Small talk. It’s that dreaded fixture at office parties, birthdays and social events. Though extroverts might make the most of such occasions, others of us struggle to know what to say. Because our culture has moved away from formal training in the art of conversation, many people don’t know how to facilitate an introduction or open and close a conversation with grace. This leaves us dreading those events that require short-term conversations, which only accentuate awkwardness.
The art of conversation, however, can be learned! By schooling ourselves in this area (even on topics we find wholly boring!), we open doors of opportunity to ourselves and others. If you struggle to know what to say at social gatherings, here are a few tips to get you started.
Start With a Question
Asking a question expresses interest, and since people love to talk about themselves (it’s the subject we all know best!), it’s the easiest way to begin a conversation. Once an introduction has been made, begin by asking a general question such as “What’s keeping you busy these days?” Some start with “Where do you work?” or “What do you do?”, but I find the first version a safer bet in case the person is between jobs.
As your conversation partner answers, build on your first question by asking a more detailed question pertinent to the information they’ve given you: “Wow, so you work in the biomedical field. What first made you interested in that subject?” Listen to their answers and use what they say to build on the conversation.
Start With What You Know
Perhaps you see someone at a party that you know from a distance—you already know their name, where they work and a little bit more about them. Maybe you’re Facebook friends. With people like this, start with what you know about them. For instance, if you’re Facebook friends with the person, but not close friends, consider starting with something like: “I saw on Facebook that you went to Mexico last month! What was your favorite part of that trip?”
A good conversation partner will eventually turn the conversation back to you, and you can always offer a few stories in which your own experience relates to theirs. But until they ask you a question, simply concentrate on learning more about them. A person who is genuinely interested in others rarely comes off as awkward.
Build the Conversation
As the conversation grows, you can build on it by asking questions and, as previously mentioned, sharing short examples from your own life. When you run out of personal questions or if your partner doesn’t take their cue to return the favor, you can excuse yourself or build the conversation based on objective topics.
This is why it’s healthy to educate yourself about current events, both on a local and national level. These make great conversation topics (avoid the most controversial issues in a party setting). New restaurants in the area, upcoming fundraisers, church events, national events and people, and weather are all topics on which people can contribute opinions.
When you sense the conversation is concluding or you’re having to work hard to keep the talk moving, graciously excuse yourself. Say something like “It’s been a pleasure meeting you/seeing you again! I’m going to get something to eat. Enjoy the evening!” Don’t feel guilty for ending the conversation. People will understand that you need to talk to others at the party, and they will want to as well.
Conversation takes practice. There will always be uncomfortable moments, but practice really does make perfect! As you work on this skill, exercising it like a muscle, you’ll find it enhances your character, your life and your career—and even contributes to the advancement of gospel as you become better at articulating your thoughts and making connections with others.