The art of aimless chatter may be something most people take for granted, but for those of you living with social anxiety it can be the hardest part of life to master.
First of all you are acutely aware that you’re not talking part in a conversation, or you’re not striking up a conversation with someone you’re with. This then leads you to become anxious about not talking and anxious that you don’t have anything to talk about. As a consequence you don’t say anything and you become more acutely aware of the silence. Once you’re away from the situation, you then become anxious about how you felt during the awkward silence and look to avoid similar situations in the future.
Does this sound like you?
This cycle of anxiety is a cornerstone of many aspects of social anxiety and social phobia – none more so than in smalltalk. But conversation is governed by a series of mechanics and rules which you can actually learn – once you’ve mastered them and become mindful of how smalltalk works and how other people feel during silences, you will be well on your way of being able to overcome your social anxiety.
I’ve put together 8 steps to help you with small talk:
Step 1: Understand the rules of engagement
The vital first rule of smalltalk is to be mindful that this is a learnt skill not an innate ability and, like any ability, shouldn’t be intimidating once you understand the rules of engagement. Smalltalk is the basis of interaction – you are letting people know you are willing to communicate and they are responding as to whether they want to. Be mindful that they might not want to and you might have better things to do than talk to your neighbour in a queue anyway – it’s not a war of words, it’s a simple social tool.
Step 2: Start simple
There’s no reason to blow whoever you’re with away with a stunningly acute or witty remark. Opening up smalltalk is simply the way to gauge whether they’re interested in talking in the first place. A comment on the weather or situation you’re in (waiting for a bus, taking a cigarette break, standing in line for the photocopier, standing in the kitchen at a party) will suffice. Remember, you don’t have to have a view on politics, sport or the meaning of life – this is just a basic opening act.
Step 3: Be prepared
There’s nothing wrong – especially if you’re at a social gathering or part of a larger group – in having a prepared opening statement which includes who you are and what you do. Also be prepared in terms of your body language – face people, look them in the eye and be open to the possibility that they are nervous too.
Step 4: Give a little
If you are introducing yourself to someone make sure you state your name well – the rules of engagement mean the person you’re talking to needs this information to carry on the conversation and will be looking for the cue. If you’re prepared to give a little, then the person you’re talking to can feed off these cues. Of course, they should be following the same rules so when they give you their name, repeat it back to them (“Hi I’m John,” “Hello John, I’m Amanda”) and try to use it throughout the conversation.
Step 5: Be positive!
Share enough positive information about yourself for the other person or people to be able to frame a response. It’s all very well you not enjoying your job in retail, but a short, sharp “Hi, I’m John and I work in a shop” does little to encourage smalltalk compared to “Hi, I’m John and I work in a shop which sells computers – you wouldn’t believe the strange things people ask about to do with computers these days!”
Step 6: Try out some topics
You don’t have to limit yourself to one line of topic for conversation – and you certainly don’t have to give up if no-one bites when you try “I’ve just finished reading the latest book by X and really liked it…” You might find they’re not book people but have a lot to say about a film you’ve seen, a sports match you’ve watched or a journey you’ve been on. Be mindful that others may be as anxious as you are about smalltalk and might be throwing out their own topics looking for people to bite. Don’t feel like you have to be all-in or silent – if they give an opinion, feel free to answer with however you feel about the subject, even if you don’t know a great deal about it. Don’t spend too long on this step otherwise things could become stilted – if there’s no bite, then it may be that the other person doesn’t want to make smalltalk, equally if there’s a small bite, be prepared to go with that as a topic.
Step 7: Keep it moving
Once a topic has been settled upon, you can associate that topic to other relevant material. For example if you both like The Hunger Games, maybe talk about other books which have been turned into movies or whether you saw the Oscars or even how surprised you were at the price of popcorn when you went to see the latest Hunger Games instalment at the cinema. Remember, don’t get stuck on your favourite topic and don’t be afraid to say you don’t know much about someone else’s favourite topic.
Step 8: The perfect getaway
Smalltalk is exactly what is says it is: small. There’s no need to turn the conversation into a great debate and, equally, it’s perfectly fine to break off the conversation when you need to. Just be mindful of how you end the engagement: first of all, announce your intention to go and say how you enjoyed the conversation (“I’m going to have to be going now, but I enjoyed talking to you – I’m so glad I found someone else who hates The Hunger Games as much as I do!”), and give them an opportunity to respond and break away too (“Anyway, I’m a friend of Tom’s so I might see you again at another of his parties – hopefully there will be more films we hate out by then!”) The overall trick is to be kind and open with the other person, listen to what they say and respond honestly.
Do you have any other tips that have helped you with smalltalk in the past? If so, I’d certainly love to hear about them. And for those of you that are part of the Private Facebook Group, I’ll be talking a lot more about smalltalk over the next week or so!
All the best, Kyle