The big things about small talk

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I hate small talk. One of the worst possible torture treatments you could hand me would be to put me in a room with strangers for a whole day and ask me to make small talk with them. Over the years I’ve come to avoid it as much as possible.

Extroverts won’t really understand, but as an introvert, that act of making conversations with a bunch of unknowns is a taxing one. It’s not to say that as introverts we can’t do it. Indeed, sometimes introverts make the best conversationalists. It just sucks the energy out of us, and leaves us drained.

Yet it’s everywhere, isn’t it. Being fairly new to a job and sitting down in the lunch area with colleagues. Weekend barbecues with a bunch of new people. Weddings. Work functions. All occasions that at times have made me roll my eyes and wish for home in the past. Going to a kids party, you’re forced to engage with those around you in meaningless chit chat. People you’re likely to never see again. So you think, what’s the point? Yet there you are, asking the questions you need to ask to fill the terrifying silences. What work do you do? What area do you stay in? How crazy has this weather been? How long have you been in this city? How good was the rugby last weekend? Bleh.

There’s something about the act that strikes me as . . . insincere. Basically feigning interest in someone just to get through a certain occasion and to avoid awkward silences. My stance is typically along the lines of me feeling like I don’t care enough about people to want to know the little things about their lives. I’m just . . not . . . that . . . interested. But then things changed a bit.

With 2019 came a great deal of self-reflection. A lot of it, I suppose, was due to changing countries and trying (at times) to fit into new work environments and cultures. I started realizing that I was perhaps a little too “in my shell” so to speak. Over time I suppose I’ve embraced this contrarian stance to small talk a little too much. With all of this in mind some realisations slowly hit me. I watched people. Successful people. I took note of one thing in particular – how at ease they were with just talking.

I reached a simple conclusion that I need a change of mindset about this. For three primary reasons:

  1. It’s the basis for all human connection

Humans are social animals. That applies even to us introverts of this world. We need connection, and that sense of belonging. Yet the only way to reach that point is to start by small talk. There are obviously some people you never really build a sense of rapport with. Often they’re about as interesting as a government issued tax guide. But with some people, after chatting for a while you find you click in some ways. Yet you only find that out through trading some light conversation.

It’s more than that. Successful people seem to have a knack for small talk, and using it to lead them where they want to go.

Great sales people have perfected the art of finding rapport, which ultimately builds trust and connection. Landing the job you want often depends on how well you come across regardless of your interview questions. This depends on how well you hold your own in conversation. Charm is something you hone over time through conversation. It’s almost impossible to turn it on and off.

To find an ideal romantic partner for yourself, you have to be able to engage in small talk. Men, in particular who often shoulder the responsibility of the first move in a potential relationship generally fare better if they’re able to be funny and engaging in the arts of small talk. Again, this requires practice, and learning the hard way.

  1. There’s something to learn from everyone

The best way to become a better conversationalist is to listen better. It sounds counterintuitive but by listening more you pick up on the interesting things someone says. And yes, there is something to learn from everyone.

It could be an interesting world event you never knew about. It could be a piece of gossip you were out of the loop on. It could be a bit of parenting insight that makes you think Hmm, I should try that. It could be news of a new online service you’re interested in. And so on.

Sometimes, in the right circumstances people give away a little too much. Alcohol does that. So the unfortunate curse I have of a high tolerance to alcohol has resulted in one or two interesting experiences. I can drink a bottle of wine and still have all my wits about me. Some people have two glasses and lose all inhibition in conversation.

A few years ago I was new to a company. In celebration of my arrival, the big boss hosted an evening at his house with a host of key staff. I got into a conversation with a woman in her 30’s who, it turns out, was the head of IT. Or something like that. After giving me the inside scoop of the company and how to handle certain personalities, she proceeded to tell me how tantric sexual practices were saving her marriage.

Not that I’d use this type of information against anyone, but often having the patience to stay in a conversation with someone leads to some interesting insights about company culture, company leadership styles and so forth.

What about that annoying guy who’s just cringe worthy? Well, perhaps there’s something to learn from him too. Even if, like David Brent in The Office, it’s merely to remind you of what you don’t want to be.

  1. For introverts, talking is a skill that needs continual practice

It isn’t like riding a bike. If you want to be great at communication, you have to work at it, continually. I’ve been guilty at times in the past of going into my shell and avoiding talk as much as possible. Understandable, isn’t it? Yet whenever this has happened I’ve noticed a marked decline at how well I communicate. Is it just me, or is this a universal human truth? Or, more likely, this is true of us introverts.

If I spend an entire day talking to people or doing presentations, by the end of the day the ease at which I’m talking is remarkable. It stuns even me. However, if I were to spend a week at home with no company, my communication skills would suffer. I’d be tripping over my sentences. My pitch would be poor. There’d be a faulty connection between my brain and my words.

Embracing opportunities to talk to people helps keep your conversation skills sharp. Some people are natural talkers, but many are not. For many, like myself, it’s a skill that needs constant sharpening.

 

What choice do we have but to deal with people in this life? Might as well become as good as possible at talking to them. Some things in life just can’t be avoided. Small talk is one of them.

I’m not suggesting that I’m suddenly going to love engaging in small talk. My natural instinct will still be to avoid it. Yet part of me now knows it is something to be embraced (sort of). What’s the worst thing that can happen?

We’re human. We need connection. We need . . . things. To make things happen and build our own success sometimes we have to do what is not entirely comfortable.

I’ll drag myself to work on this in the coming year. Let’s see how it goes.

Until next time

Stay sceptical folks.

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