Now that you have some ideas of how and where to meet new people, the next step on your journey to making friends is to learn how to strike up a conversation with them.
This is the moment that most of us absolutely hate:
- What should I say first?
- What if I sound stupid?
- What if I get a rude response?
- What if I get no response?
- What do I say after that?
Honestly? Most people hate small talk because it is usually predictable, boring, and can even be annoying. After an initial, ‘hello’, what else is there to say? Well, most of us like to talk about the weather, which is a safe but bland ice-breaker. Unfortunately, if your opening line is something like, “Lovely day today,” then you aren’t really opening up a conversation at all.
All you are doing is making a statement and giving the other person little leeway to respond other than by saying, “Yes, it’s lovely,” or something to that effect.
Not only are you making any further engagement extremely unlikely but you are not showing a genuine interest in that person. Even if you approach them with a different opening line, such as, “Looking forward to the weekend?” you are most likely only going to get a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.
That’s the conversation falling flat on its face from the offset. It’s also the awkward moment when you feel like climbing under a rock!
So what IS the secret to small talk? It feels so frustrating, doesn’t it? You want to meet new people and you have the opportunity to do so, but can’t think of anything to say to them other than, “It looks like it’s going to rain,” or “Have you worked here long?”
Although they may be perfectly acceptable things you would say to a stranger, that doesn’t mean that they are going to help you make friends.
The truth is that small talk is usually made up of boring, meaningless, forgettable conversations that bring no value to you or the other participants. I’m not suggesting that it is completely useless if you know how to use it the right way. It can lead to a longer conversation where you develop a better relationship with someone or be the first and last words you will ever say to them.
As a friend quote says, “That’s all small talk is – a quick way to connect on a human level – which is why it is by no means as irrelevant as the people who are bad at it insists. In short, it’s worth making the effort.”
Although you are trying to get to know someone better, if you don’t go about it the right way, you aren’t likely to learn anything about them and maybe never will. How exactly can you learn to master the art of small talk and move forward to having a more meaningful connection with another person?
There are two things that you need to consider here and I want to talk about each one in more detail. Apart from the importance of WHAT you say to someone, HOW you say it is extremely relevant and I would like to address that issue first.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of how to make your conversation sparkle, let’s take a look at how your demeanor, behavior, and the way you speak are crucial to your friend-making mission.
What is your body saying?
Bear in mind the fact that our brains process information at lightning speed and most of the cues it works with are non-verbal. Your tone, body language, rate of speech, emotional mood, and so on, are all analyzed instantaneously, giving the person you are talking to a lot of useful information.
This determines whether or not they want to engage in conversation with you at all. If someone who is clearly intoxicated comes over to talk to you, for example, you aren’t going to want to give them the time of day.
This is an extreme example of how important a person’s outward behavior is. Equally, if you invade someone else’s personal space, that can be a real put off too, and you need to pay attention to that.
There is a comfortable amount of invisible space that we all need to maintain in our interactions with others. Breaching that can have serious consequences. The less you know someone, the more space you will need to give them in order for them to feel safe.
It’s not a good idea to overstep the line in your efforts to appear friendly because that will have completely the opposite effect. The more intimate you are with a person, the less personal space you and they will be claiming but we still have some way to go before that.
You know yourself how it feels when someone you don’t know gets too close to you and it can be pretty uncomfortable. A good rule of thumb is to think of it in terms of keeping someone at arm’s length, which is an expression we use that literally works in this case.
Obviously, as you get to know the other person better, that distance will eventually dissipate but if you are still unsure about what behavior is acceptable and non-threatening, here are some things to bear in mind:
- You should never touch anyone you don’t know.
- Unless you know the other person well, stand at least 4 feet away from them.
- If someone leans away from you, that probably signifies that you are making them feel uncomfortable, so back off a little.
- Don’t lean over someone’s shoulder or strain to take a peek at what they are reading – this is extremely rude and annoying.
- Don’t sit right next to someone in a theater or seated venue if other chairs are free. It’s only really acceptable if there are no other seats available.
