Ultimate Small Talk Guide: Why People Hate It, The Best Way To Do It, & 5 Mistakes To Avoid

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two women making small talk on a train
Self

Small talk may be the most maligned category of conversation. For many, it's a time-waster with no redeeming qualities other than mindless chatter. 

Yet, when properly understood and applied, small talk may be the gateway to relationship-building and used to prepare others for more important conversations.

Or it may just be a pleasing way to avoid any awkward silences and exchange pleasantries with someone while passing the time.

For whatever purpose, small talk is a tool in your conversation box.

In fact, some of the most typical occasions for small talk are among travelers in airports who are seated adjacent to each other on a flight, those waiting in line at a store, or coming across each other as they take a walk in the park. 

RELATED: 40 Of Life's Most Interesting Questions To Start A Conversation

What is small talk and why is it important? 

Small talk is usually an exchange of observations or questions that is not a deep social interaction, specific action, or decision.

One may choose to ignore, abbreviate, or expand a small talk exchange with one or several people, depending on your relationship and the circumstance. 

When meeting with friends and family, small talk may be a warm-up for more lengthy conversations and enjoyable debates over dinner.

Business small talk can help set a relaxed mood to start a meeting. It's a risk-relief way to social interactions at conferences, networking events, or a personal encounter with a stranger you may wish to know. 

When meeting strangers, small talk can be the bridge to determine if you want to engage in conversation or just exchange pleasantries with no expectations on either side.

What are the usual topics for small talk?

In business, a conversation starter can be what people did over the weekend, how difficult the traffic or commute was to get to the office, or an observation about an accessory or new clothing item.

Oftentimes among men, sports can be a preferred small talk topic. 

What are some examples of small talk? 

Small talk examples may be observations about people that distinguish them, such as the region they live and work in, the clothes they are wearing, purchases recently made, or a T.V. series or movie they recommend.

Often pet owners will engage with one another by identifying the pedigree of the pet and then either petting or commenting on the dog as a shared love of animals.

RELATED: How To Get To Know Someone Even If You Hate Small Talk

What are the best practices for starting a small conversation?

Imagine starting a small conversation as a communications probe for interest by the other person in responding to you.

Observation and comments about something special or interesting about the other person are good strategies for starting a small conversation.

Usually, if you can ask a question, such as where they are from, what they are doing, or experiences they've had in the location you are both in, you will get a positive response.

If you show genuine curiosity and discernment for something special or pleasant for that person, chances are you will receive a smile that can begin a small conversation.

Is small talk flirting?

It certainly can be appropriate depending on the circumstances and the way the other person signals you. If you are in a bar or a party, flirtatious small talk is expected.

However, if you are in a business conference or company gathering then small talk flirtation may be inappropriate. 

The other person may also provide non-verbal signals that they are inviting flirtatious small talk by eye contact, a smile, or initiating small talk with you. 

If you view small talk as a warmup for a pleasant exchange, then be careful not to heat up your small talk if that seems to be a clear turn-off for someone else.

Here are 5 small talk mistakes you can easily avoid.

1. Avoid serious topics to talk about. 

Do not talk about religion, politics, or opinions that could be controversial unless you already know there is a shared agreement.

Small talk should be relaxing, not confrontational.

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2. Do not assume.

Do not presume to know what the marital or sexual status is of someone you do not already know well.

For example, you may be married and have children while someone who is single and child-free might be turned off by or disinterested in you showing them your family photos.

3. Remember that same-gender or age group small talk subject areas may not be applicable to others.

Women may frequently comment on clothes selections, accessories, or physical characteristics that would be deemed inappropriate for men to bring up unless it's a sexually flirtatious small talk occasion.

Older people should not presume they can easily make comments or suggestions to younger people who may not want their advice. 

4. Don’t engage with others if they are not receptive, due to activity or state of mind.

Someone on a phone call is not ready to be interrupted.

However, if you are helping someone with their activity such as lifting bags into the storage area of a flight, then it may be a good opportunity to begin a small conversation.

5. Do not brag or talk about yourself as the opening to your invitation for small talk.

Inquire or comment about the other person so you look interested in understanding, commiserating, or celebrating their own happiness.  

Small talk, at its best, should be stress-free and pleasant.

Human social interaction can be facilitated with nuanced invitations to engage with acuity and an inviting smile. Small talk is a great way to get there. 

RELATED: Why 'Small Talk' Exists (And Why We Should Just Stop Forcing Conversation Altogether)

Jeff Saperstein is a career transition coach. For more information on how he can help you land your dream job, visit his website.