How to be good at small talk

by Jake Smolarek
Conversation buble made of paper

Small talk is a surprisingly controversial and difficult thing. For some people, small talk is very challenging. It can be hard not to sound awkward or even a little bit creepy. It is a difficult balance to get right.

Even for people who find small talk easy, it can across as boring and pointless. Why talk about frivolous little things when you can connect with people on a larger scale talking about more important topics? We usually hear the same questions asked over and over again about the weather, work, or the worst of all, "tell me something interesting about yourself." Cringe!

Yet small talk is so important and, if done correctly, can be hugely advantageous. So, if you've ever found yourself asking the same old questions over and over, or you just find small talk awkward and hard to get right, you're in the right place. This guide is everything you need to know about small talk, how to get good at small talk and how to talk to strangers.

What is small talk?

What is the meaning of small talk? If you don't know what small talk is, it is basically any informal conversation about trivial, unimportant topics. It's supposed to be easy to maintain a light conversation avoiding any intense topics or could cause controversy. Stereotypically, this means talking about the weather, work, pets, or what the kids might be up to at school.

In essentials is polite, relaxed conversation about nothing in particular. This means it is often underestimated because people think it is irrelevant. Nowadays, the trend is to have conversations about deep topics and really get to know each other and connect on a profound level, which means small talk is being overlooked. But getting small talk right can be one of the most important weapons in your arsenal of how to make good conversation.

Why is small talk important?

Polite small talk is part of everyday life. From the person at the supermarket checkout or the stranger at the bus stop to the lady walking her dog down the same path or the man taking your order in a café, small talk happens all day, every day.

Random small talk in the situations above can be inconsequential; Nothing more than a way to pass the time, alleviate awkwardness or boredom, or just a chance to be friendly and connect with a stranger. It won't necessarily change your life, but it is a nice way to be social. Studies show that social connection is a big part of staying happy and relieving anxiety and depression (even if you feel awkward).

So, although small talk seems trivial, it is actually an important, light-hearted way to connect with others and form a bond, even if you will never see the other person again. It's a way to make new relationships and interact with other people without revealing too much personal information. This makes it important in its own right because it creates an interpersonal bond.

However, small talk can be additionally important. Making a connection with another person can be really helpful if you are looking to build a network. This is particularly good in a professional sense. Small talk at work can help you connect with someone who may be able to help you, provide advice and support or give you feedback. People are more likely to help you if they know a little bit about you. Small talk is the perfect opportunity to let someone know some things about you without launching into a deep, emotional conversation that could be overwhelming.

So small talk is the ideal way to create a bond with someone and grow your professional and personal network. This is super important because success can only be achieved if you have people around you to support you. And small talk is the way to do that.

What to avoid when using small talk?

Two women talking in an office

You'd think that having a simple conversation about trivial matters would be the easiest thing in the world. But, in fact, many people struggle to make small talk and find it challenging to maintain a conversation beyond a minute. This can lead to awkwardness and a lack of personal connection.

In addition, because of the nature of chatting, small talk can be boring, repetitive, and feel superficial. But if you start asking deeply personal questions, it's no longer small talk and can make people feel like they are being interrogated. It's a difficult balance to get right, so it can be hard to get good at small talk.

Here are some small talk topics to avoid:

Serious topics: The important thing to consider when practising small talk is to avoid controversial or offensive topics. There is a time and a place to discuss serious matters like racial injustice, terminal illness, death, religion, or politics. Small talk is not the time, nor is it the place. You need to keep the conversation light and easy.

Jokes: You might think jokes are light-hearted, but unless you are 100% sure it isn't offensive in any way, it's better to find another way to break the ice. Telling jokes risks offending someone who may not find the joke funny.

Finances: Even if you are at a professional networking event, discussing personal finances, salaries or bonuses can be a touchy subject. Best steer clear of money altogether if possible. You might be happy sharing your financial situation, but others find money very private and, in some cultures, discussing money is just plain rude.

