How to Handle Small Talk

For those who don’t know me, I like to ask a lot of questions. So many, in fact, that it can turn people away. Humanity is weird like that; we encourage social interaction, but if we’re suddenly too socially engaging, it raises a whole bunch of red flags.

When I meet someone new for the first time, I like to get right into the nitty-gritty — explore the core of this person, what motivates them? What drives them to get up every morning, slide on a pair of underwear (I assume), and haul themselves to work/school/yoga/chess club for a hard day’s effort?

Small talk is probably the most aggravating thing to do, next in line to using a Ziploc bag that just won’t zip. The hardest part of small talk is figuring out which piece of small talk is most relevant. Is the weather interesting lately? Do they have any hobbies? What are their music tastes? But most importantly, why do I care?

If you’ve gone on at least one date ever in your life, you know exactly the horror I’m talking about — the inescapable monotony of two people firing back questions about things that both will undoubtedly soon forget about, because it doesn’t actually matter that much. I would rather learn about which musical artist someone admires the most, and why, over a list of broad genres. I would rather know what kind of weather makes this person feel most relaxed, and why. I would rather know what propels them to have these specific hobbies, and what, or who, inspires them to continue.

You’ll notice a trend in the examples above. A worthy conversation requires an explanation — the reason behind the thoughts. By hearing how someone comes to their conclusion, you get an insight into how their brain works, and what their thought process is like. You get to learn how they think, which is proven to heighten intimacy. Intimacy is the key to a successful first date, it’s what keeps your partner coming back for more. Without intimacy, there’s no spark and little depth to the “relationship”.

However, as I’ve come to realize, you can’t be intimate right from the get-go, unless your mission is to scare the other person away. In that case, I recommend wearing crocs and socks — it’ll cut your date in half 100% of the time.

Small talk needs to happen first.

So, as much as I hate the idea of asking baseless, one-dimensional questions, it’s necessary. The question is, how do we make these transitions from boring to insightful as easy as possible? To get used to it, I’ve taken it upon myself to answer some mock small talk questions in a way I’m used to answering — finding a way to tell a story, bringing out some inner thoughts and personal opinions, explaining my thought process, and hopefully sparking a new idea the other person can respond with. Here’s hoping you learn a little about me, and how to make the most of excrutiating small talk.

#1 — Two degrees celsius in the middle of May, nice weather we’re having here, eh? (Disclaimer: I am Canadian)

Yeah, talk about global warming, right? Practically sweating over here. Honestly though, it’s quite a change from what I’m used to. I actually prefer the cold more than the hot, but I agree, even this is a little chilly for “spring weather”. I feel like the best time for something like this would be later October, when the leaves are changing, falling, and nature is retiring for another year. Weirdly enough, I feel like that’s my favourite time of year. Halloween begins, bringing out the creativity of the children of the block… and their parents too of course. Thanksgiving is right there to remind us about our loved ones and those we hold dear, and local hockey is kicking into full swing! What does this weather remind you of?

And with that, a more insightful conversation is born. No longer are we talking about the current temperature and how a heavier jacket would’ve been a smarter choice; now we’re talking about significant moments in our life, how the holidays make us feel, and even bringing new topics like sports into the conversation.

#2 — So, uh, what do you do?

I like to make a difference in the world. But I’m taking that one step at a time for now, and am currently working at the University as the User Experience head and lead graphics designer in our department. We handle a lot of sensitive information, but my role is to communicate that data in a visually appealing way across multiple platforms to make it easier for investors and stakeholders to read. The role is a hit and miss for me, because on one hand I’m finally getting some real-world UX design experience, but on the other hand, the impact is small and very procedural, so I don’t have a large reach and many projects can’t be put on my portfolio. In my spare time, I try to write as much as I can so I can still reach out to different communities and hopefully make a difference in someone’s life. What do you want to do?

Here, I take a simple question about my job, and turn it into an introspective look at who I am as a person, highlighting my core values and other hobbies I enjoy doing. I still answer the question, but my explanations help the other person really understand how I feel about my role in this big world we live in. By throwing in my comment about writing, it shows that I don’t just sit around at home after work, but that I like to keep busy, and explains why.

#3 — What kind of music do you like?

There’s so many. Right now I’m enjoying some french electro-pop.

Yes, I know that’s very oddly specific, but hear me out.

When I’m hard at work, especially when writing, I can’t listen to regular music because the words often distract me. By listening to this french music, I still get the energy I need from the beat in the song, but don’t get distracted by too many words or phrases. It can be a bit distracting though… I took French all the way until the end of high school, so, if it’s basic enough, sometimes the songs will still manage to throw me off. What about you?

Now, obviously not everyone has taken French as long as I have, and I imagine many people may not enjoy french music. That’s totally fine. The key is to lead the conversation in different directions, use one topic to begin another — like in this one where music turns into my knowledge of a second language. It gives room for the other person to respond with either their favourite music, any second languages, or both topics.

An important thing to remember is to reciprocate with questions. Don’t do all the talking! Let your date have the chance to get their thoughts out, and don’t feel the need to jump in and guide the flow of conversation if they’re still speaking.

Take turns.

But most importantly, be yourself. Don’t try to make yourself more interesting than you actually are, because misconceptions on the first date severely hurt the chances of future dates being a success — particularly when your date realizes that instead of being the Double Diamond snowboarder you boasted about, you’re really a Level 2 who only just learned to link their first turn and finally stopped faceplanting after the first bump. No one likes being lied to. Don’t do it.

This is how to dominate the small talk game. Keep your thoughts concise, but be sure to explain why you think the way you do, let the other person speak too, and be yourself.

See you next Monday.

– Austin