The 4 Step Plan to NOT Suck at Talking to People

lego-small-talk

This is a guest post from my good friend/relationship & dating expert Lindsay Miller.  

With Nerd Fitness’s tagline being “level up your life,” I thought it was important for us to level up on the inside as well as the outside.  We can change our outer appearance through strength training and better eating decisions, but oftentimes we forget about leveling up other parts of our lives too.  Believe it or not, some of us nerds struggle with social skills (okay, a lot of us do, myself included), but it is something that can be learned.  Take it away Lindsay!

Do you wish you were better at talking to people? 

  • Did you use your 20 seconds of courage and then run out of steam?
  • Once you learned how to approach people, did you struggle with what to say?
  • Have you ever found yourself standing in the corner at a party?
  • Maybe you didn’t even go to the party?

Small talk, for better or worse, is a big part of social interaction.

It’s the way we navigate the exciting uncertainty of new friendships and relationships. It greases the wheels of our interactions with other people and primes us for the deeper connections that follow. It’s the foundation of water cooler conversation, yes, but it’s far from frivolous—if you shy away from small talk, you may find that you have difficulty feeling connected to people, since it’s nearly impossible to skip right to the big stuff.

Fortunately, it’s easy to get better at it!

“Oof,” you might be thinking.

Retract your oof, I say! It’s actually remarkably easy to level up your small talk skills. “So,” you’re now saying (since you kindly retracted your oof), “If it doesn’t take tons of time and energy to improve, then what does it take?”

Thankfully my dear rebel friend, it just takes the desire to improve (you’re reading this article: check), the willingness to try (you’re a member of the Rebellion: double check), and four simple keys to keep in mind.

What are these keys? Every person and every conversation is different, but all good small talk has four things in common…

Key #1: Good small talk is happy

Happy Small Talk

The main reason we human folk seek to connect with one another is that it scratches a social itch. Our social needs are just like hunger and thirst—we eat, drink, and talk to people because there’s a gap between our actual state (hungry/thirsty/lonely) and our ideal state (satiated/quenched/connected). Your brain is saying, “Dude, mind helping me out a little? I’m not where I want to be.”

The whole idea here is to feel better after than we did before. You ever talk to people who are in a super sour mood? It’s kind of contagious, isn’t it? Unless you happen to be friends with people who can make crankiness charming (such as professional comedians and/or giant puppies woken up from deep slumber), it’s usually a bit of a bummer. Let’s not be bummers! Let’s be those other kind of people, the ones who leave our conversational partners in good moods after they talk to us.

Engaging in happy small talk isn’t just good for the people we talk to, by the way—it helps us as well. “Fake it ‘til you make it” is more than just a catchy rhyme. The idea that acting a certain way encourages us to be that way has been around since Aristotle’s time. Take a look at his quote (from over 2,300 years ago!):

“Men acquire a particular quality by constantly acting a particular way. We become just by performing just actions, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave actions.”

Turns out the man knew what he was talking about. A team led by Fritz Strack showed in 1988 showed that simply holding a pen in your mouth in a way that simulates the muscle movements of smiling makes cartoons seem funnier than when you hold it between your lips like a straw; other studies have shown that merely crossing your arms can make you more persistent!

So the next time you’re feeling surly and looking for a change, challenge yourself to talk to someone in a more upbeat way and see if that helps shake it off.

I’m not suggesting you bop around like sunshine and fairy dust, but isn’t it powerful to realize that by simply chatting with another person in a positive way, you can walk away from the conversation with both you and them feeling better off?

(Feel free to give a little mental fist bump to Aristotle when you see how well this works.)

Key #2: Good small talk is thoughtful

small talk thoughtful

Good small talk adapts in real-time, thoughtfully and attentively applying to whatever is happening in the moment.

This may sound overwhelming at first, especially if you like to plan things to say out in advance. The trick is to take a step back and pick one thing, any thing, on which to focus your attention.

There’s a finite list of what this thing will be:

  • Whether it’s sunny, rainy, or snowy, that’s weather.
  • Whether it’s a street parade, an art exhibit, or a hot tub limousine driving by, that’s scenery.
  • Whether it’s someone with crazy shoes, a guy doing back handsprings, or a woman swinging from a chandelier, that’s people.
  • Whether it’s a cute baby, a fluffy puppy, or a cool book, that’s belongings.

See how all of a sudden you can imagine having one or two prepared responses that can still perfectly apply to even the most novel of situations?

