How do you feel about small talk or talking to strangers? Are you good at it or do you dread it? Some people are gifted this way and find it easy to engage with someone sitting beside them on a plane or waiting in line for coffee. You can feel that they’re relaxed, and it puts whoever they’re speaking with at ease. We’re not all built this way and for anyone who feels socially awkward or shy, talking with strangers can be a challenge. The great news is that when we’re prepared, small talk is easy and sometimes it magically transforms strangers into friends.
“Friendship begins with small talk; then grows into a long and deep conversation, the next thing you know you care so much.”
I used to feel overwhelmed when I thought about all the strangers I was going to encounter at networking events. I had all the same feelings you likely have if you feel socially awkward like I do. What am I going to say? How do I start a conversation with someone I don’t know anything about? Are these people going to judge me?
Now I know that yes people are going to judge me because that’s how we’re wired as human beings. Until we get to know someone and discover what we have in common, our brain tells us to be afraid. What I have found though with years of networking behind me is that we have more in common than we think we do. It’s a matter of engaging and we do this by asking questions of others and sharing information about ourselves. I’ll have some tips that I’ve found useful on this topic for you a little later.
There’s science behind why it’s beneficial for us to talk with strangers and engage in small talk but without looking to science we can say that when a stranger wants to chat with us, it’s likely because they’re curious, we look interesting or both. Just a few questions and answers shared, and we know whether this is a relationship for the moment or one that could evolve into a friendship. Either way we’ll learn something, right?
“Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.”
-Margaret Wheatley, Organizational Consultant
Research on small talk shows that we underestimate how much we’ll enjoy conversations with strangers and how much those conversations can nurture a feeling of connectedness with other people, which is key for thriving, especially as we age. A study conducted at the University of Michigan shows that engaging in small talk can make us feel smarter, happier, and healthier. A surprising result was that casual conversation contributes to a lower risk of heart attack. It stands to reason because we’re connecting with other people, which inherently has a lot of benefit, at any age. It bears repeating that as human beings we are made for socialization and not isolation, so it’s important that we push ourselves beyond what’s comfortable or familiar, so that we can expand our knowledge base, social circle, and our own courage.
You’re only one conversation away from learning something new whether it’s about a family member, an acquaintance, or a community member. I remember recently sitting in a small group of Wellings members, after my presentation at Wellings of Picton. The woman beside me and I struck up a conversation; I learned that she had experienced a car accident a few years ago that impacted her life and her move to Wellings gave her new friends and a community that cared. She was excited about the music we were about to listen to and said that she was looking forward to kicking up her heels, even if only figuratively. A new Wellings member joined the group and introduced herself as Flo, spelling her name with a wide smile; she started asking questions to get to know the people in the group. She joked that her grandson loved Wellings and said that this type of community would be great for young people too. I think he’s on to something. Anytime we can create community and connection we are alleviating some of the stress we all feel in our daily lives, which is magnified when we’re isolated and lessened when we’re in community.
“Smile at strangers and you just might change a life.”
– Steve Maraboli, Behavioral Scientist
It’s important for us to initiate connections with our family, our peers, friends, and our community members, some of whom we may not know yet. While it may feel uncomfortable initially, with practice we become confident and reaching out becomes easier.
Here are a few tips I’ve found helpful when it comes to being prepared for conversation.
- I like to open conversation with a compliment whenever possible. It creates an immediate connection; make sure it’s sincere.
- Look for commonalities in whatever situation you’re meeting this person. Make sure you’re curious and have a genuine interest in them.
- Have a few topics of conversation in your pocket, so you can talk easily. In Canada weather is a great topic to open with and it seems everyone has an opinion. I like to keep it light and focus on what’s good.
- Talk about why you’re there, whether it’s a party, a meeting, or some other social event.
- Ask open ended questions rather than questions requiring a yes or no answer.
- Ask them to tell you a little bit about themselves.
- Genuinely listen to their answers and demonstrate it by using verbal and non-verbal feedback like nodding your head and following up with another question.
- Wrap up graciously by saying something like “it was a pleasure to meet you” or great chatting with you” and then add that you have somewhere to be or that you’re going to chat with someone else.
I think it’s important to be positive and enthusiastic when we’re getting to know someone. Small talk is the first step in figuring out whether we’re aligned with a new person; it’s also a great tool to deepen a relationship with family or community members without things getting sticky. We don’t have to tell our life story right out of the gate. While we all have an interesting story to share, we can save that for a time when we feel it’s appropriate to go a little deeper with someone, once we get to know them.
What’s really worked for me is practice. The more I’m prepared before I initiate conversation, the more relaxed I feel, and the more I enjoy these encounters. There are so many things we can learn, so many beautiful people we can get to know and so many wonderful stories and shared experiences to uncover when we take a chance and open a conversation, simply by asking “how are you doing?”