Does small talk make you feel stressed out? Do you feel anxious when making small talk with new people? If you are wondering how to make small talk meaningful, then this is for you.
Do you dread small talk?
Unless you are a social butterfly, it is likely that you hate and abhor small talk at parties where you are surrounded by mostly strangers. This is especially true if you are an introvert. “Introverts tend to dread small talk. They worry that it will be boring, awkward, or that they’ll run out of things to say,” states a Forbes article.
However, the fear of small talk is not just limited to introverts. Most of us tend to dislike small talk and uninteresting conversations, whether we are the ones talking or listening to someone babble about meaningless and mundane things.
No, we don’t care about the weather, unless there’s a hurricane out there. Am I right? So what can you do to make idle chit-chat more interesting? How can you make small talk meaningful?
Here’s what science says
According to a study published by Psychological Science, stimulating and meaningful conversations can lift your mood and make you happy. The research revealed that subjects who spent more than 70% of their time talking were the happiest.
Matthias Mehl, a psychologist at the University of Arizona said that the study shows “the more time a person spends in the presence of others is a good predictor of the person’s level of happiness.” The subjects who were the happiest also engaged in a lot of in-depth conversations as well as small talk.
Another study found that just 10 minutes of regular conversation with others can improve your cognitive abilities. The research revealed that “The boost from ten minutes getting to know someone was equivalent to that from solving crossword puzzles,” says Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, Ph.D. Researchers found that having a casual and friendly conversation with someone is an excellent tool for improving our abilities to complete a mentally challenging task.
The author of the study, Professor Oscar Ybarra said, “This study shows that simply talking to other people, the way you do when you’re making friends, can provide mental benefits.” Having a friendly chat can also make us more compassionate and improve empathy. Professor Ybarra added, “We believe that performance boosts come about because some social interactions induce people to try to read others’ minds and take their perspectives on things.”
How to make small talk meaningful
Looking for ways to engage in stimulating conversations and make small talk meaningful? Here are 9 ways to do just that.
1. Ask questions.
According to research conducted by Harvard Business School, the best way to make small talk meaningful is to ask follow-up questions to the other person, instead of asking “What do you do?” or “How are you?. The study found that when you ask meaningful follow-up questions, people find you more likable. The study states “People who ask more questions are better liked by their conversation partners.”
When people are instructed to ask more questions, they are perceived as higher in responsiveness, an interpersonal construct that captures listening, understanding, validation, and care.”
Ask why and how questions instead of what questions, suggests psychiatrist Samantha Boardman. She says “When you ask a “What” question, chances are you will get a simple answer, but when you ask a “Why” question, you explore a person’s underlying motivation. Every question you ask has the potential to narrow or expand the dialogue.”
However, avoid asking too many questions, warns author Melissa Wadsworth. She explains “You don’t want to go into reporter mode. Be sure to reflect back your own feelings in response to what they share, so that a real connection can develop.”
2. Seek authenticity and connection.
Whenever you find yourself trapped in small talk, look for ways to build a connection with the other person by understanding who they are and showing your genuine self. Gary Burnison, CEO of Korn Ferry, a global organizational consultancy recommends using the A.C.T. strategy to build connections. He says that small talk is “a natural way for people to connect. Start with a question that will build up to a conversation that meets the A.C.T. criteria.”
- A – Look for authenticity in the conversation.
- C – Look for ways to build a connection.
- T – Focus on topics that show your passions and genuine self.
For instance, you can ask questions like “How are you feeling lately?”, “What is your one goal for this month?”, “Which celebrity/famous personality do you relate with the most?”
Comedian Chris Colin and author Rob Baedeker suggest asking the following questions when trying to make small talk meaningful –
– “What’s your story?”
– “What did you do today?”
– “What’s the strangest thing about where you grew up?”
– “What’s the most interesting thing that happened at work today?”
– “How’d you end up in your line of work?”
– “What does your name mean? What would you like it to mean?”
– “What was the best part of your weekend?”
– “What are you looking forward to this week?”
– “Who do you think is the luckiest person in this room?”
– “What does this house remind you of?”
– “If you could teleport by blinking your eyes, where would you go right now?”
3. Be curious.
If you want to appear interesting, then you need to be interested. Channel your inner curiosity to delve deep into topics and issues that others find interesting. Being curious during small talk will help you learn what drives and motivates others.
Go into the conversation with authentic interest and make sure you actually listen to what the other person is saying. It is also important to offer a thoughtful response. By showing that you’re interested, you will leave a positive impression leading to a better connection.
Samantha Boardman, M.D. explains “Inquire about topics that will help you find common ground. Build on what the other person says. Avoid firing out checklists and predictable questions… Ask open-ended questions that require more than a one-word reply.”
4. Pay attention and actually listen.
Make an effort to truly listen to what the other person is saying with the intention of understanding them instead of replying back to them. You should also make sure that you pay enough attention to their body language and facial expressions. “Respond by paraphrasing and reflecting on the conversation to move it forward,” says Samantha. This will make the person you are chatting with realizing that you are genuinely interested and care about the conversation.
You can also score brownie points by understanding what they feel passionate about and talking about that. How? Simply say “Tell me more.” Samantha adds “Encourage elaboration and when the other person asks you a question, respond with more than just the bare bones… give the other person some personal (and substantive) information to work with.” However, make sure you don’t interrupt them when they speak. This is a great way to make small talk meaningful.
