Small talk: 9 tips & 5 pitfalls, plus some topics for effortless chatting
Many people find it difficult to have a relaxed, informal chat, but engaging in small talk evokes sympathy from people and makes it much easier to get to know someone. Read on to discover some handy tips and great topics for getting to grips with small talk, as well as the pitfalls to avoid.
Meaning of Small Talk
Small talk is a casual or light conversation, also known as "chitchat". Usually small talk is talking about unimportant topics or non-controversial issues. This involves asking the other person questions like, "Nice weather today, isn’t it?"
You can also ask questions like "Where are you from?", "What do you do?" or "Are you having a nice time?". You see, small talk is not about deep conversations.
Advantages of small talk
Starting a conversation with a stranger or someone you don’t know very well can be quite difficult. We’re supposed to chat casually about inoffensive topics and come across as nice and personable.
When making small talk, we find out: how does the other person affect us? Do we engage in a deeper conversation or does it remain superficial chit-chat? Small talk is also important for building trust.
A few words over the garden fence or in the office corridor are important for making social connections. But how does "small talk" work? What should you talk about? How do you prevent awkward silences? And how can you smoothly bring it to an end? After reading our tips, you’ll hopefully gain a bit more clarity on the matter.
Ideal topics for effortless small talk
Now let’s get down to it: choosing topics which are ideal for small talk is very important to its success. You can basically give free rein to your creativity when it comes to selecting topics, but here are some suitable examples:
- The weather (even if it sounds a little corny): "It’s gone quite warm again, hasn’t it?" is a perfectly legitimate topic for small talk. You’ll be amazed at how productive talking about the weather can be.
- The current circumstances or situation: "How long have you been with your company?", "Do you take the train often?", "How do you know the host?" or "What did you think of the presentation?" are good starter questions.
- Hobbies: passions and interests are great to chat about. Just make sure you don’t end up giving a monologue about your favorite topic.
- Sports: if there’s a big sporting event going on (and you’re following it, or at least the gist of it), then that’s a worthwhile topic and most people will have at least a few things to contribute.
- Vacation: most people like to talk about their most recent trip or a vacation they have planned. After all, they usually associate their vacation with something positive.
- Movies, TV series or books: the latest movies on at the cinema, TV series or favorite books can be great things to chat about, but make sure you first sound out whether you have similar tastes.
- Food: when there’s something on offer to eat (for example, at a party or during the lunch break at a conference), comments about the food are suitable for making small talk. Be careful, however, to only make positive remarks at first.
9 top tips for successful small talk
Whether a fleeting conversation with your colleagues, boss or neighbors, making casual small talk is an important skill for everyday life. With our tips, you’ll be able to be more active in approaching others and make a more personable impression.
Start the conversation
Awkward moments can often crop up in small talk situations when no one really dares to start the conversation. Even if you don’t think you’re a master of small talk, put yourself out there and dare to make the first move.
In any case, being embarrassed and staying silent is more uncomfortable than a somewhat stuttered sentence. Don’t be afraid of saying something trivial – that’s what "small talk" is usually about.
The trick is to leave your comfort zone. You’ll see that conversation openers aren’t so hard once you’ve done it a few times.
Don’t forget to smile
Even if you’re unsure of yourself, just smile! This immediately makes you more personable and lightens up the situation. Not only is smiling good for you, but it also creates an automatic connection with whoever you’re talking to. Especially when flirting, smiling plays a big role.
Be positive when making small talk
Small talk is supposed to be trivial. That’s why you should only express positive opinions. If you moan about the food, criticize your boss’s clothes or complain that the presentation was lousy, first of all, you won’t exactly come across as personable.
Secondly, you run the risk that you’re talking to the completely wrong person. The boss’s partner probably won’t be thrilled if you criticize their clothes (and a colleague could pass it directly on to them to try and get in their good books), a party guest may have brought the cake you’re moaning about, or the person you’re talking to could be utterly impressed by the speaker.
And if anything, you risk losing the respect of your conversation counterpart. Don’t take this risk – simply leave out negative remarks when making small talk.
Ask open-ended questions
"That was an interesting presentation, wasn’t it?" It’s only possible to answer this question with a "Yes" or "No", the topic is over as soon as it’s begun and the conversation comes to a standstill. Open questions are better and the person you’re chatting to will have to answer with at least one sentence. In this case, an open question would be, "What did you think of the presentation?", and if you only get a one-syllable response "Good", then you can follow up with, "What did you like in particular?".
When making small talk, pay close attention to your conversation partner’s reactions, to their facial expressions and gestures. If they turn away, seem inattentive, or keep looking at their watch, something is not going well. Maybe you’re talking too much about yourself or you’ve chosen an uninteresting topic?
Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If necessary, change topic. If that doesn’t help, you might want to bring the conversation to a smooth end.
End small talk politely
Some instances of small talk automatically turn into exciting conversations, but in other cases, it can remain at a few trivial sentences or the person you’re chatting to may even turn out to be a terrible nuisance.
If you don’t have the perfect conversation partner, you can save yourself with various ways of making an exit:
- Introduce another conversation partner
This tactic is particularly clever, but unfortunately not always possible. To make an exit, you can introduce someone else to your counterpart and make them both acquainted. Ideally, it should be someone who you think will get along better with them.
- Excuse yourself
"Excuse me, I have somewhere I have to be/would like to chat to some other party guests/would like to get something to eat." And just like that, you’re out of the situation.
- Start a boring topic
If nothing is helping, then you could change the subject and talk about something that bores your counterpart. With a little luck, they will put a sharp end to the conversation.
- Emergency exit
This requires some acting skills. You could look up, suddenly surprised, and pretend that you’ve just seen a guest arrive and that you have to talk to them urgently. Then you quickly disappear. If need be, you could also look at your cell phone and say that you need to call someone back.
Take any opportunity to practice
If you find small talk hard, you’re probably grateful for any situation where you don’t have to chat. Unfortunately, it’s as the saying goes: only practice makes perfect.
Therefore, seize every opportunity to pass a few trivial words and work on your small talk skills as you go about your everyday life. The better you get, the more positive the effect on your self-confidence.
Some good opportunities include:
- at a chance meeting with your neighbors
- on the train or bus (or at the bus stop)
- at the cash register
- at the hairdresser or massage therapist
- in the waiting room
- in the canteen
Stock up on some appropriate introductions and topics for small talk
If you’re afraid of awkward silences or choosing the wrong topic, why not make a list of potential conversation starters, questions and topic areas?
Of course, you can’t refer to the list during the conversation, but this way, you’ll increase your chances of coming up with something suitable to talk about right away. To go one step further, before a party, conference or job interview, you could think about what exact topics are appropriate for that situation.
Watch others make small talk
There are some real masters of small talk who you can learn a lot from. Why not make the effort to observe how others handle situations? What topics do they talk about? What body language do they use?
How do they avoid awkward silences and how do they get away from situations? And most importantly, what do they do differently to you?
By learning from real-life situations, you’re sure to get lots of ideas that you can try out next time round.
5 small talk pitfalls
There are numerous mistakes to be made when it comes to small talk. What these all usually have in common is that people make the whole thing more complicated than it actually is.
Maybe you think that every sentence that comes out of your mouth has to be pure gold, but that’s not the case – you don’t have to be a professional speaker. On the contrary, this attitude will only make you feel self-conscious and actually prevent you from coming up with any good ideas for conversation. If you think that your every word has to be worth its weight in gold, you’ll lose sight of the ease and informality that small talk is all about. So don’t be so hard on yourself – or, for that matter, your conversation partner (do away with perfectionism).
Shying away from changing subject
Often people get stuck in a conversation and keep talking about a topic that is actually over and done with. On the one hand, that’s pretty boring and on the other hand, talking to people about different topics will help you get to know them better. So if you have nothing more to say, feel free to change the subject – even if it doesn’t have anything to do with the previous one at all. You can also jump back to a previous topic, for example, by saying, "You were talking about your new dog earlier…"
For good small talk, it’s important that both people participate in the conversation. Some people, for example, don’t even notice if they talk non-stop and don’t let their counterpart get a word in edgewise.
That’s why you should always pay attention to how much you speak. If you notice that you’re talking much more than your conversation partner, why not ask them some open questions?
This shows them that you’re interested and appreciate their input. Only when they tell you a longer story about themselves should you also go into similar detail. A healthy balance makes the conversation much more enjoyable.
Talking about difficult topics
You, too, are bound to have put your foot in your mouth at some point, even though you just wanted to have a casual conversation. This can often result in the topic getting too personal or controversial, which then increases the risk of differing opinions or of making a comment that is not so well received by the other person. This is why it’s better to avoid the following topics when first making small talk.
- Personal problems
- Criticism of the other person
- Rumors and gossip
Thinking too much about yourself
It is human nature to want to think about yourself almost constantly. Introverts, in particular, tend to do this.
Thoughts like "How do I seem?" or "Can they see my pimple on my forehead?" can haunt our minds. When we are too busy with ourselves, however, our attention is diverted away from the conversation itself. This means that we can’t react naturally to what the other person is saying at all, and often the conversation then stalls.
Small talk also involves following your intuition. You shouldn’t think about what you might say next, but instead focus completely on the person you’re talking to.