Small Talk 101 Syllabus
Getting to know others in your office by striking up small talk conversations is an anxiety-inducing social activity, coming in right behind team-building exercises like the trust fall and that relay thing where you have to race around with a raw egg on a spoon. That goes double for introverted or shy people. This course will provide the student with five no-fail tips for striking up a conversation and sample scripts to demonstrate good small talk in action.
About Your Instructor
Karen Hertzberg holds a Ph.D. in Awkward Social Interactions from The University of Introvert Life. She specialized in Hiding in a Corner and Social Activity Avoidance until she challenged herself to study Conversation and The Art of Peopling. She is now a member of several social groups, the members of which not only do not find her boring but seek her out for conversations.
Students should begin this course with an understanding that their own thoughts can be self-fulfilling. If you approach small talk with fear and trepidation, worried that you’ll be boring, you just well might be.
You should understand that you’re a worthy person with interesting things to say. Keep in mind that, particularly at office social functions, other people could well be in the same situation you are—just looking for someone to chat with. They’ll welcome you making an effort to get to know them by striking up a conversation.
How to Make Small Talk in Five Easy Steps
1 Be interested.
If you want to be interesting, be interested. Dale Carnegie (author of the classic How to Win Friends and Influence People) said it, as have other experts in the social arts over the years. The first and most important step toward making great conversation is to show a genuine interest in the people you’re chatting with. Let curiosity lead the way!
2 Ask questions and follow-up questions.
Your questions don’t have to dive deep in order to make great small talk. You can start simply by saying something like, “How was your weekend?” or “Are you enjoying the party?” Really listen to the answer, and then ask meaningful follow-up questions that show you were paying attention. If the person you’re chatting with says that their weekend was quiet, for example, you can say, “We all need that from time to time! What do you like to do in your downtime?”
3 Be present and watch your body language.
As Dolly Parton’s character in the movie Steel Magnolias cheerily suggested, “Smile! It increases your face value.” Uncross your arms. Don’t look over your shoulder as though you’re planning your exit. And, whatever you do, hands off your smartphone.
4 Find ways to relate.
While you don’t want to monopolize the conversation, you also shouldn’t make the other person do all the talking. Find some things you can relate to from time to time, and inject your own observations and experiences. After adding some brief commentary of your own (see step 5), be sure to ask another question to lead the conversation forward. If the other person mentions that they like hiking, you might answer, “Oh, me too! I hiked part of the Pacific Crest Trail last year and it was amazing. I usually stick closer to home, though. Where do you usually hike?”
5 Consider the twenty second rule.
Dr. Mark Goulston, author of Just Listen, recommends speaking for no more than twenty seconds at a time. Think of conversation as a traffic signal. In the first twenty seconds, you have a green light—the person you’re chatting with is engaged and enjoying the conversation. But if you go beyond twenty seconds, you’ve got a yellow light. Caution! You’re edging toward boring. At the forty second mark, you’ve officially become too chatty or self-absorbed—red light!
Small Talk Conversation Examples
Need some inspiration for your next small talk social challenge? The Muse put together forty-eight fun questions to consider asking. Need more small talk examples? Here are some scripts to help you get a better understanding of the process.
When the other person doesn’t have much to say
Be prepared to add some details from your own life before moving on to your next question to keep the conversation from sounding like an interrogation.
“Where are you from?”
“Ah, I visited Boston a few years back. Great city! I wasn’t a big fan of driving there, though. Next time I’ll take cabs instead of renting a car. Did you like living there?”
“Yeah, it was great.”
“What do you miss most about it?”
When you want to deepen the conversation
Introverts tend to do better in conversations that go deeper than talking about the weather. Ask questions that will challenge the other person to give a thoughtful response.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a writer for the email marketing team.”
“Interesting! What sorts of things do you write?”
“I write some ad copy, but mostly I work on the company newsletter.”
“So, how did you become a writer? When did you discover your talent for words?”
When things get awkward
Sometimes conversations take a turn for the awkward. If that happens, acknowledge the awkward thing the other person said to let them know they’ve been heard, and then move on to another topic.
“Are you enjoying the party?”
“Not really. My girlfriend broke up with me earlier today.”
“Wow, break-ups are rough. I’m sorry to hear it. Have you lived in Los Angeles long?”
When you need to make an exit
It’s okay to bail if the conversation is going nowhere, just do it gracefully. Summarize the last thing the person said to you, then excuse yourself.
“It’s pretty amazing that you’ve trained your cats to reenact scenes from your favorite sci-fi movies. Sounds like you’ve found your niche. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go make a phone call. Enjoy the party!”
Homework: Go Be Interesting!
Making small talk doesn’t have to be anxiety-provoking or tedious. When you worry less about whether you’re being interesting and, instead, show an active interest in others, you become more likable. Think of social interactions not as performing but exploring.