5. Don’t get distracted by your phone.
Smartphones are conversation killers. According to a 2014 study, the quality of in-person conversations and social interactions are greatly affected by the presence of mobile phones.
The study revealed that “conversations in the absence of mobile communication technologies were rated as significantly superior compared with those in the presence of a mobile device, above and beyond the effects of age, gender, ethnicity, and mood.”Moreover, it was also found that social interactions without the presence of smartphones and other devices involved higher levels of empathy.
Dr. Samantha Boardman suggests that you leave your mobile phone “in your pocket or in your handbag and never place it on the table. If you are expecting an important email from your boss, let the other person know. Create a special notification. At least they will know you are not mindlessly thumbing through Instagram.” Keep this in mind if you wish to make small talk meaningful.
6. Do not overshare.
Too much information is never a good thing, says Samantha. Understand the difference between being authentic and oversharing. Being genuine means you don’t pretend to be someone else to make people like you, but oversharing your personal information might not be the best way to do it, especially when you are around people you barely know.
Make sure you keep your personal information private. Although you may share your future goals and plans, there is no need to go too deep into the details. Samantha suggests “No complaining and no oversharing. They don’t need to know about your money problems or that rash in an embarrassing spot.”
7. Don’t shy away from healthy debates.
Engaging in a debate, in a healthy and positive manner, is a great way to get to know someone and create an instant connection. It shows who you are and what you believe in, but it also depicts that you are capable of listening to different viewpoints and respect others’ opinions.
But Samantha warns “know thyself and pay attention to the other person. If you have a tendency of offending people, you may want to avoid controversial conversations, no matter how interesting or potentially productive it could be.”
8. Speak with your body.
Non-verbal communication is crucial if you want to make small talk meaningful. Using your facial expressions and your body language can make any conversation more engaging and interesting. According to a 2017 study, using hand and head gestures during a conversation can ensure that your listener responds more promptly to your questions.
The lead author of the study, Judith Holler at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics at Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands, says “Bodily signals appear to profoundly influence language processing in interaction. Questions accompanied by gestures lead to shorter turn transition times, that is, to faster responses, than questions without gestures, and responses come even earlier when gestures end before compared to after the question turn has ended.”
However, it’s not just about hand gestures. Samantha Boardman, M.D. explains “Body language cues like eye contact, sincere nodding, and leaning in, communicate interest. Smile, uncross your arms, pay attention. Nothing kills a pleasant conversation like feeling the other person doesn’t care about what you’re saying.”
9. Be mindful.
Be aware of the present moment and observe what is going on around you. Practicing mindfulness can immediately turn a boring, casual chat into a deep, stimulating conversation. It’s better to open your eyes and ears before you choose to open your mouth, says CEO Gary Burnison.
He explains “Find something to focus on in your surroundings… There’s bound to be something that will spark small talk and help lead the conversation into unique follow-up questions.”
Here some other quick tips from author and CEO Patti Johnson to add some pizzazz to your conversation and make small talk meaningful:
– Be intentional about who you want to talk to. Don’t just stumble onto people and start talking. Decide who you want to talk with and seek people who are open to make new connections.
– Make sure to have fun. Consider this as a game and take the challenge to meet some new people. It will get easier and more enjoyable this way.
– Instead of waiting for others to approach you and make sure to initiate conversation. Take charge and meet the people you find interesting.
– Do not shadow only one person during the entire event. Branch out and meet as many people as you want to.
– Have a go-to story or question ready as trying to make small talk meaningful with someone new can be difficult.
– Carefully plan how you can exit the conversation gracefully as it will eventually become tedious.
– Don’t get your hopes too high about making new friends. Keep your expectations in check and just enjoy the moment.
Small talk is not bad, but seek depth as well
When we add depth to our conversation that is when we make real connections and make new friends. But the question is how can we make small talk meaningful? “Keep it light,” says psychiatrist Dr. Samantha Boardman. She explains “engaging in substantive conversations is linked with greater happiness and well-being” because humans are social animals who constantly seek meaning.
Samantha adds “Good conversations also facilitate bonding and a greater connection with the person with whom we are speaking. Simply put, making a point to talk about stuff that matters is a simple way to cultivate happiness.”
However, it is not always easy to make small talk meaningful when you are at a dinner party, cocktail party, or social gathering. Often, the words don’t flow as smoothly as we would want them to. And it’s equally awkward when we are stuck listening to someone’s incoherent babbling.
“The good news is it doesn’t have to be this way. Consider re-framing the situation,” says Dr. Samantha Boardman. She writes “Instead of dwelling on how dull your dinner partner is or how difficult he or she is to talk to, ask yourself – what can I learn from them?” The key is to have a more open mindset to convert a boring chat into a meaningful conversation.
From small talk to deep conversations
Small talk is important despite how painful it may be. When you know how to make small talk meaningful, it can lead to lasting connections and excellent opportunities.
Author Melissa Wadsworth believes “Small talk is about tapping into possibilities. Approach the conversation excited about the friendship, the good laugh, the fascinating story, the job lead, the date, the joy, or the sense-of-belonging potential inherent in this shared experience. It’s the first step to any meaningful relationship.”
So have faith in yourself, don’t get intimidated, and just be present at the moment. Soon you will master the art of small talk and excel at making deep, meaningful conversation that will lead to lasting relationships.