When you approach someone for the first time, your body is doing the talking for you before you even open your mouth. Imagine how you would react to a stranger walking up to you based on first impressions and you will soon realize that there are some basic behaviors that can make all the difference.
Take a look at the pointers below and practice each one in the mirror at home. It may sound silly, but it’s a great way to correct giving off negative vibes next time you want to start chatting to someone.
- Check your posture. It should be relaxed, with shoulders down, but not slouched. Let your arms hang casually by your side, rather than crossing them as if you are shielding yourself ready for battle.
- Knowing how to use a firm handshake that doesn’t squeeze the life out of someone is important. This is another thing you can practice by yourself, shaking your own hand to feel the difference between a confident gesture and an aggressive grab.
- Always maintain good eye contact, without making it look as if you are glaring. What is the difference? Well, a nice level of eye contact means you will hold the other person’s gaze for a few seconds at a time. If it is a continuous stare, you will make them feel very unsettled. Again, practice this technique in the mirror as if you were talking to someone else until you feel you’ve got it just right.
- Throughout the conversation, try to keep your hands relaxed by placing them on your lap or even in your pockets. This also stops you from fidgeting and fiddling, which may portray nervousness or insincerity.
- It goes without saying that you shouldn’t be constantly checking your mobile phone throughout the conversation. There is nothing more annoying and it does not convey to the other person that you are genuinely interested in them. Put your phone to one side or, even better, place it out of sight and focus on the person in front of you instead.
Getting rid of fear
It’s difficult to know what to say to a complete stranger to break the ice and just the thought of it can fill you with great anxiety. You are very likely to make a total mess of things as a result, with your nerves getting the best of you and making you sound like a complete buffoon.
The way to get around that is to reduce your stress levels before you even approach another person and that’s something you can work on at any time of the day.
Firstly, you need to change your mindset about meeting new people.
After all, what is the worst thing that can happen when you talk to someone? The fear that you have built up inside your mind is usually unwarranted and even if someone is extremely rude to you, at least you will realize they are not the kind of people you want to have as friends.
Their antisocial reaction shouldn’t prevent you from engaging with others after that or keep you from opening up.
Secondly, even if you are a shy, introverted person by nature, it is possible to enter into a pleasant conversation with someone if you go into it stress-free. This not only applies to new people but to those you already know, whether they be colleagues, peers, or acquaintances.
Your anxiety may make it extremely difficult for you to engage with others and you probably use tactics to prevent that, such as looking totally absorbed in your phone.
Anxiety grows from within us and usually has nothing to do with our external environment. It is a collection of bad memories that you believe will repeat themselves in the future. This is not the case and once you accept that, it will take a huge weight off your shoulders.
It can also stem from your lack of confidence and low self-esteem. Again, believing in yourself is the key to entering into any social interaction with positivity and enthusiasm.
What is the worst-case scenario? Imagine what you will, but the most probable outcome is that someone shows little interest in you. That’s not the end of the world by any means. After all, you don’t immediately like everyone you meet, do you?
Many people, just like you, would actually love to have someone to talk to, especially at social events during which a lot of strangers have been thrown into the same room. You are not the only one who finds it hard to begin a conversation, so stop thinking that you are and just relax!
What are you saying?
Now that we’ve ticked those boxes on how to behave and get rid of your anxiety, let’s get to the heart of the matter and look at ways to crack the small talk code.
When I go walking through my local country trails, the only other people are fellow walkers, most of whom I don’t know. As our paths cross, there is always a nice exchange of ‘hello’ or ‘good morning’ to signal that we are passing friends, not enemies.
Pleasantries like that serve a very good purpose and needn’t be any more involved than those few simple words. It’s the same with small talk: it doesn’t have to be a profound statement or a summary of your life story.
It’s simply a way to break the ice and, depending on the response, you can take it to another level if it seems appropriate.
Here’s the thing – the more you fret about talking to someone, the less likely you are to have a positive mindset about it. Just chill out and be yourself, approaching any conversation with a genuine desire to learn more about the other person.
This is your mission – not to bore someone to death about your morning stuck in traffic or the ins and outs of your stamp collection.
