How to Break Through Small Talk and Turn Strangers into Friends
Photo courtesy of Greg Burkett.

How to Break Through Small Talk and Turn Strangers into Friends

Written by Emilie

Topics: Confidence

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?

41 Comments

  1. Emily Dill says:

    Love this! I absolutely despise “how’s the weather, how ’bout them yankees” small talk, so I try to talk about things that mean something to at least one of us. I also make it a point to talk to most strangers like I do to my friends or family…if someone sneezes, I tell them “God bless you”, I compliment them on something cute they’re wearing…it’s possible that some may think I’m crazy, but I usually get a very warm response. :)

    • Emilie says:

      Nice! Yeah, all that stuff is great.

      I have another theory (for another blog post..) about how it actually takes more confidence to give someone a genuine compliment than to stay quiet. Since most people are nervous/guarded when they meet a stranger, they tend to keep any complimentary thoughts to themselves. If you can push yourself to do the opposite, that’ll actually make you feel more confident. Not sure I explained that very well. Heh. But yeah, a topic for another post. :)

      Thanks for sharing, Emily!

      • Emily Dill says:

        I love that other idea of yours too…oddly enough, it actually means more to me to get a compliment from a stranger than from someone I know. And if feels AMAZING to say something nice to someone else too!

      • kim says:

        I agree. There are many times I’ve seen something super cute/cool/awesome that someone had or was wearing… but felt too scared to actually compliment them. I’m always scared of saying something stupid. But I’ve slowly come to realize that if they are wearing it, they must like it, so how it the world would agreeing with them be stupid?

        • Fletch says:

          I actually ask strangers where they got/bought items I admire, all the time. Sometimes a cool story is shared (which usually means I will never have it) and I’m sure I’ve made a few days.
          -Emily

      • DJ Yabis says:

        YES! Actually I love giving compliments if someone deserves it or just to make someone happy ;P

  2. Small talk is one of those things people expect you to pick up on your own. It has to be the most widespread “curse of knowledge” problems we have today. I like your point about putting a positive spin on things. It’s nice to give people a bit of good news everyday!

  3. Thanks, Emilie! Spot on, as usual. We have a bunch of counter-productive instincts, don’t we? The impulse to close up for fear of saying the wrong thing and making a bad impression usually accomplishes just the opposite: we appear awkward and uninteresting and end up making a bad impression.

    The best impressions are made by just going for it! We all want to connect with others.

    • Emilie says:

      Yeah, for sure. Also when we clam up, that often fuels the other person’s fear that we’re judging them and so they clam up as well, only making the problem worse.

      Why oh why are so many of our instincts so counterproductive! :)

  4. Michelle says:

    The ice cream man by my place when asked “how are you?” would always respond “Better and better!” with a smile and enthusiasm (even though he’s always smiling and enthusiastic), but it was enough of a response to illicit another response in the other person. I asked him once why better and better and not just fine, and he said that if he said just fine then he’d only be in one place, but if he sees himself as always better then when time goes by, it goes by better. Or something like that, he’s a funny guy, but I thought it was a nice approach to a mundane question.

  5. Dyamond says:

    I’m the person that talks about the weather and gives very short, quick answers. It’s so scary sometime! I’ll have to keep these things in mind. Great post!

    • Emilie says:

      Thanks, Dyamond. Yeah, it’s not something you always have to do… Sometimes we’re in a hurry and don’t have time to connect. But it’s definitely something to keep in mind, if you’re looking to have more meaningful interactions throughout your day. It can make life a lot more fun actually.

  6. Shanna Mann says:

    I like to ask people their opinions, or how they do [whatever it is they do], because I like to know how things work. People are usually proud of their skills and happy to share. It’s a great way to establish rapport. From there, we usually segue to philosophies, and maybe from there to personal stuff.

    But I don’t think of it as forging a deeper connection. I just think of it as being curious and wanting to hear how other people experience the world

    • Tim Webster says:

      I agree! I just like to hear the thoughts that bounce around in the minds of others.

      My favorite question when meeting someone new, ‘What would you be doing right now if you didn’t have to worry about money?’ This works well in response to the typical ‘Oh so what do you do?’ question people ask in an effort to make conversation.

      ‘What do you do?’ is so boring. Right now, I fix computers. Blech. This isn’t what I’m passionate about! But if they asked what I *would* do, that opens up so many options!

      It’s funny, and a bit terrifying, to ask this to people. A lot of folks have never thought about what they are truly passionate about, so they don’t really have an answer.. =/

    • Emilie says:

      Hi Shanna,

      I like your view and I too am genuinely curious about people. I guess the problem I see, is that people often don’t respond openly to questions when they aren’t yet comfortable with the other person.