Now, this may only get you as far as your first or second line within a conversation, after which you may need to start coming up with stuff in the moment. But the same logic of “step back/pick one thing” applies here too, and will help you keep from getting overwhelmed or panicking about what to say.

Here’s an example:

You: “I think I literally saw a cat and a dog raining down from the sky today.”

Them: “Ha! I know, right? I thought it was supposed to be spring.”

You: “It must be really tough to be a weatherman. You’re either stating the obvious or you’re a liar.”

Them: “My cousin is a weatherman.”

Curveball! You haven’t prepared anything about weatherman cousins! But this is interesting and novel enough to justify a conversational tangent all its own (and could fall under the category of jobs, if you wanted to add it to your earlier list). Try a simple question.

You: “Oh, interesting. How’d he or she get into that?”

Before you know it, you’re having a unique conversation, not banal “small talk”. You’re also learning things about your conversational partner (and they about you), which will help you build from one-off conversations with strangers to consistent friendships and relationships with people.

Challenge yourself to identify these “one things” (weather, books, back handsprings) as you’re out interacting with people. Use the comfort of a prepared line to open with if you like, but with the goal of finding something interesting that’s happening in that moment to comment on. Your conversations will instantly be more thoughtful, and the people you’re talking to will feel it, too.

Key #3: Good small talk is quirky

small talk quirky

My cousin Kim met my fiancé for the first time a few months ago. As soon as we all sat down, she said to him, “Tell me every single thing about yourself, starting from birth, and ending with right now.”

I thought it was just about the greatest thing I’ve ever heard.

If my friend Jess is at someone’s house for the first time, she’ll say, “If I were the bathroom, where would I be?”

She gets the answer– and a chuckle.

My friend David struck up a conversation with a cute girl in Jiffy Lube by asking her if she thought the guy in the waiting room looked like a beagle.

He called me to thank me for introducing him to his girlfriend.

These examples all have in common the theme of turning awkwardness into awesomeness. They’re about being confident, not being smooth. Sometimes dialing up the awkward dial can be just what everyone needs to loosen up a little, like when my friend Mike starts his presentations at work by saying, “If I seem incredibly nervous, it’s because I am indeed incredibly nervous.” It’s a bold strategy, to be sure, but it can be incredibly refreshing.

There’s something undeniably fun about someone who says, “I’m hugely overcaffeinated right now, so I may pass out at some point. How was your weekend?”

In short, don’t feel pressure to rigidly adhere to some abstract notion of what small talk should be, losing all of your own delightful personality in the process. You’re a member of the Rebellion, after all!

You challenge conventional wisdom and embrace the weird every day– let small talk be no exception.

Key #4: Good small talk is imprecise

Small talk imprecise

Remembering the little things? Sweet. Remembering every little thing? Creepy.

I happen to be in possession of a frighteningly good memory; I remember specific conversations (as well as where they took place, and what we were wearing) with people who couldn’t pick me out of a lineup. I’m absolutely the person who goes up to people and says, “You’re a chiropractor? We sat next to each other on a plane from L.A. to San Francisco about a year ago, right?” Yes, right… but it didn’t matter. The dude was thoroughly creeped out, and I couldn’t blame him!

I’ve had to learn to hold back a little (okay, a lot) and not spew forth with every single thing I remember about my last conversation with someone the next time I see them.

Instead of saying: 

  • “Hey, how was that conference you went to in Phoenix?” go with, “You were going out of town when I saw you last, right?

  • “Is your upper left molar feeling any better?” go with, “Hey, how’s it going?”

Like a good hairdo or pocket square, it sometimes takes a bit of effort in conversation to make it seem effortless, but it’s far preferable to freaking people out. Take your time. With each conversation, you’re watering a healthy plant, not dousing a fire. 

In fact, leaving a bit unsaid is probably the best way to ensure future conversations, and give you something to talk about next time! Besides, when you’re imprecise, you allow the other person to narrow in on a topic that they are comfortable with, rather than forcing them to talk about their upper left molar!

Start talkin’

small talk storm trooper

With these four keys in mind, you’re ready to start small talkin’.

Challenge yourself to approach one person a day and strike up a conversation, even if it’s brief.

Like everything else we do in life, good social skills can be learned, developed, honed, and improved.  Though, it’s really tough to practice unless you commit to TRYING it out.  And who cares if the conversation goes poorly?  Failure is awesome. Odds are you will NEVER see that person again in your life, and your life is no different now than it was 5 minutes before the conversation.

Of course the opposite could be true: you could meet somebody awesome.

And there’s only one way to find out which outcome you’re gonna get.

