January 20, 2011

Small talk, big payoff

Small talk central at an SB tweetup
During the holidays, I reposted my article "How to Mix and Mingle Your Way Through the Dreaded Holiday Party". A friend, after reading the article, commented about how much she dislikes small talk. Here's our Twitter conversation, edited to make it more readable:

Friend: Am I to understand from your blog that, "What did you think about last night's city council appointment?" is not a good icebreaker?

Me: Yes, that's typically not good party conversation. :-)

Friend: Life is not worth the small talk. Saying things like "Which dessert will you have?" just KILLS me.

Me: Small talk leads to bigger talk. You have to start somewhere, and not everyone is comfortable digging deep in the first five minutes they meet you.

Friend: But then again, that's why I'm a little awkward.

Me: Exactly, re: awkward. Believe me, I used to have the same attitude about small talk, and to some degree I still do. But IT'S NOT ABOUT YOU.

Readers of this blog have heard this from me before: It's not about you. And the point I was trying to make with my friend was that, it doesn't matter if small talk makes you uncomfortable or if you think it's pointless. In a networking or other social situation (if you don't want to alienate everyone you talk to), it's your responsibility to make the OTHER person comfortable.

Last night I held the first session of my six-week group coaching program. As the group members went around the table introducing themselves, one person's comment about small talk resonated with me.

Once again, here was someone uncomfortable with small talk (really, aren't we all?). But her attitude was about overcoming this discomfort. She said, "I want to care about small talk."

This is what small talk is all about, and it's simple: caring about another person, their dogs, their kids, their life. It's about showing interest in another person, and putting aside your own need -- for the moment, at least -- to be the center of attention, to demonstrate your cleverness or intellect, or to declare your opinions and beliefs.

Small talk is like dipping your toe into the pool, not jumping right into the deep end. It's like jogging around the track one or two times before you start your intense workout. And there's a good reason for it.

Debra Fine, in her book, The Fine Art of Small Talk: How To Start a Conversation, Keep It Going, Build Networking Skills -- and Leave a Positive Impression!, says:

"Small talk has a bad rap as the lowly stepchild of real conversation, yet it serves an extremely important function. Without it, you rarely get to the real conversation. Small talk is the icebreaker that clears the way for more intimate conversation, laying the foundation for a stronger relationship. People who excel at small talk are experts at making others feel included, valued and comfortable. And that goes a long way toward furthering a business relationship, closing a deal, opening the door for romance, or making a friend."

If you want to get better at small talk and reduce your discomfort, read my tips in the article mentioned above, or get Debra Fine's book. And understand that, if you want to build personal and business relationships, small talk is a necessary part of that process. It's the best (and only) shortcut to deeper, more meaningful, discourse.

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8 comments. Please add yours! :

Michael Cortes said...

It always seems to come down to the other guy/gal. When we are feeling uncomfortable, nervous, scared, self-conscious... we should look toward the other person. As you turn your attention outward, you can help alleviate your feelings and at the same time ingratiate yourself with the other person. This seems to be the cure to many of our woes.

Jakob said...

Thank you for taking a stand for small talk ;)

I would go even further and stop distinguishing between "real" conversation and something that is somehow inferior. Small talk is real conversation, because language is a social tool and a lot of the meaning it conveys is really about negotiating conventions and rules for interaction. There are always several layers of meaning communicated and "small talk" actually lends itself to communicate some of the non-overt meanings.

So even when the topic is heated political debate later in the evening it might steer back towards "shallow" or actually "nonthreatening" topics where the subtext is actually to establish a base of mutual understanding "we want to keep communicating in this and this manner." Even people who say they suck at small talk know how to interpret changes in tone that are there as a social safeguard to safe face - or others that are actually challenges to face.

So while fine grained analysis of small talk might intimidate those further who feel uncomfortable in it, the fact of the matter is that as long as you are raised by humans you possess all the necessary qualities to take part in it. And it just might be that the topics that you feel comfortable in, negotiating speech conventions, are only slightly more peculiar than talking about the weather.

Among nerds, starting a conversation with the topic of weather will actually leave you to be the odd ball out. Unless you wish to challenge statistical models of climate debate...

Jakob said...

I should "actually" have proofread my comment. ;-)

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Michael, it's amazing how that happens, isn't it? Just taking our attention from ourselves becomes a win-win.

Jakob, I agree with you 100%. Small talk is just a term to differentiate one kind of conversation from another. This is fabulous: "...as long as you are raised by humans you possess all the necessary qualities to take part in it."

ZombieBait said...

Small talk is only small if you leave it that way. Maybe because of the quick intimacy formed with clients in my massage career or maybe because of something in my upbringing of treating others as you would like to be treated, I have found that even from the beginning of conversations I am interested to some degree in just learning a bit more about a person and their human experience. Viewing the talk as simply small seems a perspective flaw to me. It's just a doorway and who knows what you might find!

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Treating others as you would like to be treated really says it all, ZombieBait!

Mohan Arun said...

Small talk
In this age of ready-mades, I wonder if someone hasnt yet made a smartphone app for conversation starters. Even otherwise there's always this:

And a better way to learn from actual conversations is from Youtube: search for 'the art of small talk'. Learning by watching others converse is better than learning from books when it comes to learning how to converse.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

Thanks, Mohan. I'll check out that link!

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