as little time in small talk as possible – use it only as a tool to jump off into real conversation and get relating to people. Do that and you'll be in real conversations quickly, reliably, and regularly – and I guarantee you'll enjoy meeting new people a whole lot more. And they'll enjoy meeting you too.
All my best,
UPDATE: to get into deep, meaningful conversation in a hurry, be sure to check out "The Art of the Deep Dive," "What Does She Want? The 8 Things You Must Ask Her," and "20 Ways to Talk to Women and Make It AMAZING."
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