As the holidays approach, we find our calendars full of social events where we’re forced to engage in dreaded “small talk.” “Small talk is the appetizer for any relationship,” says Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk: How to Start a Conversation, Keep It Going, Build Networking Skills–and Leave a Positive Impression. All relationships–business, social, and romantic–start with small talk. But for many of us, the prospect of having to engage in chit-chat can be nerve wracking. Here’s how to get the small talk flowing:
Fine says you should never walk into a party without a handful of things you’re prepared to talk about. Bone up on some current events, think about what movies you’ve seen recently, or what your plans are for the New Year. “Small talk becomes awkward when there’s nothing to talk about,” says Fine. Having some topics at the ready can ease your nerves and jump-start a conversation with anyone.
This is not a conversation starter, says Fine. The answer is usually, “I’m okay,” or “I’m good.” Now where do you take the conversation? No one ever launches into a real conversation about what’s going on in their lives after being asked, “How are you?”
Fine says the best way to start an interaction with someone you know is, instead of asking, “How are you?” say, “Catch me up. What’s new in your life since I last saw you?” If you’re starting a conversation with someone you don’t have a previous relationship with, asking “How do you know the host/hostess?” is a great way to bond over a common element. “What keeps you busy outside of work?” is a good way to find out about a colleague’s hobbies. “It takes the conversation to something real,” says Fine.
Don’t interrogate by peppering someone with questions like, “What do you do?” and, “Where are you from?” Start with one topic and stick with it. Asking “What do you do?” is fine, Fine says, but follow up with something that slows the conversation down and helps you learn more about that person, such as, “What do you like about your job?”
Fine says we often dread small talk because we don’t like the unpredictability of these conversations with people outside our social circle. Put yourself at ease by preparing some one-line answers to some common small talk questions such as, “How are you planning to spend the holidays?” or “How’s work going?” Be prepared to disclose some information about yourself in your answers. The problem, Fine says, is that many of us give out one-word answers because we aren’t prepared with real answers. “When we give one-word answers, we don’t get anywhere with people,” says Fine.
Take a minute before walking into an event to think about how you will answer these rhetorical questions in a way that will help you connect with people. When asked, “What are you planning for the holidays?” for example, Fine typically says, “Well, my business slows down during the holidays, so it’s great because I have more time to relax at home.” She’s disclosed something about her work, and she’s left the door open for the person on the other end to ask what she does to relax.