Small talk sucks.
We all hate it. And yet we do it all the time. We do it partly out of discomfort, nervousness, fear of being impolite, busyness, and just social convention. We engage in small talk automatically. It’s part of our routine.
Small talk’s fine if you don’t care about establishing a deeper relationship. But what if you’re new to town and want to meet new people? Or what if you have a crush on the cute barista down the street or the girl who sits next to you in Philosophy 101? What if you’re getting together with a new friend (or say, a blogger you admire) for the first time and want to become closer?
How do you deepen these relationships, so that you’re not just making small talk the whole time?
Worrying About What Others Think is the Killer
Have you noticed that you have no trouble opening up with close friends? That’s because you know them well and you aren’t sitting there, worrying about what they think of you (it’s ironic, we tend to worry more about what strangers think of us, than close friends).
But with new people, you worry about the impression you’re making. You’re not sure if the person is going to judge you or accept you, and so the instinct is to protect yourself by not revealing too much, not allowing yourself to be too vulnerable.
You Must “Go There” First
You need to ignore the instinct to shy away from personal topics. That instinct is based on fear (never a good reason to do anything– except for run from a fire, maybe).
Instead of closing down, push yourself to do the opposite. Be the one to break the small talk by talking about something you’re passionate about. Lead, and they will eventually follow.
Now I’m not saying you should respond to the question “how’s your day going?” with a sob story about your sick dog. In fact, it’s best not to bring up any negative topics right away, because you want to keep things happy and energetic at first. Those are the emotions you want to be associated with you. The tragic stories can come later, once you’ve built up a bit more rapport.
But how about responding to the question “how’s your day going?” not with “good, and you?” but with “Good! I got a lot of work done today on my (insert meaningful project).” They will likely then ask you about this meaningful project and you can go from there and talk passionately about the work you’re excited about.
Another option is to bring up a meaningful experience: “My day’s going well. I took my nephew out for a bike ride. He just learned to ride a bike and he’s so proud of himself. It’s adorable.” There’s no way they won’t have an equally heartwarming story to reciprocate with. Or even if they just ask more questions, this will give you a chance to open up about your love for your nephew. We all connect with emotion.
Talk About Things that are Meaningful to You
This is the key. Talk about meaningful topics. It could be work, relationships or experiences. It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s something that you care about and can speak about with emotion. Don’t bring up the weather (I cringe every time the weather comes up in conversation), unless it’s a relevant detail in the story of the amazing hike you just took.
If you talk about meaningful topics first and allow yourself to express the feelings associated with those topics, the other person will feel something too. They will then be more likely to open up themselves.
If You Open Up, Others Will Too
As humans, there are certain universal truths that we share. We all have hopes and dreams and care about certain people (family, friends, pets, etc.) a lot. We all have childhood experiences that were both wonderful and tragic. We are all both passionate and imperfect. When we see these universal truths in other people, we can relate.
Screenwriters and authors know this well. Highlight a character’s weaknesses, their flaws and imperfections, and we love them more because we see ourselves in them. Show the character being kind and loving and opening their hearts, and we connect with that too. (This is also a good way to make your villains more interesting. If they have just a bit of goodness in their hearts, we will be conflicted about hating them. It will make our relationship with them more tumultuous and the whole thing will be more realistic and more dramatic. A bad guy who is ALL bad is not interesting.)
We All Want to Connect with Other People, We Just Need to Feel Safe First
When you fight the urge to protect yourself and open up about what’s important to you instead, other people will want to as well. Even if they can’t connect to the specific details in your story, they’ll feel the emotion behind it. The emotion is what will stick with them and make them want to share too.
Don’t be Outcome Dependent, Just Doing it is What Matters
What if you open up about something you’re passionate about and the other person doesn’t seem interested or reciprocate? It happens.
First of all, don’t take it personally. Maybe they’re a bit more weary of strangers and have some insecurities and it’ll just take more time. Maybe they’re distracted with other things in their life right now and aren’t interested in developing new connections. Or maybe they’re just not the right friend for you.
The worst thing you can do is interpret their reaction as rejection. Don’t take it personally, don’t shut down and don’t become resentful.
You brought up something that matters to you. (It felt way more authentic than discussing the weather, no?) If they weren’t interested, that has nothing to do with you. They don’t even know you. It’s their own issues and their own fears that are preventing them from connecting with the passion in your words.
Be proud that you were able to go there first. That takes guts, and regardless of the outcome, it’s a win.
What techniques do you use to break through small talk and established deeper connections with strangers?