The art of small talk actually lies in talking less and listening more. In Dale Carnegie’s words, “be a good listener and encourage others to talk about themselves.”
They will feel good about themselves when they talk about what they love or enjoy and they will associate those good feelings with you. This is a winning formula in the book How To Win Friends and Influence People.
After the initial, ‘Hi. How are you?’ you may feel stuck. The trick here is to ask open-ended questions that require more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. For example, it is easier to engage someone in conversation if you say something like; ‘How did you end up working here?’
This prompts them to talk about their past and where they worked before, giving you a chance to open up the dialogue.
Think of questions that begin with ‘why?’, ‘how?’, and ‘what if?’ to encourage a full answer that you can then expand on. It’s OK to make closed-ended questions too because you don’t want the other person to feel you are interrogating them, but the trick is to find the right balance
As I said above, showing a genuine interest in the other person instead of talking about yourself is a much better way to get to know someone. By doing so, you are also taking the stress out of wondering what to talk about, because you simply let them do most of the talking.
In addition, while they are telling you about themselves, you are learning more about them and may find that you have one or two things in common that can feed further discussion. Most people love the opportunity to talk about themselves, so be curious and ask them. You will usually get a very positive response, as long as you don’t sound like you are prying or being too intrusive.
Show that you are following what the other person is saying by maintaining eye contact and giving an occasional response such as, ‘I see’, or ‘Yes, I know what you mean’. The person you are talking to will understand how engaged you are, which encourages them to open up even more.
If you start fidgeting, looking around you, or yawning, that isn’t going to make the other person feel that you are really interested in them. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t keep checking your phone during the conversation either.
Would you be happy to start chatting to someone who is constantly glancing at their mobile screen? Probably not.
Whenever you approach someone that you don’t know or want to get to know better, go into it with the right attitude. Show enthusiasm in learning more about them and look at the conversations as an opportunity to connect with them.
If you are willing to make the effort in the first place, embrace it as a positive experience that you can learn something from, rather than seeing it as the equivalent of walking over hot coals.
Share your stories
Be prepared and willing to share information about yourself without dominating the conversation. You don’t want to make the other person feel that you are cross-examining them, so you need to interject with your own personal experiences.
Your aim is to offer hooks that the other person can latch onto, thus prolonging the interaction. Tell them about something funny that happened to you, or share interesting facts about yourself that will make them curious and want to get to know you better.
Recognize the cues
You don’t have to be a genius to know when someone is getting bored during a conversation. If they start fidgeting or looking disinterested while you are talking, that’s a clear sign that they are disengaged.
That being the case, you can either change the subject or bring the conversation to a close with a graceful parting statement like, ‘Well, it was nice to meet you’, or ‘OK. I need to go but it was lovely to meet you’.
Be gracious as you bow out and don’t let the other person’s disinterest take away from the whole experience or make you feel like you failed in any way.
Below, I’ve added some examples of the kind of open-ended questions you can ask to learn more about the other person as well as the prompts that will get you past the small talk phase.
I’ve used the scenarios from Steve’s life although all of the following can be adapted to your situation and I am sure you will be able to think of many more ideas once you have read them.
You will find an initial ice breaker, followed by questions that can lead to a more involved response.
On your commute:
- The traffic’s bad today, isn’t it?
- What do you think about the plans for the new metro/bus station?
- How did you end up living here?
- Where are you originally from?
- What’s your hometown like?
- How’s your day going?
- What did you think of the meeting/workshop?
- What brought you into this profession?
- What’s your experience been like so far?
- How do you think I should go about asking to change departments?
In the coffee shop:
- I just love the coffee here, don’t you?
- Can you recommend any good Italian restaurants in town?
- Are you into PC games or do you prefer board games?
- How do you like spending your time of work?
- Where did you go on vacation this year? How was it?
Out and about:
- Have you been on a tour like this before?
- Is this your hometown or are you new here too?
- How often do you go back home?
- Are there any good bookstores you could recommend near here?
- What’s your favorite book, and what do you like about it?
In general, there are many things you can say to break the ice, depending on where you are. Here are some further examples that you may be able to adapt to your particular situation:
1). What’s your story?