If you’re feeling really rusty, give it a shot with a friend or family member and ask for a little feedback afterward. If you’re feeling bold, approach someone you wouldn’t normally talk to. If you draw a blank, ask a question.

Breathe, smile, listen.

Most of all, remember why you’re doing this, and remind yourself that you’re not imposing on someone by having a pleasant conversation with them—you’re making their day a bit brighter, and you should never be made to feel bad about that.

As always, I’m very interested to hear what you think, and how these lessons feel when you take them out for a spin.

We all crave regular social interaction; you might be surprised by how easy being good at small talk really is!

What are your major hangups with small talk?

Where do you plan to give these tricks a try?

###

Check out Lindsay on Twitter @RellimYasdnil or send questions/comments at [email protected].

photo source:  lego small talkhappy, thoughtful, imprecise, quirky, storm trooper

Get The Rebel Starter Kit

Enter your email and we’ll send it right over.

  • The 15 mistakes you don’t want to make.
  • The most effective diet and why it works.
  • Complete your first workout today, no gym required.
  • These are the tools you need to start your quest.
  • Lindsay Miller

    Great question! First of all, for the situation you’ve described in which you dread people approaching you, you might consider coming up with a line that defuses your tension without making the other person feel bad for approaching you. (As we’ve learned, it’s a pretty courageous act to approach someone you don’t know and attempt conversation with them, so they’re probably feeling nervous themselves!) Perhaps something like, “Fair warning, I’m an incredibly awkward conversationalist, but I’m glad you said hi!” Said with a pleasant smile and delivered with confidence, that’s the type of line that is uberawkward—so awkward it’s actually totally charming and disarming.

    As for your question about how to make small talk without prying, I’ve found that it’s best to stick to non-biographical questions, at least at first. Topics like what they’re reading, what they’re eating, where they got their shirt: fabulous. Where they live, what kind of car they drive, what their siblings’ names are: potentially dicey as a place to start with a stranger, as they have the potential to veer into the territory of “I’m asking you this so I can Google you when I get home… or so I can follow you home.” If you do throw in one of those questions, let them ask it back to you so it feels less like an interrogation, and then go back to those non-biographical questions for a bit. (“Oh, you live in Artesia? Is that where that cool library is?” vs. “Oh, you live in Artesia? WHAT STREET?”)

    Good luck, and keep me posted on how it goes for you!

  • Lindsay Miller

    What are some of your “go to” questions, Paul? I’d love to hear them, and they might help some other people here!

  • spastiksparky

    Thanks for the clarification and the input. Plenty of good things to think about now. :) As strange as it seems, it is kind of relaxing to think that they might be feeling awkward as well. Sad, because I know how much it sucks to feel social anxiety, but kind of a relief at the same time.

  • Midori

    I go to online school (junior high – we’re 13 and 14) and we have study conventions and fun field trips sometimes. Do you think it would be weird if I just went up to someone (who I vaguely know because we were at the same table and barely talked to) and said, “I need a new best friend. How about it?”

    I’m a naturally shy girl and it’s very hard for me to talk to people, but I’m tired of beating around the bush and sugarcoating. Would you be weirded out? Does it matter if it’s a guy or a girl? ‘Cause the person I want to be friends with is a guy – simply because there were only two other girls there, one who was dressed in hot pink sparkles from head to toe (I’m already getting a headache imagining the unnecessary drama) and the other who was nearly four years younger than me (most of my female kinda sorta friends are younger because I hate all the stupidity and make-up the older ones don, but only two years at most – not that much). He seems like a nice guy and was really funny, but I wouldn’t want to creep him out. Btw, I don’t like him – at all. *nearly pukes at the thought* I simply want a new best friend.

    I’m putting way too much thought into this aren’t I? Do you think that I could post a “Wanted: Friends” flier on a bulletin board at the library – yes, I’m that desperate – and maybe I can meet some people I never would have otherwise met… or would that be too awkward?

