How to Turn Small Talk into Smart Conversation


Think about any situation where two or more people come together, intentionally or not — a date, a train ride, waiting in line to see a doctor, a birthday party, etc. What happens? People feel compelled to start a conversation and take it a bit beyond the usual chitchat, which feels artificial and like a waste of time. Why is that? Because, from a biological and psychological point of view, humans are social animals and meaning-seeking beings.

Most people hate the idea of small talk and would much rather engage in deeper, meaningful conversations, which can enhance bonds and connections with their interlocutors. However, that being said, we have to admit that it may be difficult to start a dialogue and get the discussion to flow. Let’s focus on a few ways to get the conversation going, so that, instead of focusing on how boring the person is, or how difficult to talk to, you can reframe the situation and turn it into a pleasant experience.

Ask open-ended questions that demand stories, not one-word answers

One way to cross the barrier of small talk is to ask different questions than what we are used to, using “why” instead of “what”, leading toward a more complex answer, thus trying to convince the other person to share a story, an opinion, to build on your inquiry and expand the conversation.

Bland, one-word answers will end the discussion before it even begins. If you ask someone “What do you do for a living?”, they will offer their professional domain and official title or position, and leave it at that. But if you continue with “HOW/WHY did you end up in this line of work?”, chances are high that the interlocutor will feel intrigued and invited toward sharing something personal and taking the topic further. If you meet a person for the first time and their name is very rare or strange, you can build on that: ask for the story behind the name, what it means, how the parents came up with the idea of it, how it has influenced their life, and so on. The possibilities for asking open-ended questions regarding almost any subject are limitless.

Return the favor

If someone asks you a question, even though it requires a one-word answer, you can still expand on it. Dare to be honest, to reveal things about yourself, offer details and see what catches the attention of your interlocutor, strive to give long, interesting replies and tell a story. If you are uncomfortable with a certain subject, just change the topic, but keep the conversation going.

If someone asks about your job, don’t just offer your position and employer (“I’m a cashier at Walmart”) , describe a bit of what you do, offer an interesting event or experience, come up with a story that exemplifies what you actually do on a daily basis to earn your living. The same holds true for hobbies — don’t just list them, get into more details and reveal personal situations, facts (“I volunteer at an animal shelter. Just last week, we saved three kittens from a sewer and found them all loving homes.”) — you never know how you may influence your interlocutor, make them see new and exciting points of view, introduce them to things they never even knew existed, get them to adopt a hobby.

Mind the gap

At the same time, pay attention to the other person’s reaction. When you share a piece of your story, one of two things can happen: an encouragement for you to continue or a disinterested “oh, nice”. Maybe the person isn’t in the mood for talking right now, maybe they have other issues on their mind, and your constant rambling or bombarding them with questions just isn’t the right course of action for the given situation.

If your interlocutor is trying to be polite, repeating your observations or simply agreeing with everything you say, they have followed the social norm, they have answered your questions, but, at the same time, paralyzed the discussion and (intentionally or not) missed the chance to move the dialogue further. Assess the situation and decide whether you should keep trying to have a smart conversation or cut your losses and retreat.

Arm yourself with interesting topics

Develop a habit of learning news of some kind, on a daily basis. Read a newspaper, listen to a radio bulletin on your way to work, listen to other people’s stories and experiences and take notice of important facts that they share. A good conversationalist has at least some basic knowledge of current events and can discuss trending topics, such as noteworthy political decisions, celebrities, exceptional weather phenomena or astronomical events, traffic, holiday destinations, new technologies, and other general interest stories.

Avoid inappropriate topics

Try to avoid personal life details and controversial subjects in business conversations — these include: marital problems, religious beliefs, political views, health issues, sexually explicit jokes, expensive purchases (they might be interpreted as bragging), certain hobbies (hunting might be offensive for people who stand up for animal rights; volunteering in LGBTQ groups may be viewed negatively by people who have strong opinions about the matter).

Likewise, avoid business details in personal conversations — usually, people are patient enough to hear general information about your job or other interests, but if you get completely immersed in facts and figures or complex processes, they will soon lose interest or not be able to follow you further.

Great non-controversial, neutral conversation starters include likes and dislikes (movies, books, music, television shows), travel destinations, exercising, things that everyone can relate to (the weather, points of interest in your city or country, traffic jams, long queues at the tax office, a new attraction at the local zoo or museum, etc.).

To sum up, it seems that, rather than drawing people closer together, small talk can actually put up barriers between people, because it keeps the conversation superficial. Although polite and “nice”, it removes honesty, genuine sharing, in-depth bonding and emotional connections. When two people get stuck in chit chat mode, they don’t find out anything new about each other and, as a consequence, the relationship between them doesn’t grow in a satisfying way. When words go beyond this stage and develop into smart conversation, true communication starts happening.

At TRISOFT, we believe in the power of conversation and would like to see it go from idle words exchanged between people to a deep, meaningful transfer of knowledge and ideas. Therefore, we urge you to keep in mind the advice provided here and abandon small talk in favor of its smarter counterpart.