Ugh! Small Talk…

Human beings are a social species. Connection is crucial to happiness, staving off depression, and keeping healthy—literally. Various studies have shown that the effects of loneliness are akin to eating a poorer diet and exercising less, and can ultimately lead to the same place—an early death.
It might sound a little melodramatic, but companionship is literally the way our brains have been built to survive and thrive.

But for the purposes of this book’s topic, there’s an even more important wrinkle: the quality of our interactions matters as well, not just the quantity or presence of other people around us. Sounds like even our brains despise small talk.

A 2010 study by Matthias Mehl had participants wandering around in their daily lives armed with a device that would record their audio environment over three days. The researchers analyzed how long each participant was in the presence of other people, and whether they were having casual conversations or were talking about more substantive matters. Basically, the aim was to capture what kinds of interactions these participants were taking part in, and the effect they had on their lives.
At the same time, the researchers also measured people’s overall level of happiness and mental and physical well-being. They found a clear correlation between substantive and deep discussions and greater well-being and happiness. It’s something you’ve probably suspected or even felt before, but being vulnerable and open with others is a deeply satisfying activity on many levels.
As for small talk, that which is the opposite of substance and depth? Well, it drew a negative correlation with well-being and happiness, meaning it made people less happy. There you have it; real evidence that small talk is something to be avoided or at least transition out of as quickly as possible.
Researcher Arthur Aron conducted a study in 1997, in which he paired participants who didn’t know each other and gave them a list of fairly personal questions to ask. Although the questions were not offensively intrusive, they were more than just small talk. (“Would you like to be famous and how?” “Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?” “What is your most terrible memory?” “How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?”)
Aron found that the participants responded to these “deep dives” with openness and intimacy. The participants didn’t feel that the questions, as personal as they were, necessarily invaded their privacy or weakened them in any way. Instead, these questions encouraged honesty, more emotional fluency, and sincerity in the respondents. They felt closer to the other participants, who were complete strangers before the experiment. Future iterations of this study were given names such as “How to fall in love with 36 questions” because of the powerful effects it had on the relationships between the participants, which were previously nonexistent.
You probably already know deep in your bones what these two studies laid out: delving more deeply or intensely in our communications can create positive results far more swiftly than one might think. Now the question remains: how can we actually do that? In this book, I want to provide a framework, from beginning to end, about how to engage people more effectively and move beyond small talk. We’ll start even before the interaction begins with how you should prepare yourself, and move on through all the stages of small talk to arrive at something more meaningful.
At the prospect of reading this book, you might be overly excited about throwing yourself into the midst of a conversation and seeing what you can accomplish. After all, you’re reading this book for a reason, and motivation can make you overeager—but rushing in would be a mistake for the time being. It would be akin to running into battle without your shield, sword, or even pants.
The Small Talk Mindset

There’s more to conversation than thinking off the cuff and creating witty banter out of nothing at all. Very few of us are capable of doing that on a consistent basis, and what’s more sustainable, easy, and practical is preparing for a conversation beforehand.

To be specific, you’re not preparing for specific conversations like they are job interviews—rather, you are priming yourself to be able to shine in social exchanges in general. There’s a distinct difference between the two. When you prepare for conversations, you’ll find being witty much more available and even easy.

So the first step to witty banter and small talk is to get ready psychologically—so you’re not caught with your pants down in meeting someone new. What exactly does this mean? Think about when you just wake up and your voice is gravelly and incomprehensible. Your thoughts are unorganized and swirling, and anything that comes out of your mouth is likely to be responded to with a “…what did you say?”

When you’re only half-awake, you’re caught off guard when you have to respond to anything, and you have a lack of focus and awareness. This is our social status quo—how we normally move through and navigate the world. So warming up mentally is about beginning to stretch and gingerly flex our social muscles so we’re ready for action.

If you’re out at a bar or networking event, you only have one shot at making the right impression. If you fall flat on your face, as will inevitably happen from time to time, guess what? That was your one shot at the goal—will you make the most of it?

Recall that as children, we were always admonished to never talk to strangers. This well-meaning instruction might have served us well in our childhood, when we were likely to be gullible prey to sly criminals. Stranger danger was a real thing to be avoided.

In public places, we plug our ears with headphones and glue our faces to our phones, preferring to keep our interactions with people we don’t know to the bare minimum. Is this habit still serving us well? Likely not if our goal is to become better at conversation and charm. We should quickly let go of this tendency because, as adults, it only serves to keep us isolated from others. It locks us in a social prison of our own making, and it keeps us socially cold for occasions when we need to be on. At the very least, it leaves us woefully unprepared for engaging with people, exposed as if we were ambushed in the middle of the night.

