When Gillian Sandstrom was a graduate student in Toronto more than a decade ago, she encountered a stranger on the subway who was carrying a scrumptious-looking cupcake.
Sandstrom had long considered herself an introvert and found small talk uncomfortable and even embarrassing. But drool-worthy desserts can’t go unadmired, so she approached the woman. “By the end of the conversation, she taught me that people can ride ostriches,” she recalls. “That’s what conversations do sometimes—and I was hooked after that.”
The experience inspired Sandstrom, a senior lecturer in the psychology of kindness at the University of Sussex in England, to conduct some of the leading research on the benefits of casual interactions with strangers and acquaintances. These brief but pleasant exchanges can enhance health and happiness, lifting mood, energy, and overall well-being. They often promote learning, expand people’s world views, and contribute to a sense of belonging. Plus, they’re good for both parties: Sandstrom’s research indicates that people view “minimal social interactions” such as a smile, compliment, or quick chat as an act of kindness.
You can maximize these benefits by making a point to talk to a wide range of people, additional research suggests. Chatting with your colleagues, barista, Uber driver, and the person surveying the ice-cream aisle with you builds what’s called relational diversity, which is a unique predictor of well-being.
Despite the benefits, many of us hate small talk. We often assume that the people around us aren’t interested in talking or won’t like us—but research indicates that we tend to underestimate how much our conversation partners enjoy our company, a phenomenon called “the liking gap.”
“We all have this negative voice in our heads that tells us we’re not very good at this social stuff,” Sandstrom says. “But the data suggest that people actually like you more than you think they do.”
The more you do it, she’s found, the more natural it will feel. One study by Sandstrom found that when people did a week-long scavenger hunt in which they had to find, approach, and talk to strangers, they grew more optimistic and confident about their conversational skills every day.
We asked experts to share their favorite strategies for getting better at small talk—because there’s only so much you can say about the weather.
Reframe the conversation as a treasure hunt
Alison Wood Brooks gets excited about small talk—and for years, it didn’t occur to her that some people dreaded it. But when she started teaching a course on conversation skills at Harvard Business School, she realized she had hit a nerve. “Even these high-achieving, brilliant MBA students—so many of them hate small talk,” says Brooks, whose forthcoming book is called Talk: The Science of Conversation and Art of Being Ourselves. “I’ve come to believe that I’m the weird one. I think most people truly dread small talk and struggle to figure out how to manage it.”
One key to changing that is to first accept that these casual chats are inevitable. “It’s a social ritual that you actually have to engage in, especially with strangers or people you don’t know that well,” she says. Then, reframe it in your mind as a treasure hunt. Dive in, eager to discover what fascinating or juicy tidbit you might unearth. Who knows where the conversation might lead?
Take advantage of “free information”
Lean into your surroundings, says Debra Fine, an expert on communication skills and author of The Fine Art of Small Talk. If you’re standing next to someone at a baby shower, for example, the fact that you’re both there is what she describes as “free information”—so ask the person how they know the mom-to-be. If you’re at a fundraiser, ask the stranger assigned to your dinner table how he got involved and what keeps him interested. Or ask the person squeezed into the airplane seat next to you if she’s been to your shared destination before. “If I’m at a 5K race this summer, I’ll say to the person next to me, ‘What’s your best ingredient for success at these things?’ Or, ‘Have you ever done this before?’” Fine says. Your shared reality is a terrific entry point and can lead to deeper conversation.
Don’t linger too long on low-priority topics
Think of conversation topics as a pyramid, Brooks says. The foundation consists of the obligatory small talk anyone can master: How about that rain? How was your weekend? These topics are foundational, she says—you often have to start conversations at the base of the pyramid.
The mistake people commonly make, however, is lingering there too long. “You get stuck talking about the weather for 15 minutes,” and all parties become desperate to escape, she says. Instead, ascend the pyramid by selecting topics that are increasingly more personalized and tailored to your conversation partner. Say you ask a colleague how their weekend was, and they tell you they went to a Taylor Swift concert. “As soon as you find that treasure, there are so many questions you can ask,” Brooks says. For example: What was your favorite part of the show? “And then all of a sudden you’re sprinting up the pyramid away from small talk, because they’re going to talk about their emotions and peak moments,” she says. Voila: small talk has evolved into deep talk.
Compliment unique forms of personal expression
Try not to comment on someone’s looks, which could come across as “creepy,” Sandstrom says. (For example: Avoid “you have such beautiful eyes,” which might make the recipient want to shuffle away as quickly as possible.)
Instead, channel your curiosity about a form of personal expression—like funky jewelry or hair color, or a striking outfit or bag—into a compliment that might start a conversation. “When you give someone a compliment, like ‘Oh, I love your tattoo,’ they often interpret it as, ‘You’re asking me the story about it,’” she says.
Sandstrom once complimented a waitress on her earrings, and the woman told her how she collects a new set everywhere she travels. That particular pair happened to be shaped like sailboats—and had been made out of old boat materials. The exchange brightened each person’s day, and remains vivid in Sandstrom’s mind.
Skip questions about marriage, kids, and work
When you’re talking to strangers and acquaintances, it’s generally wise to steer clear of controversial topics (like religion and politics) and to avoid probing potentially sensitive matters (such as inquiring if someone is married or has kids). Another possible landmine: Asking someone what they do for work. Not only is it a tired line of inquiry, but it could thrust someone into the uncomfortable position of, say, disclosing they were recently laid off.
Instead, try a question like: “’What keeps you busy outside of work or school?’” Fine advises. For acquaintances, use phrases like “catch me up on” or “bring me up to speed.” For example: You might ask a high-school senior to fill you in on their college search, rather than inquiring if they got into Dartmouth.
When someone asks you a question, respond generously
Think of conversation as a game—and aim to be an active player, which requires investing energy into it. If someone asks you how you are, and you simply respond “good,” you’re being a “lazy conversationalist,” Fine says. Rather than a single-word response, offer a full sentence in return, like: “I just watched the most recent episode of Ted Lasso, and I didn’t think it was that great.” That gives the person you’re talking to plenty to work with if they’d like to continue to chat.
Exit the conversation gracefully
People often drag conversations on for too long because they can’t figure out how to end them, Brooks says.
While the exact circumstances will dictate how you navigate your exit, consider introducing the person to someone else, suggests Diane Windingland, author of several books on communication skills, including Small Talk, Big Results. Make a positive comment about why they should meet, and then say, “I’ll let you two get to know each other.”
If that’s not possible, briefly recap the conversation—“I enjoyed hearing about your fishing adventures”—and, if you want, mention something you could do together in the future. Then, Windingland recommends concluding like this: “Please excuse me; I have to talk to so and so.” Or, “It’s been great talking to you, but I don’t want to monopolize your time.”
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