Relationships: Unless you are using small talk at a dating event, avoid talking about personal relationships. Even if you are at a dating event, try not to talk about your ex more than is absolutely necessary. Relationships can make people feel uncomfortable and unsure of what to say next. They are subjective and personal and best avoided if possible.

Appearance: Comments about appearance are difficult. As a general rule, unless you already know the person well, avoid commenting on their appearance. You can, of course, ask where they bought their dress/hat/tie, but the general rule is that unless it is something that can be changed easily, don't mention it. It's easy to changed clothes, pick a new lipstick shade or switch handbags. It's less easy to lose weight, grow hair, or look more awake. Unless you are very confident in your comment, just avoid looks completely.

9 good small talk examples

So, now you know what to avoid, you might feel like you've got nothing useful left to say. And you certainly don't want to be boring or cliched. Some topics are used repeatedly as small talk subjects because they are easy to chat about. But this does mean it can get repetitive. We've picked ten good examples of how to start a conversation so you can see for yourself exactly how to get small talk right. How you phrase your questions can make a huge difference.

Example 1: "I can't believe how beautiful this weather is; it's a shame we are stuck inside" OR "It's a shame about the weather; I was hoping to get outside later/earlier."

Why it's good: The weather is a super safe topic. No one has ever been offended by someone else talking about the weather. Even if someone says they love the rain or the cold, it's hardly controversial. Adding an extra detail about how the weather affects your plans takes your small talk to the next level. You can follow up by asking about how the weather might have affected their plans or bond over a mutual love of the sunshine. The weather is unlikely to make anyone angry or upset and is a fairly accepted conversation started so that no one will judge you for this.

Example 2: "What are your plans this weekend/what are you up to this weekend?"

Why it's good: General questions without specifics mean the other person can offer longer responses and get the conversation flowing. It also leaves space to skate over uncomfortable issues. A general question can be satisfied with a general response. For example, if someone has a difficult event such as a funeral, generalising it to a family event would not sound out of place to answer this question. It also gives the other person the choice of what to focus on. They can choose the most interesting thing to discuss from the course of the weekend.

Example 3: "Did you see X speaker/singer/talk."

Why it's good: If you are at an event or a conference, you can anchor your small talk to things that have happened. This creates a bond because you may have both experienced the same boring speaker or a really engaging talk. You can share opinions on the same event knowing you both have the same experience. This allows people to feel comfortable talking if they do not like sharing information about themselves.

Example 4: "Oh, so you work in X department, I've always wondered what that involves, could you tell me a bit about it?"

Why it's good: If you are at a work event or in the office, asking about the day-to-day role someone plays allows them to tell you a bit about their life without going into too much personal detail. If you work in similar sectors, you may have things in common. If not, you may find yourself genuinely interested in another area of business. Work is a fairly safe topic as it is a multifaceted topic and allows people the freedom to discuss the bit they are most comfortable with. Try to avoid asking for their opinion about their work as some people can be quite negative. Asking about their work or an upcoming project is good to encourage positive interaction.

Example 5: "I swear I always make the same thing for lunch; got any ideas for new recipes?" OR "do you know any good local places to eat? I want to go out for dinner but don't know where to go."

Why it's good: Basically, anything about food is good. We all eat, and we all have foods we love and foods we dislike. Someone who is a keen cook can discuss food as easily as someone who lives on UberEATS and takeaways. However, very few people have such strong opinions about food that a conversation could get argumentative (just avoid asking them if pineapple belongs on pizza!). Asking for recommendations is great because it keeps the conversation flowing without being too personal, and even if you hate their suggestions, it doesn't matter!

Example 6: "What have you been watching on TV/film recently? I'm totally stuck on what to watch next."

Why it's good: Asking for recommendations of what to watch is much better than asking if someone has seen something you have watched. It's a more open and inclusive way to invite someone into a conversation. Film and TV have plenty of sub-topics such as favourite actors and actresses, costume design, special effects, and more. This means you are more likely to find some common ground that you are both comfortable discussing.

Example 7: "I'm hoping to take some time off next week and getaway. Where do you think would be a good place to go at this time of year?"