A 2014 study by Epley and Schroeder divided commuters on trains and buses into three groups—the first was instructed to interact with a stranger near them, the second to keep to themselves, and the third to commute as normal. Even though participants in each group predicted feeling more positive if they kept to themselves, the outcome of the experiment was the opposite. At the end of their ride, the group of commuters who connected with a stranger reported a more positive experience than those who remained disconnected. It seems we feel that only awkwardness will ensue with a stranger, when instead an unexpected connection creates good vibrations.

In support of the above findings, another study by Sandstrom and Dunn (2013) revealed how being our usual, efficiency-driven selves while buying our daily cup of coffee is robbing us of an opportunity to be happier. While we routinely rush through the transaction without so much as a smile, the study found that people who smiled and engaged in a brief conversation with the barista experienced more positive feelings than those who stuck to the impersonal, efficient approach.

These studies have two main findings. First, we tend to think or assume we’re better off keeping to ourselves than having short interactions with strangers. Second, we’re wrong about the first point. The simple act of engaging people in short bursts has been shown to make us happier and more inclined to be social, and it will also help us mentally and psychologically warm up to be our best in conversations and small talk no matter the context.

We need to engage in more short interactions—or what researcher Steven Handel calls “ten-second relationships”—with others, because they have the potential to boost our moods, change our perspectives, and warm us up socially.

Of course, though we may now recognize the benefits of short interactions, it’s still understandable how the thought of striking up a conversation with a total stranger may be uninviting or even repulsive to those of us who aren’t social butterflies. We feel ill-equipped to engage in fruitful social interactions, so we prefer the loneliness of keeping to ourselves. How do we counter this and warm ourselves up for routinely conversing with others? How do we get into the habit of being interested in people and build enough social confidence so we can turn that interest into meaningful interactions?

Well, that’s part of the logic behind only trying for ten-second interactions. Hey, you can make it one second (Hello there!) or five seconds (Hi, how’s your day going? Great to hear, bye!) depending on your level of comfort. But keep the goal small and stay consistent.

You constantly encounter multiple opportunities for warming up to interactions and building your social confidence. For instance, think of your typical day. On your way to work, how many people do you spend at least some time ignoring—whether those you pass by on the street, sit with on your commute, or stand beside in elevators? Greet at least one of those people with “Good morning” and offer either a compliment (“Nice coat. The fabric looks cozy.”), an observation (“The sky’s cloudless today. Looks like the showers are letting up.”), or a question (“I see you’re reading John Grisham. Which of his novels is your favorite?”).

For lunch, do you eat solo, hunched over your work desk? Try instead to spend your lunch hour someplace with shared seating, such as your office pantry or a nearby picnic area. Sit beside a colleague you always see in your building yet never got the chance to talk to, and get the conversation rolling by asking about recent company events (“I heard your department is starting a new leg of research. How’s it going?”).

Finally, as you pick up groceries on your way home, chat with another shopper mulling over products in the same grocery aisle you’re in (“I saw this sauce in an online recipe. Have you tried cooking with it?”).

At the checkout counter, smile and greet the cashier (“How’s your shift going so far?”). This segment of society is especially suited to help you practice and warm up—in fact, they don’t really have much of a choice. Baristas. Cab drivers. Cashiers. The grocery bag boy. Waiters. Doormen. Valets.

Their job performance depends on their customer service skills, and if they want to keep their jobs, they have to be courteous to you. This alone should eliminate the fear you have of crashing and burning in any social interaction, because it’s their job to prevent that and probably laugh at your jokes. You’ll see that crashing and burning is never really that bad, and people move on quickly—they’ll probably forget the interaction within the next ten minutes.

There’s also typically a captive audience behind the store counter or cash register. These employees are usually stuck being stationary in a position for long periods of time, and for those who have held the above jobs… you know that it’s not the most thrilling life. Most of the time, they are bored out of their minds, so having someone engage them will be a positive experience for them. You will make their day pass faster and just give them something to do. You might be the only one to treat them with respect and show actual interest in them as a person, which would undoubtedly make you the highlight of their day. In other words, they’ll be glad to talk to you.

With service people, you can test different stories, reactions, phrases, greetings, facial expressions, and so on. Unless you offend them in a deeply personal way, these people will still be courteous to you, but you can gauge how positive their reactions are to all of your tactics to know what works best. You can continuously improve and hone your skills. You can witness your progress with future interactions. As you see their reactions change, you can fine-tune what you’re doing and keep stepping up your game.

Essentially, you’re in a safe environment to practice and polish your social skills without fear of any judgment or consequences. More than that, you can learn to read people, process their signals, and calibrate your interactions to different types of people. This is a process that takes trial and error, but you can speed it up exponentially by engaging with the people you come across.

So make it a goal to initiate and create a ten-second interaction with a stranger each day, and especially on the way to functions, events, and parties. This will warm you up for conversation and build the habit of being interested in people.