Speak easy: Mastering the art of small talk

16:00, Mar 15 2014
small talk
CAUGHT FOR WORDS: Meeting new people for the first time can be a daunting experience for many.

Armed with lessons from a small-talk expert, an anxious man hits a party with some new tricks up his sleeve.

The other night I went to a party not too far from home. My hands were sweating, and not from the heat: I was on my way to spend several hours talking with complete strangers.

Weeks previously, I'd received an invitation to a party being thrown by a woman I'd worked with briefly a few years ago. I wasn't quite sure what to do. I was happy - thrilled - to have been invited, of course. But while this woman is nice and I consider her a friend, she's also the type of friend you see about once a year. I don't know any of her crowd, and the thought of spending the night in a room full of strangers didn't sound overly appealing to me.

I don't like small talk. Does anyone? That queasy feeling of sidling up next to a stranger, clumsily fumbling for things to talk about, the pressure to be amusing, pressure to be polite, pressure to somehow break through and have some kind of meaningful interaction, and the all-round number-one threat when it comes to conversing with strangers: boredom.

To paraphrase an old saying, if you can't spot the boring one in the conversation - surprise! - you're it. On the other hand, I want to meet new people. I want to go out and have fun.

"That's the pain of shyness - wanting something you can't have," says Dr. Bernardo Carducci, of Indiana University Southeast's Shyness Research Institute and the author of The Pocket Guide to Making Successful Small Talk. Shy people are different from introverts, who want to be left alone, or someone with social anxiety disorder who's barely able to get on the bus and go to work, he explains. Carducci's a believer in giving people the tools to take the control of their shyness. "I know that takes the mystery out of this kind of stuff," he says. "But that's kind of the point."

I agree with him: change is possible. I believe in making a better me. So, I turn to small-talk 'trainer' Debra Fine.

Twenty years ago, Fine was an engineer. "I was a dork," she tells me over the phone from her home in Denver, Colorado. "Maybe I still am." Not very good at chit-chat, she was fascinated with the one thing she couldn't do and worked at it until she was very, very good at it. She started offering training in small talk at her local community centre. "Out of nowhere, I started getting hired to do keynotes at conferences. And a light bulb went off. People kept asking to buy the book, and I didn't have one. So I wrote one!" 

Today, Fine is the author of several books, including The Fine Art of Small Talk and its sequel, The Fine Art of Big Talk. She gets hired to speak about small talk at conferences from big companies like Google, Cisco, Wells Fargo, and others.On her website, she bills herself as "best-selling author, conversation expert, communication guru, nationally recognised spokesperson, business networking authority". In short, she's 100 percent serious business. And she'll be my chitchat Yoda.

She's also not exactly what I expected. Which is how Luke Skywalker felt about Yoda, too, come to think of it. I expected someone stiff and odd; could someone who'd devoted their life to figuring out a manual on how to talk to other people be anything but a little off-putting? But actually, she's great. A little cheesy sometimes, but also full of a joking gruffness that is both disarming and endearing. "Hooray that you have a girlfriend... I guess," she says to me at one point, and, later: "Let's say that you and I were to become friends, which I know is very unlikely. It's just a hypothetical, so don't worry."

Fine's tips for succeeding at small talk boil down to three things: first, always lead a conversation with free information, or the stuff everyone knows in common just by being there (questions like, "How do you know the host"). When I tell Fine this party is actually to celebrate getting evicted, she gets very excited. "Now you gave me another one!" she says."This is how I would start the conversation: 'I've never been to a party for an eviction. It's so fun! What's the most unique or unusual party you've been to?'"

Second, always have something substantive to say when someone asks you how you're doing. Never just reply with "great".

Finally, there are your life rafts: three topics of conversation you can bring up if you feel the conversation slipping away. "The worst time to think of something to talk about is when there's nothing to talk about," she says.

More than anything else, says Fine, it's about "assuming the burden of other people's comfort."

This means doing everything uncomfortable in a conversation: introducing people, admitting you've forgotten someone's name instead of clumsily calling them 'you!' or 'this guy!' and coming up with things to talk about.

When I walk in, I spot some people I know and allow myself about 20 minutes of chatting with them, jokily testing my small talk material. I let them know why I've really come, and they ask me what tips I've learned. "I can't tell you," I say, leaning in. "But isn't this a unique party? What's the most unique party you've been to?" Everyone laughs, but no one actually answers my question. First small-talk gambit: mixed success.

As the night wears on, the party gets very crowded, and there's not much room to circulate. After leaving my friends in the kitchen, I get stuck near the doorway. I look to my left, at a long table covered in bottles of liquor and bags of snacks, and notice there's a woman there ladling something out of a punch bowl into a plastic cup. I hear Fine in my head: "You're going to look for approachable people, people who are by themselves. That's who you walk up to." I swallow hard. Here goes. "What's that?" I say to her, indicating the punch bowl. I have to repeat myself, because it's loud and most people don't expect a stranger to walk up behind them and yell "WHAT'S THAT", while gesturing wildly at liquids. 