Why it's good: Everybody loves going on holiday. The idea of relaxing, having a good time, and getting away from the daily stresses of life really helps people relax and open up, making conversation easier. Travelling is also an extensive topic that can range from favourite countries, holiday activities, staycations, and happy memories. People tend to be in a better, more talkative mood when discussing happy thoughts and memories.

Example 8: "So, what do you do when you're not at work?"

Why it's good: Some people just don't like talking about work. It can be boring and frustrating, not to mention repetitive. Asking people about what they do outside of work is a much more fun and engaging topic. It also gives them a chance to direct the conversation. They might choose to talk about their family, pets, sports, or other hobbies. People are more willing to share details and continue a conversation talking about something they love. Asking what they do in their spare time is more effective than asking a narrow question about a specific hobby because they can choose how to respond.

Example 9: "Are you local to this area?"

Why it's good: This is a gentler way to find out where someone is from. It can be invasive to ask about someone's childhood directly, and if they left their hometown for a reason, it could become awkward. Try phrasing it slightly differently to ask where they are local. They might choose to talk about their family or childhood or perhaps how they recently moved to the area. It's much less invasive and is more encouraging for people who don't like to share personal information. It also provides lots of opportunities for follow-up questions about how they like the area, where they are from originally, whether they get to go back to see family often, and many more!

Things to remember when making small talk

Two men talking in a restaurant

Getting good at small talk takes effort and practice, so you probably won't get it right the first time. You won't suddenly know how to talk to people. But practice does make perfect. Try to have a few topics or subjects ready in your mind, so you already know what you are going to say. Confidence is key, so here are a few things to keep in mind while improving your conversational skills and getting comfortable with small talk.

It takes two to tango

Some people just don't want to do small talk. No matter how good you are, you will not be able to have a successful conversation if the other person/people do not want to get involved. In some cases, you just have to do your best and walk away when you find a polite moment.

Read body language

Just because someone is giving you one-word answers doesn't mean they aren't interested in having a conversation with you. Look at someone's body language to see if perhaps you just haven't found the right topic yet. Remember that other people might find small talk as challenging or more challenging than you do. If they look nervous but at facing you, and trying to engage, try to find a different topic rather than just giving up.

You also have to answer questions

Small talk should be a fairly even conversation. This means that as well as asking questions to get them talking, they will be asking you questions, and you will have to answer. Before you are in a situation, think about some things you could say in response to the questions you ask because chances are, they will respond to your questions and then ask you what you think.

You can overshare

You mind find it fascinating that your pet threw up three times last night, but other people just don't want to know. The goes for medical appointments, relationship issues, and illness. You don't have to share every little gory detail of a story. Sometimes, it's better to brush over some details and let their imagination fill in the gaps.

Don't think about what you can get

Small talk can be instrumental in building connections and helping grow your personal and professional network. Many people only participate in small talk if they think they can get something from the other person. If you are constantly trying to get something from the other person or are working out how they can help you, you may come across as rude. Try to forget about "networking" and just relax into the conversation.

Don't overdo the compliments

Complimenting someone can be a great way to start a conversation and get them to relax and open up. However, giving too many compliments can be seen as creepy or trying to suck up to someone to get them to like you. Try to stick to just one or two compliments, so you don't overdo it.

Leave with contact details

If you do manage to connect with someone and your small talk is successful, remember to leave the conversation with a way to contact them again. Perhaps arrange to meet or exchange details. If you work in the same building, arrange to have coffee together to continue the conversation. Or, if it's just passing small talk, remember that you can walk away without ever seeing this person again. And that's fine.

It's just a conversation

Relax! Small talk can feel overwhelming, but at the end of the day, it's just about having a chat. If your first question of topic doesn't stick, don't panic; just try another one. There are many ways to connect with someone so if you are struggling, take a moment to pause. They might fill the silence with their own question, or you can just ask something else.

About the Author

Jake Smolarek

Life and Business Coach & Entrepreneur

For over 10 years I have been helping people achieve their personal, professional, and financial goals faster and easier than they've ever imagined.

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