Geek Culture
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Geek Culture

My Small Talk Tips

What I’ve learned starting countless conversations with strangers.

I used to roll my eyes when I saw posts on LinkedIn about soft skills being more important than hard skills for software engineers. I still do, to be entirely honest. I’m not here to trivialize the importance of hard skills, or try to convince anyone that confidence alone is enough to land a great software engineering role. Despite this, there is a sentiment there that I do appreciate very much: soft skills are massively underrated.

I do have an article on general soft skills for software engineers, but it doesn’t really touch base on small talk.

I’m not an authority on small talk or soft skills in general, but I’ve put myself in a lot of situations that made me uncomfortable at the time, and over time it has improved my ability to talk to strangers. I’m just here to share my findings.

How Are You?

A lot of conversations with strangers or people you don’t know intimately begin with something along the lines of how are you. I realized this can sometimes lead me into a trap. Here’s a hypothetical conversation:

New Person: “Hello! I’m [New Person]. It’s nice to meet you! How are you?”
Me: “Hello! It’s nice to meet you too. I’m doing well, how are you?”
New Person: “I’m doing well, thank you.”

My knee-jerk reaction for a long time was to say I’m doing fine and ask them how they’re doing as well. Where was I supposed to go from here? There’s often a pause here. I feel like I’ve hit a wall and we haven’t even been talking for 20 seconds. I’ve learned a much better approach is to give a candid, authenticate response to their question of how are you, with just the right amount of vulnerability.

New Person: “Hello! I’m [New Person]. It’s nice to meet you! How are you?”
Me: “Hello! It’s nice to meet you too. Well, I did 12 hours of driving this past weekend to visit my parents, so I’ve been pretty tired this week.”
New Person: “Oh man. I know how that goes, my parents actually live in [some other city]. Where do yours live?”

This way, the conversation can continue a bit more organically. One thing I will add here is, try to sneak a reciprocal how are you in there somewhere, because some people may consider it rude if you don’t.

Steering the Conversation

Most people I meet have a lot of stuff in their life they love to ramble about. I don’t mean that in mean way. I’ve been known to ramble. People love to talk about what they are passionate about and that’s great.

Do not steer conversations towards something that someone is clearly not interested in — do the opposite. Reading this is an art. If you ask someone about their job, and their response is one or two unenthused words, they don’t want to talk about work. Don’t follow up on that or drill into it. If they dive into it on the other hand, sit back and listen.

Gauge enthusiasm levels and lean into whatever they seem to want to talk about. If you’re talking about sports and you’re met with your third “oh, I see” in a row, they’re not enjoying the conversation. Change the topic to try to get them doing the majority of the talking.

Empathy

This one ought to go without saying, but be empathetic. Don’t be abrasive.

  • Don’t tell people their ideas or hobbies are stupid, even if that’s your initial reaction. Be curious instead. Ask questions like, how does that work?
  • If someone is saying something you disagree with or you know for certain they’re wrong about it, you need to choose your battles wisely. It’s better not to get into debates about trivial things.
  • If someone is venting about something, most of the time you shouldn’t offer up solutions. This is one is definitely counterintuitive, and something you need to gauge. If someone tells you they waited in line for 20 minutes at Starbucks this morning and it was frustrating, don’t tell them to just make coffee at home instead. Tell them that sucks, and that you also hate waiting in line.

Thanks for reading!

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Michael Faber

Michael Faber

Working in software is one hell of a ride.