So, first off…let’s face it. Small talk gets a LOT of bad press. There’s this quote that people are always posting online. It goes something like this:
“Be present. Make love. Make tea. Avoid small talk. Embrace conversation. Buy a plant, water it. Make your bed. Make someone else’s bed. Have a smart mouth, and quick wit. Run. Make art. Create. Swim in the ocean. Swim in the rain. Take chances. Ask questions. Make mistakes. Learn. Know your worth. Love fiercely. Forgive quickly. Let go of what doesn’t make you happy. Grow.”
But if you think about it….there is a lot of value in small talk – particularly when it comes to your career and networking. Here’s why:
First, not everyone wants to get into a deep discussion about the meaning of life, or hear about your anxieties and personal journeys. Sometimes talking about the weather or complimenting someone on their shoes is perfectly appropriate.
Second, small talk is safe, and sometimes it’s just best to play it safe, such as in a professional networking setting. The evils of liberalism/conservativism/Catholicism/atheism: bad. The movies you’ve seen lately: good.
Third, and most important: small talk is a way of establishing a basic connection. In the 1999 paper, A Computational Model of Small Talk by Timothy Bickmore, he described small talk as “a valuable mechanism for managing the channel of communication and interpersonal distance.” He wrote: “One of the primary purposes of rapport-building in general is to establish that our interlocutor is, in some way, ‘just like us,’ that is, shares our basic values and beliefs, as well as sharing the ability to communicate.” You can’t just walk up to people and start assaulting them with your phenomenological take on Mad Max: Fury Road. (Well, unless you’re at a phenomenology conference.) Small talk helps you decide if big talk is going to follow with this person or not.
In other words: you can’t have big talk without making small talk first.
That being said, the ability to make small talk is a skill, and those who don’t possess that skill often find themselves at a disadvantage. The important thing to remember is that most people will welcome conversational overtures and are always happy for a chance to connect. An unwillingness to participate in these exchanges can be a barrier to your success.
Now, here are a few conversation openers you can use in any situation…
A) “What brings you here? Do you know the host of this party?”
B) “I love your jacket/tie/bracelet. Where did you get it?”
C) “I’m trying to remember who starred in “Witness for the Prosecution”/sang that song about the stars being yellow…can you help me out?”
D) “I just saw the new X-Men/Spiderman/Avengers related flick. Have you seen it?”
E) “The food here is great! Have you tried the sea urchin?”
Bottom Line: Small talk has its place in the world!
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