Updated: Sep 15
Confession time: I don’t understand ‘small talk’. I was attended a few Christmas parties over the weekend and the same few questions come up; “are you still in New York?” Yup. “Are you dating anyone?” Yup. “How’s business?” Great. That’s it. That’s the end of the conversation - I don’t understand what either party gets out of it. Wikipedia defines small talk as, “an informal type of discourse that does not cover any functional topics of conversation or any transactions that need to be addressed”. Sounds about right.
Here’s the thing; I don’t think that people mean to ask surface-level questions and I don’t think it’s an indication that they don’t genuinely care about us or our lives. But I do think that we’re missing one essential piece, and that is that small talk is supposed to turn into big talk. The one-worded answers that you automatically verbalize are not supposed to be the end of the conversation. Conversations are a two-way street, but you have the individual power to make it meaningful and worth both of your time. I’m reinventing small talk – with me?
“HOW’S IT GOING?” ASK: “WHAT’S BEEN THE BEST PART OF YOUR WEEK?”
It’s a simple switch but it forces someone to get more specific and put some thought behind an answer. Allowing someone to remember a positive thing that has recently happened to them is also a great way to bring a smile to their face and recall other positive experiences.
“ARE YOU DATING?” ASK: “WHAT KINDS OF THINGS DO YOU LOOK FOR IN A PARTNER?”
First of all – if you don’t know enough about someone’s dating life that you have to ask them about it, they probably don’t want to talk to you about it. However, if you must ask someone about their love life, do it in a way that allows them to focus on the good in their current or future partner without being too invasive. Bonus points if they are single and after hearing their list of wants you have someone to set them up with.
“HOW IS BUSINESS” ASK: “IF YOU COULD BE DOING ANYTHING, WHERE DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN 5 YEARS?”
Here’s the truth from someone who runs a business; we don’t want to tell you about our businesses unless you also run a business and are going to somehow relate. So, take it from a different angle and ask about future plans and goals. Talking about five-year plans is stressful, talking about five-year goals/dreams is fun and inspirational.
“DID YOU GET THE BONUS YOU HOPED FOR?” ASK: “WHAT’S THE BEST CAREER ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED?”
*DISCLAIMER: this was an actual question I heard being asked multiple times over the weekend…which seems insane to me, but I guess is a real conversation people have*
Asking someone about money is never – let me repeat, never – appropriate to ask someone about money, so don’t even go there. If you would like to talk about someone’s career, ask them a neutral question that has little to do with their personal finances or other job details. Asking about great advice that they have gotten is a good way to still talk about career and also hear about their personal philosophies.
“HAVE YOU LOST WEIGHT?” ASK: “YOU LOOK AMAZING! HOW DO YOU KEEP YOURSELF SO FEELING GOOD/HEALTHY?”
While I understand that ‘being thin’ is what our society has made us all aspire to, I hate when conversations are about weight. It’s one thing to compliment someone, it’s another to imply that they weren’t looking great the last time you saw them and to make them feel like you’re keeping mental tabs on their appearance. Asking what they do to feel great is a perfect way to compliment and to also move the conversation from looks to wellness. No one wants to talk about how much they weigh, but almost everyone wants to talk about the amazing new vitamin pack they’re taking, their peloton addiction and the morning routine they’re currently loving. Focus on health and well being rather than a number on someone else’s scale.
It’s great to ask meaningful questions, but sometimes it’s even more important to listen. Take a moment to realize whether you’re waiting for someone to stop talking or actually listening to their answers. Also, remember to be engaging and share thoughtful answers to people if you’d like to get the same in return. Lastly, be aware of who you are talking to. Don’t over ask, pay attention to body language and notice whether or not they feel comfortable with the questions you’re asking. Social awareness is key.
Devyn Penney is a certified life & intimacy coach and the author of, "Mastering the Art of Internal Intimacy". This blog is dedicated to ending small talk by having Big Conversations, "the only way we connect is through love, empathy and an open line of communication".