Is there anything quite so scary as the thought of having to make polite conversation with total strangers? Certainly, for some of the more naturally garrulous people out there, making small talk can be seen as an opportunity to connect with new people and get to know others on a deeper level. But for the vast majority of people, small talk represents a deeply-uncomfortable, anxiety-provoking situation.
Unfortunately, you’ve got to get over this! According to a recent Harvard Business Review article by Andy Molinksy:
“You can be the most technically skilled worker in the world, but your ability to progress in your job and move up the corporate ladder in the United States is highly dependent on your ability to build and maintain positive relationships with people at work. And guess what skill is critical for building and maintaining these relationships? Small talk.”
The secret to small talk is being prepared. So if you feel perpetually flustered by the demands of making small talk, memorize the following scripts so that you’ll be able to pull them out at a moment’s notice whenever a situation calls for polite conversation.
Script #1 – “What do you do?”
People in the US love to talk about their jobs, which makes this small talk script a natural starting point for conversations with new people. Though it obviously isn’t one that could be used when interacting with coworkers at a company event, it’s a great starting point to have on hand for business networking events and other social functions.
One caveat to using this script, however, is that it can backfire in situations where your conversation partner has recently been laid off or fired (as is all too common in today’s job market). This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use it –in fact, in networking situations, it can be a helpful way for the person you’re speaking with to convey his or her openness to new opportunities. However, you should be aware of the potential for discomfort and have a few expressions of sympathy ready, should you encounter somebody who’s recently out of work.
Script #2 – “What’s new with you?”
If you’re interacting with people you know on a casual level – for example, distant family members, social acquaintances or colleagues in other departments – there’s no more natural starting place for a small talk conversation than, “What’s new with you?”
The key to using this script effectively, though, is to learn how to keep the conversation going by asking probing questions. If you use this script and your counterpart responds, “Oh, nothing much,” it’s still on you to carry the conversation with follow-up questions like, “Any big projects at work right now?” or “Any plans for the upcoming holiday?”
Script #3 – “Did you see that news story about [xx]?”
When in doubt about how to start a small talk conversation, jump in with a recent news article or major upcoming event. Sporting events are a great neutral territory for these chats – something like, “Did you see the new story about that Louisville player Kevin Ward’s leg?” is bound to provoke a reaction.
There are two things you’ll want to keep in mind when using this script, though… First, it’s imperative that you stay away from highly-charged political or religious topics. Even if you’re absolutely certain that you know your conversation partner’s philosophical leanings, these heated topics really have no place in polite, public interactions. Save your opinions for your close friends and family members!
In addition, it’s important that you actually have some familiarity with the news story you decide to reference. If you say to somebody, “Did you see that news story about [xx]?” and he or she responds with, “No, tell me about it,” you’d better be able to back up your small talk script with actual information!
Script #4 – “Any vacation plans in the future?”
As much as Americans live for work, we also live for the precious few days of vacation we get every year – making this a fun small talk prompt to keep the conversation going.
While I wouldn’t use it to start off an interaction with a totally new contact, it’s a great way to learn more about the people you’re speaking with in a non-threatening way. A discussion about future family trips could open the door to further questions about their family life and structure (for example, “How old are your kids?” or “Where do your kids go to school?”). Similarly, a mention of a dream vacation destination could prompt you to ask, “What made you choose that location?” or “Have you always wanted to travel there?”
Remember, the more follow-up questions you can ask, the longer you’ll be able to keep your small talk going.
Script #5 – “Where did you get that [piece of clothing]?”
Finally, if all else fails, complement your conversation partner on an article of clothing and ask where it was purchased.
Secretly, we all crave the approval of others – especially when it comes to our physical appearances. Making a comment that indicates you like a certain piece of clothing or jewelry provides this all-important flattery, while also giving you an opening to keep the conversation going on local shopping and apparel trends.
Certainly, these are just a few of the different scripts you can use to initiate and maintain small talk, but they’re a good couple of options to memorize and keep in your back pocket at all times. If you have any other go-to conversation starters, share your recommendations below in the comments!