What I really think about small talk … I’m a fan.
Aimee Blanchette asked some very interesting questions about small talk. I was happy to think through my responses.
Has social media changed small talk in the context of dating?
While there are arguments to be made that social media has reduced the level of intimacy in our social interactions, I strongly believe that our increasing ease with sharing news/popular culture rapidly and also, in some cases, our ease at sharing the more mundane details of our lives, has led to many of us feeling more able to simply share facts, ideas or comments in person that we might have considered too trivial to share in the past.
We now have common references that could serve as great conversation starters. For example, it is much more likely that we might have seen the same viral video or news story than it would have been in the days before social media. Also, mobile technology has made it absolutely acceptable to, for example share a photo or video with our date to illustrate a point of share something more of ourselves. It would have been utterly bizarre to bring photos along on early dates in the past!
Texting is a very polarizing issue in dating. It certainly brings its share of miss-communications and misunderstandings. However, sharing ‘small thoughts’ or ‘small moment’s’ throughout your day without having to make the commitment of a phone call can lead to a gentle, growing getting acquainted process. Again, if you are sharing those small details, it’s important to do it sparingly in the beginning of a relationship.
In general, I almost always think ‘less is more’ in early communication. We have a tendency to disclose way too much or assume a familiarity that doesn’t have a foundation too soon. “Over sharing'” is such a popular term because we do it! It’s so easy to get carried away over email, social media or texting because we lack the physical and emotional cues that would be involved in a real interaction/give and take that creates a natural pace for sharing information.
I once had an argument with someone who I was involved with who ended up saying things that I found to be out of character. We were having a discussion that escalated well beyond what would have happened in an in person discussion. Once we were face to face again, I asked him how he felt at ease saying what he said, he apologized and said, “I’m sorry, it got to be like I was having a conversation with my phone, not a person, not you.” So, proceed with caution!
Is there an art to it? Can it be mastered?
Yes, in a way. However, I prefer to think of small talk as a craft rather than art. There are those of us who are extremely extroverted and are natural conversationalists. For the rest of us, I think it’s useful to go into any social situation: dating, a work function or holiday party with a tool box of things we actually are curious about. If all else fails, look around the room and comment on something (not someone!) that you see.
Approach it with an awareness that most people are as ill at ease as you are and would greatly appreciate any topic …even a silly one. If you focus on setting the other person at ease and giving them a good experience, you will be amazed at how much fun you can have.
The main thing is to be authentically curious. We all know that feeling of talking with someone whose questions come off so rehearsed that it feels like they would say the same thing to anyone. Granted, we are not going to always be genuinely interested and may feel stuck in a situation in which we are forced to interact. These situations are tough but, remember eye contact, listening and relaxing are the most effective tools to getting through those moments.
Is there etiquette associated with small talk?
First and foremost, DO NOT begin with asking someone what they do. On a date, I suggest beginning with simply asking your date how they are and or how their day was. Questions like, “What was the best part/what was the worst?” can lead to glimmers or insights into not WHAT a person does but, most importantly, how they think about what they do.
Also, I believe that small talk i.e. talking about things that are not intensely personal is the foundation of any real relationship.
Diving in headlong into personal details leaves way too much for interpretation. Be honest but, be moderate. I had a wonderful first date during which we talked about Marilyn Manson. I don’t care about Marilyn Manson, neither did he but, it was fun. Fun is the goal on any early date. It’s very tempting to interview your date to try to see if the fit your checklist (if you have one) but, please don’t! There will time enough for finding out the details. The first and only question you should be asking yourself on the first date is only, “can I be myself with this person and do I feel good?” That’s it. No need to rush.
At a social function, asking what brought the person to the event can be a great lead to a truly interesting conversation. Also critical, try not to fret too much about silence. It really is alright to stand with someone quietly for a bit. Anything you can do to take the pressure off of yourself and the other person is very helpful.
Often, in social situations, we are talking to more than one person at a time. This can be really fun and in some ways, it’s easier. Just remember to try to include everyone in the ‘circle’ and try to give a context to whatever topic you are all discussing so that everybody feels included.
Many of us have a hard time concluding conversations at social gatherings. It can be as easy as genuinely saying, “Thanks, I really enjoyed chatting, good luck with … ” and then moving on.
Why do people fear it?
Because, we feel we have to perform. In some ways, particularly in dating but also in other social situations, we have a tendency to go into our ‘persona’ rather than speaking and being in the moment. It’s natural to want to portray a certain positive version of ourselves but, we are more successful when we do our best to really listen and focus on the person in front of us at the moment. They really should be the most important person in the room while we are with them.
Why is it hard for some?
Some of us can talk to anyone. That isn’t the majority or us. It can be hard because we tend to focus on ourselves. As soon as your focus shifts to the person you are talking to, you feel more at ease. Again, remember that most of us are a least a little self-conscious and appreciate any topic that we can share in, if only to alleviate our mutual nervousness. The purpose of any interaction should be to make a connection. Sometimes that connection is fleeting, sometimes it’s lasting. The point is to value yourself and the other person.
Topics to use/avoid:
As I mentioned, don’t start with what the other person does for a living. It’s boring and can also lead to a strange hierarchy depending on how he or she feels about what they do. We are all much more than what we do for a living.
In dating, remember to take time when disclosing personal information such as past-relationships, your current relationship with your ex, and other personal matters. There will be time enough when and if the relationship progresses.
Rather than focus on topics, try to have a set of lead-in and lead-out questions in your social tool box. Questions like, ” How so?,” “In what way?,” What did you think of when that happened or/ of that…,” or open but slightly rhetorical questions like, “Does that make sense?” can be really useful and are ‘go-to’s’ especially if you get nervous or flustered.
It’s exhausting, so why bother? What’s the payback?
I strongly believe that if you are feeling exhausted talking with someone, take a break and breathe. Silence is fine. If you really focus on the other person and listen and try to set them at ease, you will start to feel energized rather than exhausted.
Small talk IS our tool to socially connect. The payback, in my estimation is huge. We get to have an experience with another human. It’s a little trite but, I truly believe you can learn something from everyone.
Small talk is an amazing tool especially in challenging or awkward situations. Those go to questions can be life savers when things get tense.
Tips for starting and steering conversation:
Small talk is our savior when it comes to thinking on our feet!
For example, I was once on an online date with a gentleman who had accidentally double booked, literally. My date with him overlapped with another woman.
When she arrived, Oh my, was it awkward. All sorts of reactions and emotions were at play for all three of us! To all of our credit, we just first acknowledged how weird the situations was and began just to chat. I shared what we had just been talking about before she arrived and with the wonderful go-to questions, we were able to muddle through and even slightly enjoy what could have been a humiliating experience for all of us.
In terms or steering a conversation, if there is a topic that you would like to move toward asking, “How so?” or “In what way?” are good starts. Of course, there are many topics we would like to steer away from. When you want to do that simply say as lightly as possible say,” let’s talk about something else” or just ask another question.
Small talk is really about showing genuine interest in the person (or people) in front of us, making real connections however light or deep and also giving the other people grace in awkward situations.