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!

  • Amy Shuey

    I have a job that necessitates small talk and I am awful at it. I feel like I should print this out and keep a copy taped to my desk because I am the queen of jumping into big talk just to fill an awkward silence.

    • Alexandra

      Aw you are probably just more interesting than everyone else! Let them catch up :)

  • Emily June

    well now i have seen a tarantula molt…

    • Alexandra

      Most insane thing ever, right???

  • Stephanie Smith

    Thank you for this! I am awful at small talk and you have offered some great advice.

    • Alexandra

      You can do it! Just keep practicing.

  • Aly Patton

    I love this. I am horrible at small talk and a bit shy so I can use all the help I can get :)

    • Alexandra

      You can do it! I feel like shy people are usually the most interesting… Don’t hold back!

  • Connie Tang

    I immensely enjoy your posts. About to go into my first clinical and was wracked about making small talk until I read this. Thanks!

    • Alexandra

      Which clinical? The good thing is, you can always ask questions. Are you rounding with a team? Soon you will have tons of crazy stories from the wards!

  • Nyssa Sager

    Hah, thanks so much for this! I am studying to be a dietitian, and a big part of being a dietitian is small talk, something I’m terrible at! Your blog will surely help 😉

    • Alexandra

      Oooh, yeah… You need to do some serious small talking! But there is so much I would want to hear from you, like what’s up with this Kate Middleton Dukan Diet? Or, why is acai so celebrated?

  • Kelly Paddison

    Loved this post; very clear, funny and full of handy pointers. I am all kinds of terrible at small talk, I usually end up just nattering about any old thing to fill the dreaded awkward silences. Got an awards dinner coming up for work, i’ma get some practice happening, Thanks!

    • Alexandra

      First of all, I love the word nattering. Second, have a great time at the dinner! Come armed with some stories or jokes or whatever! You’ll rock it.

  • Alexandra

    Awesome! I’m so glad other people find small talk as daunting as I do… But necessary. I’m sure you are all super charming!!!

  • Kait Richmond

    “Or even more fun, if you have an enemy in common…” hahaha so true! Great piece!

    • Alexandra


  • Sarojin Abhishaker McAllister

    This is why my husband’s friend’s wives/gfs don’t like me. I suck at small talk, I never know what to say. Then when they’re gone, I think of all kinds of things I could have talked to them about, *sigh*

    • Alexandra

      Noooo! Get them talking about Hellogiggles, or Ice Loves Coco, or aren’t the Kardashians a universal topic? You can find something!

  • Jeff Conrad

    I thought of this today as I talked to my brother. Oddly, even with family, I usually start with small talk!

    • Alexandra

      You seem like a wonderful human being… Would you like to be my husband? Oh wait, you are. YES.

  • Erika Turner

    You had me at number 4, which in a way encompasses majority of the list. Larry David is always right, even when he’s wrong.

    • Alexandra

      Oh LD, may we all be so gifted.

  • Miranda Robertson

    I’m a family lawyer, so a lot of small talk topics are usually out… for example ‘do you have kids’ turns into ‘yes, with my asshole of an ex-husband’. I now make a point of reading the newspaper every morning with my latte so I can be like ‘did you hear about..!’ if it becomes necessary. Although if I’m being honest, often when it gets to that awkward small talk stage I’m just all ‘I’m really sorry, but I have another appointment in five minutes’ so they have to leave. Sneaky.

    I love your articles! How did your big exam go?

    • Alexandra

      Haha I totally pretend to get paged when my small talk tolerance is spent! I love the reading the paper technique. The exam is on 9/19… Still studying away!!!

  • Amber Arias

    just watched molting tarantula. SO gross.

  • Justin Dodd

    Great post. And I actually have a tarantula. So, i’ve watched it molt in person. Takes hours. :/

  • Linda Stalcup McDanel

    I don’t know…you seem really good at small talk! If you were bad at it, you could not have written such a good post! I can’t think of anything else to that my phone?

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