I’m often asked to help clients with small talk, and almost always, they are embarrassed about asking. It’s like they’re supposed to know how, and when they don’t, they aren’t comfortable announcing it. The truth small talk isn’t as easy as it sounds. If you think about it, talking to strangers for periods of time is likely to be a challenge for anyone, but especially someone who uses English instrumentally for work and grew up speaking another language used to personal relationships. Not only that, culturally, some places don’t really embrace small talk, so a lot of people don’t perfect those skills in any language.
How to get past it? It’s important to remember that even many Americans struggle with small talk. Not necessarily because they are shy (although that’s on reason). It could also be that they don’t know what to talk about or have not had good experiences bringing things up to strangers in the past. Let’s face it, some people just aren’t great at conversational speech out of context. So, how do you go about socializing with strangers and making small talk?
I like the concept of starting with “safe” subjects. What’s safe? The traditional advice of talking about the weather is never a bad choice. Everyone needs to know when a storm is brewing. There are also the cultural taboo topics of talking about death or politics or something either morbid or likely to cause people to be divisive, opinionated or to take sides. In the US, asking people how much they pay for things is also not considered a real polite thing to do, whereas many other cultures do this and seem to integrate it into politics.
Personally, I think safe topics are the ones people volunteer. If you hear someone talking about their dog, you can feel free to ask about it. However, you probably wouldn’t walk up to a stranger and ask if the person has a dog, although it wouldn’t be rude; it would just seem odd and may lead nowhere. When someone brings up a topic, they are at least suggesting an interest in it and a willingness to talk about it.
The good part is that once you start doing small talk and find out it’s not as scary as you thought, and you’re even starting to meet people, you’ll realize it’s not so intimidating and you’ll be able to plunge in and socialize until it gets more comfortable. Since strangers by definition don’t repeat themselves, you can discover what works for you and use it again next tme!