I have always considered myself awful at the kind of small talk that takes place among strangers at dinner parties or business meetings. It’s not that I cannot come up with bland topics to dissect for a few minutes at a time but it’s that I find it intensely boring, my eyes gloss over quickly and my mind starts pining for the sofa and a book.
But I have been an adult for a long time now and I recognize the value of small talk: it’s how human beings connect. I took a page from the British, masters of the mindless chatter that goes absolutely nowhere, and, when in doubt, I summoned the weather and current tv shows. Small talk became bearable.
As a shy person, I often had the added stress of facing a room full of strangers with whom to connect. It used to be that I would latch on to someone I liked and wouldn’t let go, but that is a short-lived strategy, not to mention that overstaying one’s welcome is counterproductive. These days, when I know I will be faced with a large number of people I don’t really know in a social setting, I go in reminding myself that nobody cares that much about me to notice any faux pas I might commit, and that I can be incredibly charming if I turn on the persona who seems infinitely interested in the minutiae of other people’s lives.
Because that is the secret to small talk – ask people questions about themselves and they will answer, often at great length. Just forget about yourself.
But the real professionals of small talks are those who constantly live in the limelight. I was recently at a function where someone very famous was also in attendance. I know for a fact this person is quiet and shy but he has also been in the public eye for so long that he had to become proficient at working a room.
I sat in a corner, with a pile of veggies and fruit on my plate, and watched how he did it. He provided a veritable lesson. Whenever somebody was in front of him, he would lock eyes with them – no looking around to see where he could move to next or giving the impression of needing to get out: this makes the interlocutor really heard and in the presence of genuine interest. The conversation was typically deflected: without offering much about himself, he would extend questions and would really listen intently for a few minutes, before moving on to somebody else. I could tell people were left with an impression of warmth and intimacy.
I decided to try it myself. Eyes focussed (I had to force myself, at times, not to let my gaze stray), I proffered questions: where did they live? what were they studying? how were the children? Each answer provided more fodder for follow ups. I said very little about myself (until I chatted with the famous person who, being the pro, played his game without me even noticing).
The only snafu was the man who felt compelled to tell me his entire life story and, when it was over, started on his father’s. My eyes began wandering, pleading for help from anyone passing by (see above about overstaying one’s welcome).
When I finally relaxed in my car on the way home, I was rather tired. The sofa and a book are always a much more pleasant way to spend an afternoon. But I also felt the satisfaction of having connected with some people on a deeper level and that is where friendships and meaningful relationships begin. Chatting about the weather.