      And I feel like that leads to a lot of surface level interactions, which could be much deeper. For instance, even when a stranger spontaneously asks me about something personal like my dreams, I’m usually taken aback and I worry about opening up… Are they going to judge me? Do we have different values? I have no clue. But if they open up first (or if I go there of my own volition), it’s a lot easier.

      • Gillis says:

        I actually find it easier opening up to strangers than to people I know (but who aren’t necessarily friends). Strangers I’ll likely never see again. But acquaintances I might, and I feel I have to tailor my answer carefully, for the stated reasons in the article.

    • Craig_Os says:

      Curiosity, what a great word. And the best thing about it is you never know which direction it is going to take you. But knowing is not the point, all you need to do is follow its lead. And enjoy the ride.

      This blog is a great example, post an article and you never know what the results will be, right? So I would guess that you too have a healthy does of the “curiosity trait” Emilie.

      It IS a fun ride, isn’t it?

  7. Tim Webster says:

    This is something I’ve had to work on a lot in the past few years. Moving to a new place and meeting all new people forced me to become more social. I had no friends, so I didn’t have any options BUT to turn strangers into friends.

    The best thing I can say is that asking real meaningful questions about the other persons life blows people away. They *want* to talk to you because you make them feel warm and fuzzy. This works for me because I’m genuinely interested in the lives of people.

    For example, I recently had a visit with several of Future Wife’s friends from highschool. They had a 10 year reunion (which we skipped and we all went to New Orleans instead!) and I volunteered to keep one friend company while she went to the airport to pick up her husband.

    I know very little about her. I know she lives in Reno, NV with her husband. I know she’s got a job (but no idea what it is) and I know she’s got a dog.

    ‘How’s Reno?’ I asked. ‘Ugh. It’s okay’ she replied. This helps, because I can infer that there is more to this story behind her dissatisfaction with the littlest big city (or whatever it’s called)

    ‘What could be better about it?’ This simple question opened up a whole conversation about how she and her husband would like to move to France, what they’d need to do to accomplish that, what is holding them back right now, and when we arrived at the airport she looks at me and says, ‘Tim. You should be a motivational speaker or something.’

    I laughed. The conversation was great and I feel like I know her and her husband much better now. All the credit is due to asking the meaningful questions!

    Great post. I love this stuff, Emilie. I just wish I could get my photo to show up next to my email. =(

    • Tim Webster says:

      OH SHOOT NEVER MIND THERE IT IS! Weeeeee

      • Emilie says:

        Hi Tim,

        That’s awesome. I definitely agree that asking the right questions is huge! It’s about noticing the subtext and trying to get at it, without being confrontational or rude of course. Giving them both the opportunity to open up and an out if they’re not comfortable. And when someone’s hesitant to open up, that’s when sharing your own emotions on a topic can encourage them to go there too.

        Great stuff. Hopefully we’ll get to converse in person one day. :)

    • DJ Yabis says:

      I think we have the same approach. Ask them meaningful questions and it will appear that you are really interested to get to know a person more. I love interviewing strangers and hearing their stories so it works most of the time. :P

  8. Heather says:

    This is such a great reminder to me, especially the part about worrying what other people think. With people I know relatively well, I don’t care, but I tend to be worried that someone will think that I’m weird for talking to them. I have a really hard time making friends, and I’m not sure why. I feel really insecure about calling people and inviting them to do something. I always have the thoughts of “they’ll think I’m weird for calling them out of the blue”, or “they’ve never called me or invited me anywhere, why would they want me to?”. Maybe they are thinking the same thing about calling or inviting me to do something?

    • Emilie says:

      Yeah, this is a really common problem. We’re all so afraid of rejection. I think the key, when you’re doing something outside social norms, is to pretend like what you’re doing (talking to a stranger for example) is totally normal. It fits within the rules of your own private reality. You just act like there’s nothing strange about it at all, and other people will pick up on that and quickly buy it.

      I always admire people who just kind of inhabit their own reality and make their own social rules. I mean really, what’s the worse that can happen?

  9. Ally says:

    First a question and then a book recommendation:

    1. How to strike up a conversation on Social media like facebook? Even if you are genuinely interested in the person,what I found is that people are scared to connect to strangers. And it looks really odd getting turned down when all your friends are reading about it. It makes you look desperate and foolish. Any tips?

    2. Recently I came across a book called “Get to the Top: Ten rules for social success” by Suhel Seth. It opened up a new world for me. (btw I am very good at recommending good books :) )

    • Emilie says:

      Hm… I find Facebook to be a bit of a tricky one, because it’s a less of a social norm to meet new people in that space. Twitter and Google+ are better for this.

      I’ve found that doing people favours, like retweeting their stuff, or posting insightful/funny replies, usually elicits a response. Some people are just snobs and will never respond. But many people are quite friendly and appreciative if you engage.

