A shy person’s guide to making (and surviving) small talk

A few weeks into kindergarten, my teacher contacted my mother to express her concern over my behavior. “Mrs. Vendetti,” she began, “I don’t want to cause alarm but I think there’s something wrong with your daughter. She doesn’t talk to anyone. She just plays in the corner by herself. All the time.” First, I would like to congratulate myself on being a strong, independent woman who didn’t need no man (or companions) at the age of six. Bravo. Second, I want to point out that shyness should not be a cause for alarm for teachers or for yourself. Unless you live on a deserted island or you’re J.D. Salinger, you will encounter strangers and new people every day of your life. For us shy folks, it can be hard to communicate with such creatures without coming off as some confused, socially awkward human, but there are ways to make such situations easier to handle:

1) Plan conversation topics ahead of time.

I’m not suggesting you should memorize a list of responses like some telemarketer trying to predict their customer’s response. (“You don’t want an Easy Bake oven? Wait, hang on, my guidebook has a whole chapter on rejection, the answer’s in here somewhere…”) I’m just saying that jumping into a conversation is easier when you know the appropriate responses to basic small talk questions and you can just dole them out like you know what you’re doing. But don’t prepare too much, otherwise you may end up shouting out your answer before realizing that the other person changed their response halfway through the conversation (i.e. How are you? Nothing much!).

2) Ask a lot of questions.

Nothing causes more distress than the dreaded “awkward silence.” Even though, in reality, such pauses only last a few seconds and are really not that awkward, for shy people, they seem like a lifetime, like you could fit a whole lecture between that momentary ripple in time. Luckily, there’s an easy, and pretty obvious, solution. Just keep talking. Asking questions like “How’s it going?” or “Any fun plans for the weekend?” will keep the conversation going right up until you both have to part ways.

3) Actually listen to their responses.

When it comes to talking with strangers, half of the battle is attentively listening and constructing follow up questions. Making mental notes during conversation and sorting out your own opinion on the subject will make that whole “speaking” part smoother once it comes around. It’s easy to watch the chattering person’s face and slip into a sort of “listening coma” where you can see your partner’s mouth moving but all the words coming out glide over your head as your mind focuses on other things, like “Wow, you’re actually not doing so bad at this conversation thing” or “Does this person know I’m only staring into their left eye right now?”

4) Fake it ’til you make it.

Consider every conversation you have with a stranger as preparation for that future acting career you secretly dream of pursuing. You don’t need to be good with people, you just need to make the other person think you are. The more you treat it like a mini-play, the more likely you will be able to get through it alive. In some ways, it’s even better than a performance because if you forget your line, you can just make up a new one, or walk away.

5) Smile.

Smiling is a godsend. This simple gesture can help relieve the tension that comes with talking to someone you don’t know and half the time, it can suffice as a response in itself. Don’t know how to respond to the person’s comment? Just laugh. Not only does it establish a more relaxed atmosphere, but it also buys you a few seconds to come up with a better response. You know, one made of words and sentences.

6) Look at the forehead if eye contact becomes too difficult.

On the long list of things that make me uncomfortable, right between “moist socks” and the word “moist,” there is “prolonged eye contact.” Maybe it’s just me but looking at someone straight in the eye, straight in the pupil, makes my whole body shiver. To get around it, and to avoid looking like I’m having a shivering fit in the middle of a conversation, I sometimes stare at the person’s forehead or briefly around the room before circling back to their eyes and glancing away again. It’s a highly inconvenient cycle, but it makes small talk bearable.

7) Remember: it’s not the end of the world.

The key to talking with strangers is remembering that they are just that: strangers. These are people you have never met before and will likely never see again, depending on the situation. Saying something awkward or having a sour encounter will not kill you. It will only make you stronger, and probably turn your face bright red. But otherwise, it’s not that bad.

Featured image via Tumblr.