How to Make Small Talk with Anyone

People enjoy having meaningful conversations. While talking to someone you already know is much easier, connecting with a person you just met is a lot harder, particularly with those with social anxiety disorder. However, small talk is a stepping stone to cultivate deeper discussions.

Even though small talk may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s necessary for your success. Whether you’re dating, networking, marketing products, or making new friends, you must know how to build relationships through casual conversations.

To help you master this basic social skill, here’s a written guide to small talk.

Two startup businesswomen discussing project

What is small talk?

Small talk is a type of informal conversation people use in social gatherings when they want to get to know others. These conversations are in a polite manner that usually talks about unimportant things. However, when perfected, these topics can lead to intriguing idea exchange.

Your ability to engage in casual conversations is a social skill that many people think is a waste of time. But in actuality, it’s the foundation of building strong relationships. Think of when you talked to a stranger at an event and became close friends. You wouldn’t have developed that relationship if it weren’t for your initiative.

Why is small talk important?

People often undervalue small talk. They think it’s pointless, awkward, and inauthentic. Scandinavians, for example, striking up a conversation with a random person isn’t a norm. In fact, their translation for small talk is dödprat (“dead talk”). So for Swedes, talking should have a purpose rather than pointless chit-chat. On the contrary, small talk has its benefits:

It builds a positive outlook

Interacting with friends and family may be more enjoyable than dealing with strangers. But social experiments by Nicholas Epley show that talking to a person you hardly know during your commute can create a positive traveling experience.

While some people fear to disturb others when they’re minding their own business, small talk can make you feel good only when you find someone who wants the same interaction.

It can lead to new connections

The art of small talk isn’t about talking. It’s also about listening. Being friendly to people you encounter every day is a powerful skill that can boost your career. You don’t have to be the only one who speaks during the conversation. Instead, listen to what others have to say.

Mastering small talk isn’t just for making new friends. What are the odds that the person you’re afraid to talk to might be the one who can help you with your career? So, don’t be scared to politely interact with the person next to you on the bus.

However, keep in mind people’s body language when you attempt to chat with someone. When they seem standoffish, don’t continue the conversation because they don’t want to be bothered.

It fosters awareness

People are too preoccupied with the connections they make on social media. The social paradox of the internet created a generation of people who are more prone to loneliness and depression. This is because they have contradicting beliefs. They want social interaction but hesitate to reach out to people they come across daily.

Since your attention is on your smartphone, you become less aware of those around you. Chatting with others lets you put down your phone and listen for a change.

Unplugging from your phone promotes social consciousness and self-awareness. As you get to know others’ opinions and perspectives, you also dive deep into how you see the outside world.

How to make small talk with anyone

No matter what people think about small talk, it’s a useful skill to have. Think of it as a bonding ritual or a strategy to help strengthen any relationships, including colleagues, friends, and new acquaintances.

Making small talk doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Others know how to start a conversation but can’t carry it until the end. If you’re one of those people, here’s a step-by-step guide on how to make small talk with anyone:

Step 1. Have an approachable body language

You can make a person feel comfortable when you have an “open stare.” Have a light demeanor and direct your body towards the person you want to meet. Don’t make it too forceful by crossing your arms while walking in their direction.

When you’re at a close, comfortable distance, give a friendly greeting and introduce yourself. If you already know them, you can say something like, “Hi, Ron. It’s nice seeing you here.” This simple and direct approach makes the person feel like you’re excited to talk.

Always keep a cheery attitude. Don’t make them feel like you’re talking to them because you’re waiting for your friends to arrive.

Step 2. Offer compliments

Almost everyone enjoys compliments. Yet, this isn’t necessary; it’s a great way to start the conversation with a positive vibe.

You may compliment their work, energy, or physical appearance. With those three topics in mind, you could approach anyone you meet. For instance, “I love being with creative people. People like you are contagious. You inspire people never to lose sight of their creativity.”

Compliments can work flawlessly unless you dwell on them too long. People who get compliments too often get tired of it quickly. One of the hardest parts of small talk is finding a way to transition the introduction into an interesting conversation. This is why the third step is critical.

Step 3. Have a pocket full of topics and questions

To transition between topics, create a way to relate to the compliment. But allow the person to respond. With the example from step two, you may say, “Because of your work, I started to blog about my personal experiences. Have you heard about XXX?”

Most people make a mistake by ending the discussion when they come up with a response. Instead, toss in something that both of you have a common ground. That way, you can expand the conversation into other subject matter.

Step 4. Keep the conversation exciting

Once the person is engaging in your conversation about a mutual topic, keep an exciting connection. Vast majority of the people leave the discussion open-ended. They wait for the other person to keep the chat going.

Asking about where you’re from and what you do is quite common during small talk, but they’re not very exciting. However, you can still ask those questions while complementing them with the question “Why.”

Questioning the person “why they live there” or “why they work there” goes one level deeper into their values. Even if they don’t like the place, you get to listen to what’s important to them. It’s a great communication strategy to get to know each other.

