Most of us don’t like small talk because it kinda sucks. For introverts it can be terrifying. For people with big ideas it can be frustrating. For intellectuals it can be boring. During my undergraduate experience I made a friend named Andrew. He was – and still is – masterful at deeply connecting seemingly trivial issues with big ideas. It’s from his inspiration that I share with you some simple tips for getting more out of water cooler conversations and chit chat every day. Here are five ways to maximize the potential of small talk.
Find personal meaning
“Look, we both have amazing hair. Let’s talk for a minute about how this fact impacts our lives every day and why it is that having great hair just makes life a bit easier.”
A few weeks ago I was at a family barbecue and found myself in a conversation with my uncle about drink procurement on cruise ships – there may or may not have been a couple of stories about light alcohol-smuggling. I love my uncle and he’s a great storyteller, but hearing about the different standards and protocols for ordering drinks on cruise ships was not of great interest. Wanting to be present and respectful, though, I focused on a theme in the conversation, which was how some crew members went above and beyond to provide an exceptional guest experience. This theme led us to a thoughtful discussion about adding value in peoples’ lives and how humans are motivated to go the extra mile in order to make someone’s day absolutely awesome. When you can align small talk with peoples’ passions the conversation will come alive.
Make the small big
“It is hot today, yes. Rumour has it that it was a few degrees hotter on this day 150 million years ago, just before the dinosaurs started going extinct. What are some other impacts of climate change that we can talk about?”
Once a month I chair a committee call for a national charity. Like good Canadians we typically begin our conversation with small talk about the weather and how it’s different across the country. When I find myself talking about weather or real estate (classic Vancouver small talk), one of my moves is to connect the conversation to a big idea, such as climate change or housing policy. In addition to being thought provoking, this method of what Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker call “mirror-breaking” positively disrupts the rhythm of the conversation so that it’s more interesting. At scale, this approach could also change behaviour in ways that result in fewer icebergs the size of Nova Scotia breaking off of Antarctica because everyone in the conversation has learned something new and impactful.
”Most of the time I ride public transit with my earbuds in, but I don’t play anything. It’s like the world is my podcast, but it’s also like I’m an eccentric detective. What kind of eccentric detective are you?”
When I crowdsourced some ideas for this article several people recommended disrupting small talk with bold questions, absurd prompts or goofy commentary. Starting things off with questions like “what’s your story?” or “what do you do for fun?” (instead of “what do you do?”) and “where do you gather inspiration?” or “what’s making you happy?” (instead of “how are you?) will make things way more interesting by positively challenging your conversation partners. Look, this approach will make things uncomfortable for your conversation partner. But embracing the glory of small talk means that people need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Being honest, open and fun is another way to unravel the mundane elements of small talk with authenticity and humour. My friend and colleague Massood keeps things interesting with fun questions and stories about lazy weekends, accidental coffee spills, and haircuts, which makes the dialogue different and embraces the random, unknown potential of small talk. After all, small talk doesn’t always have to be smart talk.
Settle for blankness
TO YOURSELF: “Ohhhhmmmm … ohhhmmmm … mmhmm, housing prices sure are high, mom … ohhhmmmm…”
My friend Claire is from the West Coast and lives in Saskatchewan. She hears a lot of stories about the price of bushels of wheat per acre and, sometimes, takes the opportunity to lean back and meditate, pretending she’s actually in the wheat field. I do something similar when I find myself in a group of people discussing golf, except I meditate on the idea of the course being turned into a public park or a massive affordable housing development. Sometimes during small talk you will need to go deeply inward to make things interesting, so practice mindfulness and being present. Even if the conversation isn’t interesting to you, doesn’t mean that you can’t be polite, add value – by listening (more or less) – and practice how it feels to be silent.
“Incredible point! My friend Kurt actually wrote a blog post about just that thing. May I send it to you?”
Sorry. To do this you’re going to have to read more and watch less Netflix. You will need to be connected to the world and know a thing or two about many things for this tactic to work. Some of those things might be less interesting to you than others. Something that I love to do is hook into a point of interest during small talk – let’s say it’s about gasoline prices – and enthusiastically share some cool, unbelievable and/or super-funny information about the topic that I’ve learned from an article, podcast or person. And then, with the small talker’s permission, I send them that thing and follow-up a few days later to discuss the idea. I’ve done this a few times during small talk about gas prices by sharing the Planet Money series on the price of oil. Not everyone will complete their homework assignment, but when you follow-up what you’ll learn from such an experience is why they didn’t follow-through. Ideally this will help you to adapt your approach for next time. Finally, when you share information with folks coming out of water cooler conversations they will inevitably share ideas with you, which is the kind of reciprocity that enhances lifelong learning and makes our communities wiser and more resilient.