The girl, who's tall and thin with long blonde hair - the kind of person who's probably used to fending off strange men wherever she goes - says, "Oh. I'm not sure."

"I think it's some kind of apple cider?" I venture, picking up a bottle of cider not too far from the punch bowl and holding it up for comparison. "It's the same colour, right?" This is what you call free information. "Umm, maybe? I can't really tell," she says. I don't think she's looked at me yet. "It's the light in here, right?" I continue, bravely assuming the burden. "It's so yellow! Everything looks crazy."

Well, something looked crazy, but it was possibly me.

"Yeah," the girl says. "Sorry, I have to go." And with that, she's off. Except by this point the party is so crowded she can't actually leave the kitchen right away, and spends the next two minutes about one foot in front of me, very consciously not looking in my direction. We don't speak another word. Small talk gambit two: total failure.

But I forge on. I do a brief stroll around the room, looking for available people but not seeing anyone except the punch girl, still alone and still avoiding looking at me.

Finally, I end up next to a girl in a party dress, standing alone near a window. "Hello," I start. "How do you know the host?" (This is an absolutely fantastic bit of free information, which I'd been very stupidly neglecting.)

"Oh, I'm her flatmate," she says. This opens up excellent conversational avenues. We have a mutual friend! "My flatmate was just feeling a little emotional when she wrote the Facebook invitation," she tells me. In fact, the landlord is giving the apartment to her son, who's about to start a family. They're being kicked out, true, but it's not like the authorities were involved.

We talk for so long that at some point someone I don't know walks up and takes a picture of the two of us. Eventually, she has official host business to attend to and excuses herself. Gambit two: total victory.

Later, I find myself next to a shorter, very blonde woman wearing a gigantic metallic necklace, which looks like pieces of a mirror she's shattered and strung together with fishing wire. She's snooping on the host's bookshelves, and I remark that for people who are being kicked out of their apartment soon, they don't seem to have packed a single thing. "I know!" she says.

"I thought there would be boxes everywhere, but this is very normal-looking."

I ask her what she does, even though that was a specific no-no from Fine. "What if they're out of work?" she had said, very sensibly. "I like to ask, 'What keeps you busy?' instead." Still, in the moment, this struck me as a little forced, so I kept things simple and asked about her job.

This woman, it turns out, is not unemployed, and works with textiles. As it so happens, I know an impressive amount about textiles. "Oh, boy, we're getting really deep," she says, as I ask her about her feelings on the environmental impacts of cotton production and recent advances in fake fur and leather. I change tack, scared I might be boring her. She has a heavy German accent, and I happen to be planning a trip there later in the year. "Oh, where are you going?" she asks. When I tell her Hamburg, she looks at me for a long moment and says, "This will sound strange, but are you okay with sex... in your face?"

It does indeed sound strange, and for a moment I am concerned that something very odd has happened in our conversation. She then explains to me that Hamburg has a large red-light district and many prostitutes. "If you're a girl, you have to walk on a certain side of the street, or they get territorial and angry."  We are able to keep on this topic for a few minutes, until I eventually have to excuse myself to say goodbye to my friends. Another total success.

I spend the rest of the night lazily engaging in extremely short, free-information conversations. The hosts had requested we remove our shoes, and at a certain point in the night, the apartment absolutely smelled like feet. "It stinks in here, right?" I say to a pair of friends hanging out in an upstairs hallway. They agree that it does indeed stink.

I sense that I am getting lazy, and decide to go home. I'd been there for hours and had a fantastic time. I hadn't even needed to bring up my three topics (which, for the record, were: What's the last album you bought?; Did you get sunburned this summer?; and Have you been watching the Olympics?). 

Manyof Fine's tricks seem obvious, even banal: 'How do you know the host?' 'Great party we're having!' These are exactly the type of well-worn smalltalk tropes that most people dread. And as far as the idea of having three backup topics, it seemed disingenuous to me, like it would somehow corrupt the genuine in-the-momentness of your interactions with another person. And yet, giving in to the banality - giving yourself the permission to say something that possibly isn't the most creative thing you've ever said - was freeing. It helped enormously in dealing with my anxiety. And, further, it was surprisingly effective. People responded.

In the end, "It's just about being present," says Fine. "When I walk into my job for this big company in Florida tomorrow, I'm supposed to have breakfast with them before I go on stage, and you can bet I'll have three things to talk about. But if we're at a party and you and I hit it off, I won't need them. If you want people to talk to you at parties, just put a smile on your face and look comfortable, whether you feel it or not."


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