Whether you're waiting to pick up your kid after soccer, killing time until that last meeting participant shows up, or kicking off a job interview, small talk is a ubiquitous feature of modern life, but it's not necessarily one most of us enjoy very much.
Even as you smile through another banal chat about the weather ("Sure is hot!"), you're probably silently thinking about the lameness of the exchange while frantically searching for the next bland question to fill the silence. Is this just the unalterable nature of small talk or is there a better way?
Chris Colin and Rob Baedeker, authors of What to Talk About: On a Plane, at a Cocktail Party, in a Tiny Elevator with Your Boss's Boss, believe better conversations with strangers are possible. On a recent TED blog post, they offered an excerpt of the book, including techniques that can transform inane chitchat into meaningful conversations. The ideas are simple enough that just about any of us can put them into practice today, but be warned, a bit of creativity and courage is required. Here are two of them.
1. Mirror, mirror
Most of us approach small talk with the goal of being polite. Admirable as that is, it often leads people to blandly repeat what their conversation partner says, Colin and Baedeker note. So if your co-worker says, "Hot weather we're having," you respond with the completely polite but snooze-inducing, "Yup, sure is."
In order to escape this loop of pointless agreement, the authors suggest you "break the mirror" and "disrupt the dialogue" in order to create a moment of fun. Here's their example:
James: It's a beautiful day!
John: They say that the weather was just like this when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. If that actually happened.
Will James think John is simply off his rocker? Potentially, but if you can bear the possibility of a few shocked double takes, you are likely to succeed in stirring the conversational pot. "Be provocative. Absurdity is underrated," urge Colin and Baedeker.
2. Stories, not answers
Answers to small talk questions are often a blind alley. "How are you?" leads to "Fine." Then what? Probably brain rummaging for a similarly uninspiring script. Instead of this sort of standard issue conversation starter, try bolder questions, which are far more likely to elicit an actual story rather than an unenlightening (and brief) reply.
"One way to get beyond small talk is to ask open-ended questions. Aim for questions that invite people to tell stories, rather than give bland, one-word answers," the authors instruct before offering a long list of options. So instead of "Where are you from?" and "What do you do?" opt for, "What's the most interesting thing that happened at work today?" or, "How'd you end up in your line of work?"
Again, is there a chance that the other person might be shocked to find himself or herself on unexpected ground? Of course, but if that person is willing to play ball, you've just made an opportunity to create an actual connection rather than just some silence-filling noise.
Are you bold enough to give these ideas a try?