      Also, I wouldn’t worry about what your friends think. Try to detach yourself from the results. If you take the initiative and reach out, that’s a win. End of story. If they don’t respond, they’re the one who’s being silly. Not your problem.

      Thanks for the book rec! I’ll check it out.

      • Ally says:

        Spot on! Will change my attitude and would love to share my story after 6 months from now. Let’s c hw far I manage to go.
        Thanks anyways. Also let me know how did you find the book.

  10. Rich says:

    ” A bad guy who is ALL bad is not interesting”

    Two words. Hans Gruber.

  11. Sid Sarasvati says:

    Ahh! thanks for writing this, I though I was the only one who felt these random ‘how you doing’s weird

  12. Omar says:

    I’m currently teaching a writing class. In the past few weeks I’ve brought that up when I meet new people. I then ask them if there’s any class writing exercise they enjoyed and helped improve their writing during college. People often have a lot to say about writing, teaching, being in class.

    People seem very responsive when you are genuinely interested in their point of view. We get to know each other and I get new Ideas for my class. Win win situation.

  13. Ian says:

    Emilie, I worry about what people are thinking, but then I have the opposite problem. In order to ‘appear’ more interesting and make a good ‘first impression’ I tend to blab on and try to get in ASAP the fact that I have lived abroad etc! I am sure I must come across as a blithering idiot sometimes, oh well!

  14. Omar says:

    another hting.. I’ve always always been a shy person. I’ve believed the idea that shyness is a trait that doesn’t change. And a psychologist I find those surveys that label you an introvert or extrovert highly questionable.

    Anyways..Conferences are a small talk heaven, or a shy person’s worst nightmare. You meet people constantly. My best peace of advice for those of us who have a hard time with this, work some recovery time into your schedule. Instead of going out with everyone after the conference every night, find some alone time and Re-energize for the next day. I usually say I have some work I have to do (which is often true).

  15. Brilliant post Emilie! I really, really struggle with small talk, hence why I hang round on the internet so much :/
    I read this good article on ‘what to talk about’. Think of the acronym FORE, which stands for Family, Occupation, Recreation, Education. Everyone in the world has experience in one of those areas, so pick one you think is relevant to someone you’re talking to e.g. a woman my age I’d probably choose ‘Family’ to talk about.
    I haven’t tried this yet but I’ll let you know if its any good…

  16. Joyride tom says:

    Yea, I try all this stuff, people take one look at my loser outside (as judged by the media) and I get blown off 99% of the time at worst or just get the stock one line hows the weather responses, no matter.

    I have had to live with this all my life. I like to believe in reincarnation and all that. That way, at some point, I will be free of this curse, and can watch some one else suffer from it.

    Yea, some people survived the Titanic, by elbowing their way past weaker, slower, less popular passengers. Either way, they are all dead now. Have a nice day.

    • Funny joyride tom I was just thinking that about myself. I WISH I didn’t look unapproachable or scary or whatever I look like. Most people glare at me and seem nervous of me. Don’t know why, I try to smile and look approachable but can’t… I don’t seem to have the sort of face people immediately take a liking to.

      But we soldier on, don’t we?

  17. Tysheene Page says:

    I’ve learned that the best way to get someones attention is talk to them like you’ve been friends for years. You’ll be surprised on how they respond. I’m an Aquarius and have no problem walking up to a stranger anywhere. The more ppl you connect with the more life connections you will have. Thus, means more life opportunities. Just my take on life.

  18. Alan Gee says:

    I just share my shameful secret……. I am actually interested in the weather.
    But then I am English.

  19. Valerie says:

    I love this! I will definitely try this at school. My social skills are so awkward! It’s mostly me just being super insecure and over thinking things a lot.. and since I had moved to a new school this year, and I am in tenth grade, I try but I have not made any close friend yet and I would like to before schools over but I only have a couple of months left.. any suggestions on what I should do? Any advice is welcome even if you yell at me to stop being so pathetic and get out there, cause sometimes that helps to! ..

  20. Christina says:

    I think that as multipotentialites, we have an advantage here!! we have so many interests it’s near to impossible to connect with others. So maybe I won’t always lead with what I’ve done (unless asked), I try to ask a lot if questions. I read a quote once that said something about make friends by talking about them, not yourself. So although it’s nice to talk about what’s important to ourselves; I try to find out what’s. important to them-and usually after several questions we find common ground. I often lead with music: Hey, what kind of music do you like? I feel like music is a great indicator of personality and a way to connect because although everyone lives party music we all have those songs that touch our hearts and mean Sonething to us. Then they can lead the convo wherever they want! I try to let us both lead in a sense so that they can also feel comfortable opening up to me! Thanks for the tips! :)

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