  • The Great Cornholio

    When I was 23 my friends from school had begun drifting away, moving to different cities, falling into romantic relationships, etc. At that time I realized that friends had just sort of been “handed” to me my whole life and I if I was to continue to have a social life I was going to have to reach out to strangers as potential friends. So one night I decided to implement my new strategy by going to a bar by myself! I’m not going to lie I was SUPER NERVOUS as I walked into the place. I ordered a beer and approached a group of attractive females and introduced myself, not trying just pick them up or anything, just trying to meet new people. We talked for like 2 minutes but I could tell they weren’t in the mood to talk to anyone but themselves so I decided to go back to the bar and finish my beer. At the bar there were two other women (slightly older than me) so I decided to talk to them and we ended up talking and laughing for a WHOLE HOUR! One of them was kind of stuck up and the other was really outgoing. Here is a highlight from our conversation:

    Girl #1: “Are you here by yourself? How drunk are you?”
    Me: “Yes and not drunk at all really, this is my first beer.”
    Girl #1: “So you just came here to drink by yourself?”
    Me: “Uhh what are you talking about, I’m drinkn’ with you guys.”
    Girl #2: “I LOVE THIS GUY!!!”

    Man, talking to strangers, what fun activity. I found that the actual talking part is totally not stressful at all, only the pre-talk anxiety. So how does one deal with the pre-talk anxiety? Start talking! Its really that simple. But yea bars are like gyms where you can workout your small-talk muscles.

  • QuietProgrammer

    I made the same job switch recently (tech–>programming) and have found myself in a similar situation. Seems to be an occupational hazard :P

  • Lindsay Miller

    Hi, Midori! This was a really great question. It must add a whole additional layer to the social pressure of school when you only get together in person occasionally, particularly for folks like you who consider themselves shy. You asked two questions: one about approaching your fellow student and one about seeking new friends in your community. I think your proactivity and enthusiasm is great! And no, you’re not putting way too much thought into this—it’s clearly important to you so it makes sense that you’re taking it seriously! However, there may be a way to approach it that shows that you would be a great friend without putting undue pressure on those early interactions.

    For the guy you want to be friends with, let’s say you’re at a natural history museum for a field trip. What if you just asked him “Stegosaurus or Tyrannosaurus—GO” as a way of starting a conversation? Maybe you chat a little more during the field trip, and at the end say “It was nice chatting with you! I could use some fun new friends, you up for a random adventure next weekend?” You may still end up becoming best friends (and I hope you do!), but this way he won’t feel like you’ll be disappointed with anything less. And it also avoids the potentially uncomfortable scenario where you decide that you don’t want to be best friends with him after all, but he wants to be yours!

    For finding friends who live near you, I think your idea is quite cute! Especially if you spend a decent amount of time there and suspect that you’d hit it off with other bookworms. Maybe you could start a teen book club, and see what friendships develop? Consider focusing on the positive (rather than emphasizing your current lack of friends) by saying “Wanted: Book Club Partners in Crime” or something like that. I’ve also heard great things about meetup.com as a way to meet people who share similar interests, or try something new. (Whatever you do, please make sure to keep your family up-to-date about where you’re going and who you’re meeting up with!) I just moved to a new city myself and I can attest that meeting new people is rarely as easy as we hope. But wanting to do so doesn’t make you desperate—it makes you human :)

  • Midori

    This is really helpful. I just made a new friend on a field trip to the air and space museum! It worked! Thank you so much!

  • sami

    its really helping.Thanks!!!
    Can you put up a article on how to talk to seniors,professors,bosses ….

  • Erik sphincter

    How do I fake making small talk? There is so many times I stop myself from blithering out something stupid obvious or I draw blanks. An whenever I do manage coming up with conversations I feel relaxed to talk about they have no fucking clue what I’m saying. >_>

  • Melissa

    I’ve had a severe social phobia since I hit puberty, so I never really learned how to talk to people. Applying this when confronted with social interaction will definitely make me feel a little better and maybe a tiny bit more confident about it :)

  • koolo

    I have problems starting a conversation and would like to know how to start one.

  • L

    wow this actually helped a lot because im pretty awkward when it comes to conversation. people have actually thought I was depressed and asked me whats wrong because I keep to myself and don’t speak to others that much! little do they know once I start talking you cant shut me up…

  • Hadley McIntyre

    This is an awesome article. Thanks heaps. Learnt a tonne

  • Sara

    Probably best article that I’ve read on small talk. Wish I would’ve found this a while ago, considering the fact that I have no friends in highschool because Im not good at actually talking to people on the spot. However when I do attempt to, oh you better watch out it’s like a tsunami of silent awkwardness washes over after we introduce ourselves. Ughh its terrible. I really hope this ends up helping me make friends. Ik dork alert. Oh well, thanks for the article.

  • Lindsay Miller

    Hi, Sara! Glad you enjoyed the article, and I’m sorry you’re having a tough time connecting with people in your school. You say you have difficulty talking to people on the spot. Is it the same when you try to answer a question on the spot in class, for example? Or do you find that comes more easily? ~Lindsay