29 Nov 2023

Small Talk Season

December is a time for socialising and whiling away the long, dark winter nights with companionship and conversation. Because it’s party season, it’s also a time of the year when your small talk skills come to the fore. You’ll probably meet new people, or barely remembered acquaintances over the next few weeks and you’ll get so much more out of the experience if you are able to connect with them and find common ground over a glass of wine and a canapé; a successful small talk exchange may well be a springboard to a deeper relationship, whether it is business or social.

Some people dismiss small talk as banal and mundane. It is true that you will never plumb deep philosophical depths while exchanging small talk, but it is also important to recognise this kind of conversation as an important bridge between introductions and deeper acquaintanceship. Even the most trivial small talk will tell you a lot about the people you meet: you might find that you establish common ground easily, that you are charmed, intrigued or amused by your interlocutor; alternatively, you might find the whole exchange awkward and prickly and feel sure that you don’t want to take the relationship any further.

Suitable Small Talk Topics

Small talk is best when it flows smoothly. This means that everyone involved should both talk and listen; they should also resist the temptation to fire off a series of questions at their target, which will make the whole exchange feel more like an interrogation that a conversation.

Mutual observations are a good place to start and for centuries the British have fallen back on the topic of the weather. It might seem like a clichéd subject for consideration, but most people will enjoy an animated conversation about cold snaps, heatwaves, torrential downpours and howling winds. While British weather, compared to many parts of the world, is moderate and temperate, it is also changeable and unpredictable, which provides fruitful topics for discussion. Talking about the weather is an excellent icebreaker.

Making comments on the party venue, the décor, the catering, the music, the location is another way of relating to the people you’ve just met. If your conversational partner is responsive, this kind of chat can create a bond over the shared experience of being at the party.

Without turning into an interrogator, it is quite permissible to ask a couple of non-controversial questions, of the “how do you know the host?” or “did you come far?” category. Tracing networks of connection and friendship often leads into more interesting revelations – eg about work status, or family, which can help to spark off a deeper conversation. Inquiring about journeys and routes can also lead to more fruitful information – you might find, for example, that your conversational partner lives near you, or lives somewhere that you know well, and the conversation will naturally flow.

All of these topics are gentle and non-intrusive. Through subtle and tentative probing, you will seek out shared interests and find a place where conversation thrives.

Asking Questions

While it is true that questions like “What do you do?”, “Do you have children?”, “Are you married?” are effective ways of extracting personal information from fellow partygoers, they are generally considered too blunt and intrusive in British society. Finding this information out through gentle probing and circumlocutory approaches is seen as a more sophisticated and subtle option. Conversation can become a gentle dance, where indirect inquiries are acknowledged by answers that communicate more than has been asked, leading to a gradual process of discovery.

If you do find it easier to fall back on asking questions, make sure they are open-ended (which stimulates conversation) rather than closed (which shuts it down). A closed question, such as “Have you lived here long?” demands a brief and factual reply, which might end up being a conversational cul-de-sac. Open questions encourage a more reflective and subjective answer: “What do you think of the new arts centre?”.

If you’re driven to asking blunt questions, remember they will sound better if you give away a little information yourself at the same time: “Are you a lawyer like everybody else here? I’m a teacher so I stand out like a sore thumb!”; “We need to leave quite soon, or our babysitter will be in a bad mood. Do you have children?”

You might find that, whatever technique you deploy, you are met with monosyllabic replies. Some people are resistant to small talk and refuse to answer simple questions. This can be seen as rude and obstructive, but they may simply be chronically shy or socially awkward. If you are confronted by a conversational non-starter, the only solution, apart from rapidly exiting from the encounter, is to take over the reins of communication – you can tell anecdotes, or even monologue (though preferably about a subject of general interest) if you’re desperate. If you’ve done your best to engage, nobody can blame you for taking over and becoming dominant.

Things to Avoid

Small talk is all about finding common ground and it is also about context. That means you will need to read the room and assess whether the guests are distinguished by an identifiable interest or passion (eg sports, politics, religion). If you are at an event organised by a local political party, for example, then you can be confident that you are mixing with members of your political ‘tribe’, which means that politics is a suitable topic for conversation. At most social events, however, which are attended by a range of people of all types of belief and political persuasion, it is safest to avoid potentially contentious or challenging topics like politics and religion until you are confident that you know people well enough to enjoy a robust exchange of views.

Keep your small talk positive. You might think it’s bonding to bitch with new acquaintances about the party venue or the food choices, but in reality, you’ll come across as graceless and hyper-critical. If you immediately start exchanging gossip (about the host, fellow guests or mutual acquaintances for example), your companions might be avid for your revelations, but at the same time they will be extremely wary of your lack of discretion. It is much safer, on first meeting, to play it safe and concentrate on being upbeat and enthusiastic.

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