Saying that you hate smalltalk is like saying you’re terrible with names or that you don’t like standing in line. Hello and welcome to the human race! These are universal conditions. The point of smalltalk is that it’s not supposed to stay small; it’s temporary. Those who resent it are misreading how it’s supposed to work. Smalltalk is a ritual formula, just like summoning an elevator or opening a door. Whether you choose to use it to exit the conversation, express kind regard for someone, transition to more interesting topics, or actually make friends, that’s all up to you. The feeling of hating smalltalk is a clear sign of a lifetime of missed opportunities.
One of the things that people claim to hate about smalltalk is that it’s boring. What is funny about this is that most of us probably talk about totally vapid, boring things with our friends, families, and coworkers every single day. We just don’t mind because we know these people, and ordinary, routinely boring conversations are necessary to getting life done. What really bothers us is the feeling of being forced to talk to strangers, people we don’t already know, people who are unfamiliar. If we already knew them, we would of course talk about the weather or how their day was going.
The other funny thing about thinking that smalltalk is boring is that it’s a virtual guarantee the other person feels the exact same way about talking to US!
I’m a very shy person. I still have vivid memories of my first day of first grade, when I stood on the playground and watched groups of other kids laughing and chatting together. I ran into the school building early, found my classroom, and burst into tears. My teacher, Mrs. Lundgren, asked me what was wrong. “I don’t have any friends!” I wailed. “I’ll be your friend,” she said, and she was. That conversation probably doomed me to my fate as teacher’s pet, socially awkward and lonely. As an adult, though, it has given me empathy for fellow shy people.
I’ve chosen to see it as my duty to help other shy people to feel less uncomfortable at parties and social gatherings. Introverts feel better talking to only one person at a time, and it’s not hard to cut away from a larger group to have a more private conversation in a corner. This also helps me to feel like I have a mission.
One way to get out of the social duty of smalltalk, of course, is to help out. Help clean up, help with the food, help introduce people to one another. Whatever else people have to say about you, at least then they can say that you’re useful.
Rather than try to escape it, what if we just lean in to it? What if we see smalltalk as the opportunity that it is?
Some of the most fascinating people walk among us, masquerading as normal folk. The only way we’re going to find out is if we get to know them, and that starts with smalltalk.
This is something I’ve learned from Toastmasters. Beginners who join a public speaking club often don’t realize the tremendous power of their own personal stories. We’re trained to give evaluations, which is part of the process, and this tends to build one of the strongest smalltalk skills of all. This skill is to cultivate genuine curiosity.
Each person I meet has something I don’t have and knows something I do not know. The thing that they have is a unique and irreplaceable story. The thing I don’t know is how to see the world from their perspective. Almost all the time, they also know something else I don’t know, and they’ll share it with me for free. The title of a book or a movie or a podcast, the name of a new musician or a restaurant or a travel destination, a recipe, a clever way to do something. When I avoid smalltalk, I lose out on all of these fabulous gifts. My world is smaller and blander and grayer. I’m missing the point of the party and the point of living, living fully and well.
These are some of the ordinary-looking people I’ve met, at gatherings or while traveling or waiting in line for the restroom:
The woman who met Muhammad Ali and whose dad ran with the mob
The man who grew up taming parrots and wild animals in the Central American jungle
The woman who walked across a bed of coals
The man who took a class from one of my favorite writers
The woman who built one of my favorite apps
The man who woke up to find an elk staring at him through his tent door
The woman who rode an ostrich
The man who was a back-up astronaut
Lots more, so many more! All of these people are going about, living their lives, carrying around all of these mega-fascinating stories that feel unremarkable to them. Sometimes they sit back, surprised, to say that they’d never realized something before or that they’d never told this story to anyone else. Sometimes a story can be a double gift, a gift for you as the listener and also a gift to the teller, who never knew what a gem he had, who never saw her story as valuable or interesting before you came along.
This is boilerplate, entry-level advice that everyone has heard a thousand times, but it’s still true: join a club. When you choose something that interests you, everyone else there has that interest in common. A formal structure to meetings and gatherings also helps the time to pass. You can interact with people in short bursts and you aren’t left with a lot of dead air to fill. You get practice talking to people who want the same thing you do, which is to hang out. Social skills are skills, which means they can be learned. It also means they’re valuable and useful, just like other skills.
Clicking with someone you’ve never met before often takes serendipity, intuition, and luck. There’s emotional intelligence involved, a certain amount of cold reading and guesswork about what sort of person this is. The main thing is that it’s possible to escape the horrid feeling of self-conscious shyness by thinking instead about other people. When I think about myself, I feel awkward; when I think about others, I feel open and curious. How are they feeling? What are they like? What is interesting to them? How would they get along with my other friends?
I enjoy smalltalk because it helps me know how to start. Just like dogs wag their tails at each other, smalltalk gives us a signal we can use to show that we’re friendly. It’s possible to get it out of the way in only one or two sentences. A greeting, and then a question or a statement that has the power to open the door to new friendships, new opportunities, new stories, and new ways of seeing the world.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.