© Public domain
It's many people's worst nightmare: Being stuck in a room with relative strangers and having to engage in small talk.
While some people manage to navigate the dangerous waters of the most basic form of social interaction like pro surfers, others feel more like fish out of water when confronted with unexpected or even unwanted small talk situations.
Many people break out in a cold sweat at the thought of having to talk to their neighbour about the weather while bringing the trash out while others would almost prefer to cut their own hair rather than being coerced into a conversation at their local hairdresser's.
Some people loathe these kinds of superficial interactions with strangers or casual acquaintances for one simple and very valid reason: Small talk is often just strenuously boring.
Be it as it may, small talk is an essential building block of our society and a basic requirement if you ever want to get to know people better, so having some level of skill in this area is indispensable.
Luckily, RTL Today is at hand to unravel some of the mysteries of this universally despised art.
Do greet accordingly. Successfully greeting your small talk opponent is the first step towards avoiding an awkward interaction. To achieve this, the number one rule is to observe your partner's body language. Often times, a friendly nod will do the trick, but if you go in for the handshake, make sure don't cut off the other person's blood supply. If you want to go for a bit of continental sophistication, the kiss on the cheek is the way to go but make sure not to create any actual lips-to-cheek contact. Also, keep the setting in mind. An extended 10-second hug might not be appropriate to greet a co-worker you've only met at the water cooler the day before.
For your entertainment and education, here is a video on the dangers of failing to read body language. Beware the dreaded three-way handshake.
Congratulations! You have now successfully engaged your small talk opponent and expressed your willingness to exchange simple pleasantries. On to the next step: Basic conversation.
Don't forget your counterpart's name. This can be especially tricky if you're being introduced to a group of people for the first time. Some people can be so focused on getting their own introduction just right that they forget to listen to who they are being introduced to. This can present an enormous stumbling block later on. Within the first couple of minutes, it is still ok to ask your partner to remind you of his or her name. If the conversation drags on for a ten minutes or more however, you're on your own. Pro tip: If a bit of online detective work doesn't yield any results, it is best to discreetly remove yourself from your conversation with whatshisname in order to avoid the ticking time bomb of humiliation.
Do know your audience. After you've got the "How are you? -I'm fine, thanks. How are you?" dance out of the way, the rest of the conversation is basically scripted improvisation. The weather, current news, sports and entertainment are usually safe conversation starters. Remember, small talk topics our meant to find the lowest conversational denominator of the involved parties in order to (hopefully) establish some common ground and move the conversation on from there. Opening with tragic personal stories or even "cute" insults towards your conversation partner is usually not appreciated. The other night at our local pub, two guys decided to initiate conversation by telling sexist jokes. Needless to say, my friend and I didn't stick around for long.
© Public domain
Do take a hint. Sometimes, even if you've honed your skills to the point of perfection, people just don't want to engage in small talk. If your counterpart is putting on their headphones, taking a pretend call or yawning visibly, consider the conversation over. Sometimes, the setting can be a crucial factor. Most people don't enjoy small talk when they feel like their personal privacy or space is being invaded, for example in the bathroom or in a tight elevator. A two-hour train ride also isn't the best setting for small talk because you'll either be forced to keep the conversation going for an unnatural length of time or you'll be forced to sit next to each other in awkward silence for the remainder of the journey after you've run out of chit chat.
You've done it! You've managed to introduce yourself properly, hold a conversation and haven't put your counterpart into an awkward position. Now for the last act:
Don't end the conversation too abruptly. If you feel like the small talk session has come to the end of its natural life, try to provide a rationale for ending the conversation. Maybe you have to get back to work or need to rush to catch your next bus. In any case, make sure to signal clearly that the conversation is over while also showing appreciation for your little talk.
"It was lovely to talk to you Susan, but Apollo here really needs to get to his horse yoga session." / © Public domain