How To Succeed In Small Talk Without Really Trying

Does anyone actually enjoy small talk? I think we can all agree that while it has its place and purpose, small talk is the worst. I used to loathe it but work has made it necessary. Not only must I grease the wheels of my daily interactions with nurses, other doctors and hospital staff, I have to do some serious small talk with my patients. Part of my job is to put them at ease, so after I get through all the “You can die from x, y, or z….” business and stab them with a needle for IV access, I have to lay on the pleasantries pretty thick. You know what? With improvement of my “small talk” skills at work, I have had some pretty fascinating conversations. A co-worker does war reenactments and was concerned he would have to smoke pot to keep it real for a Vietnam role playing session. A patient told me that during lean times as an artist in Los Angeles, she lived off of fruit she picked off trees in Los Feliz. Another patient (who I didn’t even recognize) is on a hit TV show and we bonded over our inability to tolerate lack of efficiency. Small talk can lead to big conversations that you will enjoy! If not, then you just get out as soon as possible.

Below please find some rough tips for navigating small talk, and (more importantly) getting to the next level.

1. See it as a game.

A while back, I decided to view small talk in a different way: I see it as the first level of a video game. When you get good, you can fly right through it and onto the big talk. You can even try to find secret tricks and bonus points that will help you further along in the game.

2. Ask questions.

For the most part, people love to talk about themselves. I mean, we all do, right? Well, maybe not Ryan Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love, but whatever. Asking someone questions lets you steer a nascent conversation in whatever direction you please. It gives you multiple jumping off points for bigger topics. Don’t jump right into “So, what do you do?” It’s a little abrasive. Ask about where they are from, what it was like there, how long they have lived somewhere, places they have traveled, plans for the weekend, hobbies or artistic talent… etc. People have pretty interesting stories.

3. Do a little homework.

Prepare and have some conversation tricks up your sleeve. It’s silly but have a couple stock stories or experiences to bring up in a lull so you don’t find yourself commenting on the weather. A friend of mine recently told me that a friend of his expects all of her dinner guests to “have a story” to bring to the table. While it may seem a little controlling or off-putting, it’s also a really good point. My friend then proceeded to tell me a story about seeing a tarantula on the golf course, which was pretty awesome. This led to all kinds of conversational tangents. Have you ever searched YouTube for “molting tarantula”?

4. If you are stuck, ask yourself, “What would Larry David do”?

Then do exactly what he would do or do the opposite. But you see, LD is no small talker. For better or for worse, he stirs the pot. He’s kind of my amazingly socially awkward yet graceful hero.

5. Bring up something you would like to talk about.

Have you seen a movie that moved you recently? Or ever? What about your favorite book? Your guilty pleasure TV show? Invite people into talking about something fun and interesting. This often segues into much more.

6. Avoid the volatile topics.

Politics, work, religion, money and any topic that has been just beat to death (I hate to say it, but Radiohead). Just don’t do it. Also, try not to make the obvious comments about a persons name or line of work or whatever. You definitely aren’t the first. For example, please don’t ask me about Michael Jackson and Propofol. Please.

7. It may be small talk, but no need to make it superficial.

If you like someone’s shirt, fine. Say so. But back it up showing your interest in the person! No one likes to be treated like a walking advertisement.

8. Jokes.

If you can remember jokes (I do not have that gene), and tell them in a charming way; go for it. You can never go wrong with a laugh.

9. Talk behind backs.

If you have a mutual friend or acquaintance with the person you are chatting up, bring up how interesting and wonderful your person in common is. This gets the conversation going and reveals what you have in common outside that friend. Or even more fun, if you have an enemy in common…

10. Don’t push it.

No one likes that person who just dives right into big talk before everyone is a little warmed up. (I have been guilty of this many a time.) If people aren’t ready to talk about anything in depth, move on.

Well, I hope this is remotely helpful. Small talk is a necessary evil sometimes. Since my goal in life is to eliminate pain, I hope this makes it less painful!

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