Come up with fun questions to make it exciting because there will be times when people don’t want to answer certain topics. For example, if you ask someone if they like their job and say they don’t, ask them this: “If you had a million dollars, what would you do instead?” or “If you meet a wizard who can grant you any wish, what would you ask for?”

These fun engagements can keep the ball rolling. Of course, you’d have to let your guard down and give some details about yourself too.

Step 5. Listen more

Take time to listen to the person you’re talking to since it allows an ongoing dialog. When listening actively, you get to pick out bits of information to continue the conversation while waiting for a thoughtful response. 

An excellent habit to do while listening is mirroring. Mirroring is when you try to mimic the body language and verbal and non-verbal cues of someone you’re talking to. It shows that you have empathy and signifies genuine interest.

When you do this style of communication, it’s important not to overdo it. Instead, repeat the last 1-3 words the other person said word for word. Doing so impacts how the person interacts with you because it makes them feel heard.

Here’s an example of mirroring, “Jordan Peterson is one of the best clinical psychology professors.” You may answer this with: “Yes, I must agree that Jordan Peterson is the best. He wrote the book 12 Rules for Life which gave me real-life advice.”

Step 6. Read body language

People are willing to engage in polite chit-chat, but reading their body language is essential. See if the person is still paying attention to what you have to say. For example, if they’re not showing eye contact or their body is turned away from you, it means they’re not interested.

Don’t take it too personally. Small talk takes a lot of practice. However, when they seem uninterested, know your exit strategy, which takes you to our last small talk step.

Step 7. Know your exit strategy

Part of having a good conversation is knowing how to gracefully exit whether the interaction went well or not. If the situation goes downhill, you can politely say, “It was nice to meet you. Do you mind if I grab myself a drink? I hope you enjoy the event.” You may use this approach when you might not like where the conversation is going but always leave positively. You don’t want to offend them by walking away.

Here’s another tactic when you’re hitting it off with the person you’re talking to. “I really enjoyed chatting with you, but I must meet someone. Is it okay to exchange contact information to continue where we left off in the conversation?” Or you may also introduce another person and stick around for a while. Then, excuse yourself at the right moment.

Questions to make small talk easier

Small talk topics matter. Although it doesn’t have a purpose, it serves as an opening act to engage your audience for the meaty follow-up. These 30 questions would make great conversation starters:

Work-related small talk questions:

  • If it weren’t for this job, where would you probably work?
  • What’s the funniest thing you had to do at work?
  • What was the best and worst career advice you ever received?
  • What do you think about the traditional working hours of working 9-5?
  • What do you like the most about your job? Why?
  • What would you do if you never had to work for the rest of your life?

Travel-related small talk questions:

  • If you could travel anywhere for free, where would you go and why?
  • Do you prefer to stick to a traveling schedule or see where your feet take you?
  • Where do you plan to travel next?
  • Where is the best place to go in your hometown?
  • Are you planning to travel anytime soon?
  • What brings you to this part of the world?
  • Where is your favorite place in the world? What makes it so special?

Life story small talk questions:

  • Do you have a hidden talent that you never showed anyone?
  • What’s the craziest thing that ever happened in your life?
  • Are you an early bird or a night owl?
  • If you were to get stuck on an island and bring only (3) song albums, what would they be?
  • Where do you prefer to live?
  • What do you normally do in your free time?

Random small talk questions:

  • If you were to travel back in time, where would you go?
  • What smell, sound, or image triggers nostalgia for you?
  • What ice cream flavor sums up your feelings today?
  • If you could be an animal, what would you be and why?
  • What looks easy but is actually difficult?
  • If the end of the world happened, but there’s an afterlife, what would your afterlife look like?
  • What’s the most flattering and strangest compliment you received?

What to avoid when making small talk

Once you have a good idea of initiating a conversation, it’s helpful to know what topics to avoid.

  • Finance. Asking about personal finances is not okay, especially when you just met the person. While it’s alright to ask about their work and professional life but never their salary.
  • Politics and religion. Political and religious topics come with strong opinions. If you try to talk about this subject, you may have a heated conversation.
  • Personal gossip. Starting a conversation with gossip is never a good idea because it gives you a bad reputation. But talking about celebrity stories is fine.

Recommended courses for you

Small Talk Networking: How To Talk To Anyone

Talk to anyone you meet with confidence. Even if some social gatherings can be uncomfortable, this course will show you an easy way to meet new people in any event.

Here you’ll discover five principles of small talk: Adapt an active approach, Being observant, Mastering the art of first impressions, Core conversation basics, and Exiting a conversation gracefully.

By the time you finish this course, you’ll be too excited to attend your next social event just to try what you’ve learned.

How To Talk To Strangers

Be the person who energizes the room. If you think your social skills need improvement, this course is for you. This course will uncover the secret formula on how to become more interesting. While fear of rejection is knocking on your brain, here you’ll understand how to leverage it to build lasting relationships with strangers.

Learn how to make small talk as a soft skill

Knowing how to engage in small talk is a great way to practice your soft skills. Use it as a social grease that makes the interaction between two people flow easily. It’s a skill that employers look for because it shows that you’re someone who may fit well in their company culture.

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