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Small talk

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Red alert: The holidays are coming! Thanksgiving in the U.S. is followed by Hanukah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and a ton of holiday parties. Which means you should get ready for small talk.

This week, I did a little research for myself and discovered a secret three-step technique you might want to use.

If you’re the kind of person who thrives when placed in a big room with one hundred strangers for an undefined period of time, skip this post. (Please talk to me if you see me at such a party!) You’re a natural connector, and probably adept, without any training, at making small talk.

For those of us who are introverted, meaning-seeking, thrive-on-deep-conversations types, parties with more than ten people (better make that eight) make us want to retreat.

Given the need for small talk on the horizon, I decided to use the Internet to hone my skills.

Just to be clear, I’m not using small-talk as a mating ritual. or trying to snare the man of my dreams (done that). I’m just trying to 1) survive a couple of hours, 2) maybe have a good time, and 3) learn a little. Not a big agenda, but worthy of some preparation.

Preparing before the party

Don’t disparage small talk.
Note to self: not every conversation has to be weighty and meaningful. Small talk is not intrinsically less valuable than a deeper conversation, it’s just different. At the movies, a short subject isn’t considered bad because it’s not a two-hour documentary. I need to have a good attitude about small talk or I’m doomed from the start.

Be curious.
I am naturally interested in people, although the idea of being locked in a room with a lot of them gives me the willies. (I don’t like boat cruises with no available exit strategy.) When I’m in a mood to be a total party turtle, I try telling myself to pull my head out of my shell and find something new about at least one person.

Look happy, or at least don’t look dour.
I’m sure there are statistics to prove that most people prefer to start conversations with happy people. My ruminations about grief are best saved for other venues or perhaps a blog post. (Thanks to everyone who responded to my post about losing Riley last week.)

At the party

Questions are your friend.
Think open-ended, open-spirited questions. If you want ideas, peruse this list of questions. Rather than doing a cold start by asking “If you could invite one remarkable person to dinner, who would it be?” pick an opening question carefully. It’s a great question, but it risks making you seem like a Martian who just dropped in. You might ask a C.P.A., “What do you like most about being an accountant?” but only if you suspect that people might like being accountants. However, in the unlikely event that you are Johnny Depp, you can ask me anything.

Don’t bait people.
I offer this special caveat for these politically apocalyptic times. Throwing in a reference to the drama of the day, i.e., “Did you see his most recent tweet?” is a flame starter, much like throwing a match on gasoline-soaked tinder. The problem is once the flame has died down, there’s nothing left to the fire and you don’t really know anything about the person you are talking with. Be like the Boy Scouts. Build a conversational fire slowly. Save politics, if you can’t resist, for when the fire of conversation has caught on.

Use ideas from Improv.
 In improvisational theatre, three guiding principles are:

  • Make your partner look great.
  • Think “Yes, and” to build on what’s been said.
  • Keep the conversational volleys going by feeding in little bits of information.

The art of improv is to keep a conversation going between partners in a scene. Each partner says “yes, and” to what her/his partner has said, and then adds a bit of information that extends the conversation:

  1. “I’m going to Mexico next week.”
  2. “Yes, and Baja, Mexico is where I drank my best-ever Margarita.”
  3. “Yes, and I found a great recipe for Margaritas that uses lemon gumdrops,” etc.

These improv conversations may sound ridiculous but they can teach us about feeding a dialogue, bit by bit. Bottom line: keep saying “Yes,” to what your partner says. (People at parties also like it when you make them feel great.)

Don’t play secret agent.
Contrast the above improv approach with a method I sometimes use called “Secret Agent.”  As a secret agent, I spend the whole party asking questions of others, without revealing a thing about myself. This is effective for spies but often leaves me feeling cheated because I haven’t shared anything about me and no one has even noticed! No wonder people don’t know about the book I’m writing. They’re not telepathic.

Try this Secret Three-Step Technique

I adapted this A-R-E approach based on a great, non-gender-specific post about small talk on The Art of Manliness. They attribute the method to Dr. Carol Fleming. (So it’s not really so secret.)

Step one: ANCHOR your conversation.

Find something in common with the person you are talking with to help you start the conversation.  A mutual interest? A connection? A reason for being at the gathering? Or, a fascination with the hors-d’oeuvre tray? Anchoring your conversation in something your share will keep you from sounding like a Martian. The references can be mundane.

For example, at a recent gathering of the Yale School of Management Alums:
I’ve heard that there are over one-hundred alums now in the Seattle area.

Step two: REVEAL something about yourself.

Build on the conversational anchor to reveal something about yourself. This builds safety and keeps you from playing Secret Agent.

“When I first came to Seattle there were only five alums here.”


Now you can start asking questions that invite your partner to go further into the conversation.

“When did you graduate? Are many folks from your class here?” 
 following up with “How do you think the school has changed?”

I could continue by asking about their experience at Yale, how their current experience taps what they learned at Yale, what they think of the school, etc.

The big trick is to LISTEN and, like a good improv artist, build on the conversation. Listen for bits of information that lead naturally to questions and stay alert to what your partner is sharing. You can also notice things about your partner that might spark a conversation. (“I love cowboy boots, yours are great…”)

It’s up to you to show interest and keep moving things ahead.

When it’s time, move on

At mixer-style events, we aren’t meant to stay with one person the whole evening. (Introverts, remember this!) At some point, you’ll want to thank your partner and move on. Do it graciously. Acknowledge the conversation and maybe one thing that stood out about it. 

“I’m going to remember that recipe for margaritas with lemon gumdrops.”

There are ways to be inviting while acknowledging the end of your conversation.

Hey, I see Martha has just arrived. I really enjoyed talking with you. Want to join me in greeting her? ( A nice way to give your partner an easy out.)

However, just because you’re at a holiday mixer, don’t spend your conversation with someone scanning the room for your next partner. I hate when someone does that to me! 

It’s so annoying that I’d be tempted to change the subject and start talking to them about grief. (ha ha).

But, with a bit of cautionary self-coaching, “Sally, don’t take it personally,” I’ll smile, take a holiday breath, and say, “It’s been great talking to you.” Then I’ll make a beeline back to the hors-d’oeuvres.
Let the holiday games begin.


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