2). How is work going?
3). How do you know about this place?
4). What’s your boss like?
5). Where did you live before moving here?
6). What is usually the highlight of your day?
7). Have you ever thought about making a career change?
8). What would be your dream job/lifestyle?
9). How are you finding the food?
10). Having fun?
11). What are you doing this weekend?
12). What are your favorite restaurants around here?
13). What local sports teams do you follow?
14). What would you recommend from the menu? Got any favorites?
15). Did you see that viral YouTube video about the funny cat?
16). What TV shows are you into?
17). How often do you play sports?
18). What’s your favorite drink?
19). What’s your dream car?
20). What streaming service do you use?
Depending on how the conversation goes, there are hundreds of subjects that you can bring up which may fuel further discussion. If you feel comfortable and see that the other person does too, end the conversation by asking if you can exchange phone numbers or connect on social media.
This shows that you are interested enough to want to see them again or that you enjoyed their company. If that is the case, say so. A simple comment before you part can be something like:
- It was lovely to meet you. I hope to see you again.
- Have a great day and let’s do this again sometime.
- I really enjoyed our chat and would love to get together again with you.
- I’d love to meet up with you another time.
- It’s been great talking to you.
- Can I give you my mobile number?
- Can I have your number to keep in touch?
- What’s your profile name on Instagram/Facebook?
If the other person feels comfortable with you, they will probably be happy to share their contact details. If not, don’t take it to heart.
They may still be unsure but what’s certain is that if you bump into them again, you can take up where you left off and hopefully get to know each other a bit better. Let things flow naturally and simply see how it goes!
Although this is not an article about dating, you can use all of the above strategies to find a romantic partner, if that is what you are after.
Whether you are approaching a man or a woman, be mindful of your body language and how you come across to them.
Although physical attraction may be your primary motivation, don’t shoot yourself in the foot from the beginning by coming across too strongly. Relax, be yourself, and show genuine interest in getting to know them better with the help of the questions mentioned above.
One thing I want to mention before we leave this article is that often you will find other people approaching you with the intention of starting a conversation. This can be equally stressful and cause you to freeze up completely.
The way to get around this is by trying not to answer their questions with one or two words, but to give fuller replies that can lead to a deeper conversation.
So, when asked, ‘How are you?’, instead of giving a short response of, ‘Fine’ or ‘Good’, try to make it longer by saying something such as, ‘I’m good thanks. I was just wondering what the weather will be like next week as I have some time off work’.
When asked, ‘Where are you from?’, don’t just say, ‘London’. Give more information, such as, ‘I really love it there because there is so much to see and do. I used to live near Hyde Park and there was always some event or festival going on in summer.’
If asked, ‘What did you do on the weekend?’ instead of saying, ‘Nothing much’, expand a bit to allow the conversation to flow with something like, ‘I usually go shopping at the weekend but my car’s in the garage so I stayed home and watched Netflix’.
The main thing is to give a genuine response that reflects who you are, what you like to do, and how your life is at this moment.
You never know – you may make a lifelong friendship simply by talking about yourself for a few minutes. Connecting with people is much easier when we open up and allow them to get to know us.
Now that we’ve looked at how to use small talk and turn it into something bigger, I want to walk you through the steps you can take to make it easier for people to get to know you better. The secret lies in opening up even further throughout the conversation and helping them to like you.
If someone is interested enough in you, you will find this a lot easier than you think. The more you spend time with people, the more they will get to know you. If your initial contact is for just 5 minutes, they may learn a mere 5% about you. When you next meet, it might be for a few hours. That gives them the opportunity to learn even more about you.
As you hang out together more frequently and for greater lengths of time, they will get to know you 100%, just as you will get to know them. That’s the beginning of a promising friendship!
- Small talk doesn’t have to be painful.
- Your body language speaks volumes.
- Be aware of personal space, facial expressions, and behavior.
- Change your mindset to remove anxiety.
- Ask open-ended questions to avoid one-word answers.
- Enthusiasm, curiosity, and listening go a long way.
- Always offer to exchange contact details if you feel the chat went well.