Small talk. Chitchat. These are the short conversations we have at parties, while we wait in line at the store, at family events or work.
Sometimes we make small talk with people we already know but not well. Often we have to make small talk with complete strangers.
Many people find these small conversations about random topics difficult. Some people say they hate it. Others say small talk is a waste of time. They may even call it idle chitchat or idle chatter, meaning it doesn’t do anything. They consider small talk not important.
However, small talk is important. These exchanges can open doors that may lead to larger, more meaningful conversations. When you first meet someone or talk to someone you don't know well, it would be awkward to begin a conversation about a really deep topic such as war, politics or the meaning of life.
Small talk also gives you the chance to decide if you want to get to know that person better -- or not. Let's say you make small talk with someone at a party. But they only want to talk about cats. You may not want to build a friendship with them unless you really, really love cats.
Chitchat can also increase your feeling of understanding, or empathy, toward people you know but not well. Chatting with a colleague about their child may help you to understand more of their life outside the office. This could help build healthy work relationships.
Small talk could even help our larger communities -- our relationships with neighbors and colleagues. Exchanging a recipe with a neighbor in your apartment building may make her noises upstairs easier to live with.
And small talk may make us happier! In 2011, most commuters in the city of Chicago said they would enjoy “quiet cars” where they sat alone and did not talk to anybody.
Researchers at the University of Chicago then asked some participants in a study to talk to people while commuting to work on a train. They found that those who made small talk with strangers were happier than those who sat alone.
In 2013, researchers from the University of Essex in Britain asked some people to make small talk in a similar study. They found people who talked briefly with a cashier in a coffee shop felt happier than those who simply went in, ordered and left.
However, some people are not good at small talk. Making small talk doesn’t have to be either awkward or boring. Here are some tips to improve your small-talking ability.
1. Have some conversation starters ready.
If you have seen a really good movie or have read a really good book, you can talk about that. You can talk about something that you recently learned.
When you are sharing the same experience with someone, it's easy to start a conversation. You simply notice and comment on what's going on around you. For example, if you are at a party and a song comes on that you like or that reminds you of something, you can talk about that.
2. Ask open-ended questions.
These types of questions require more thought and more than a simple one-word answer. If you ask questions that need more details to answer, the conversation will go on longer.
For example, if you are at a summer pool party, don’t ask a person if they like summer. Instead, ask them what they like or dislike about summer. So, instead of getting a one-word answer, you might have the chance to share in a memory.
3. Become a student.
Nobody knows everything. So, as someone is answering one of your open-ended questions, they bring up something about which you know nothing. So, tell them!
This lets the other person become the teacher. They feel good about sharing their knowledge and you get to learn something. It’s a win-win situation.
4. Don’t ask, “So, what do you do?”
Some people do not like their jobs. Or maybe they don’t want to talk about it. So, instead of asking, “What do you do for a living?” ask something like, “So, what have you been doing these days?” or “So, what have you been up to?”
One general question can lead to an opportunity to share something you have in common. So, ask questions. Ask people about their families, their passions, their ambitions or even their fears.
However, balance these questions with comments about yourself. Asking too many questions may make people feel they are in an interview rather than in a conversation.
Like anything, getting good at making small talk takes practice.
If you make small talk in your native language, you might become happier. If you are making small talk using English, you will most definitely improve your speaking and listening skills.