Whether you are celebrating Christmas, Yule, Hannukah, New Year's Eve, or Kwanzaa, the end of the calendar year is usually filled with seasonal gatherings. With these year-end celebrations comes the promise of endless amounts of small talk.
If you are a small talk hater like me, you might dread this time of year. With so many opportunities to get caught up in small talk, it is important to develop a solid strategy. What topics make for good conversation starters? What is the best way to keep a conversation going? How many times can you talk about the same topic before you get bored of hearing yourself talk? What is the best way to quickly end a conversation without feeling like you are being rude? In this post, we try to answer some of these questions and hopefully offer some useful tips and tricks for mastering the art of small talk this festive season.
What is small talk and why do we do it?
Small talk is a phrase used to describe short conversations about light topics. Small talk is usually used when you are speaking to someone you just met or are not close to. In the UK, a common small talk topic is the weather.
Small talk can help us build relationships with people around us and even help to ‘structure’ social interactions. Some scientists believe that small talk is an integral part of society because it is a form of ‘conversational politeness’ that allows us to respectfully communicate with people that we are not familiar with and encourages social cohesion (1,2). A study by Bose and Sgroi found that after only 4 minutes of small talk, participants felt that they had a good grasp of the personality of their conversation partner (3). This impacted the way that they behaved with their conversation partner in future interactions. Through small talk, the participants could relate to their conversation partners and decide if they wanted to develop a closer relationship with them or not.
Small talk happens often and is clearly an important part of communication. Despite this, there are some people who feel as though they are not good at small talk or that they don’t enjoy it. If you are one of those people then this post is for you!
3 key tips to improve your small talk skills
Small talk can often feel repetitive and maybe even a little stressful. It doesn't have to be. Try approaching small talk with a positive attitude and an open mind. A loose strategy might also be helpful. These three tips can help you develop your own approach to small talk.
1. Have a bank of safe conversation starter topics
Starting a conversation can be intimidating, especially if you are speaking with people that you do not know that well. Having some neutral topics that you can bring up can be very useful here. Topics can include things like hobbies, pets, and, entertainment that either you or your conversation partner have been enjoying recently. You can also start the conversation with a nice compliment. If you are at a work or school event, you can also talk about work or school but be warned that people may find that a little boring.
Don’t be afraid to reuse topics or stories you’ve already told to different people. I find that one good entertaining story is good for at least 8 separate conversations or even more, especially if you get a little creative with your retellings. Paraphrase like you have never paraphrased before, use synonyms if you’re really dedicated, throw in a rhetorical question or two, and maybe even pause for dramatic effect if you can. The possibilities are not exactly endless but there are quite a few of them that you can use to spice up your small talk.
2. Ask a lot of questions
If you are not someone who enjoys leading a conversation, you may prefer to ask questions instead. Asking questions is a tool practiced in active listening. Active listening can help you indicate to your conversation partner that you are interested in what they are saying and are following the flow of the conversation. The questions you ask may also help you pivot the conversation to topics you might know more about or are more interested in, which can also give you the opportunity to pitch in with your own comments or stories.
In my personal opinion, the biggest benefit of asking questions is that it takes the focus off you. Asking questions encourages your partner to keep talking, leaving you free to listen and nod along. You don’t have to worry about coming up with something interesting to say yourself if you just keep prompting the other person to talk. Many people are happy to just answer your questions for the whole conversation but, be aware, you might also run into people who ask you questions back. It could be helpful to make sure that you have your own answers to the questions that you ask.
3. Know how to wrap up a conversation
Developing a strategy for exiting a conversation may be the most important part of engaging in small talk. Wrapping up the conversation before you start talking about deeper topics is what puts the ‘small’ in small talk. Look for signals that the conversation is coming to an end. These signals can include things like long pauses before the start of a new conversation topic or your conversation partner looking away from you. You can also end the conversation if your conversation partner makes you feel uncomfortable at any point or if you find yourself not wanting to continue talking to them for any reason.
Ending a conversation can happen in a number of ways. If you are lucky sometimes your conversation partner will end the conversation for you either by moving away or starting up a conversation with someone new. In these circumstances, I tend to just silently drift away to a new location where I can either lurk in peace or find a new conversation partner of my own. If you want to end the conversation yourself, a summary sentence may be useful. A phrase like ‘I’ve really enjoyed talking with you’ can help indicate to your conversation partner that you are ready to end the conversation. If you want to take it an extra step, you can also mention one of your conversation topics, for example ‘I hope you enjoy that movie you’re going to see this weekend, I’d love to hear what you think about it’. For the finale, you can never go wrong with a phrase like ‘I hope you enjoy the rest of your night’. After that, you are free to walk away guilt-free.
Now that you are armed with some background knowledge and, hopefully, useful tips to up your small talk game, you are ready to go out into the world and small talk with the best of them. With a little practice and a dash of confidence, dreading small talk, especially at year-end celebrations, will soon be a thing of the past.
Good luck out there, fellow small-talk-hater.
I believe in you!
By Esther Ansah, Blog Writer
1. Mansoor IK. Politeness: Linguistic Study. International Journal of Research in Social Sciences and Humanities. 2018; 8(4):167–79.
2. Coupland J. Small talk: Social functions. Res Lang Soc Interact. 2003; 36(1):1–6.
3. Bose N, Sgroi D. The role of personality beliefs and “small talk” in strategic behaviour. PLoS One. 2022 Sep 1; 17(9):e0269523.