Make small talk a success

You ever notice nobody says “I love small talk!”. What’s there to love about talking about stuff that doesn’t matter. And you can’t really avoid polite conversation completely because small talk conversation happens when you meet someone new.

So, what do you? And more so, how do you make it enjoyable and then, have it move from small talk to a real conversation?

I figured out that there’s two quick ways to improve it. First,

Stop asking 2 questions: “Where are you?” and “What do you do (for a living)?”

This is quick but not so easy to execute. In many societies this has become the standard way to start conversing with someone. We usually don’t give it a second thought but it’s the main reason why small talk has a low chance of ascending into something more.

Why? It’s more or less back and forth. I ask you “Where are you from?” – you answer it and then you ask in return. The same goes for what we do in our daily lives.

That’s the reason why it’s difficult to execute because when you’re asked this question, it’s challenging to go against the societal norm of asking the question back. Then, what do you do?

Answer the question with a story. More importantly, answer it with your story.

It’s hard to imagine answering a banal question like “Where are you from?” with a story but it’s the 2nd strategy in ensuring small talk becomes a real conversation.

Instead of answering with the city or country or your usual answer, think of something you genuinely like or love about where you’re from. Like if someone’s from Paris, they would say:

I grew up in Paris and love the cafe culture where you can sit outside for 10 minutes in the morning before going into work and have enjoy a cup of espresso.  It clears my mind and gets me ready to start the day.  

From here, the conversation will have direction. Although Paris, on its own, may seem like an interesting response, it may only lead to someone asking about the city instead of you directing the conversation to something you authentically enjoy and like to discuss.

That is what will make it more enjoyable for you and give something to other person to connect to. The other person could be curious about the cafe culture or about better ways to start the day. Or they may share how much they detest espresso. Either way, there’s purposeful direction.

The next question, What do you do?, can be answered in the same way. What is it about what you do in your daily life (parent, manager, designer, etc.) that’s interesting or fascinating to you. Instead of getting the “title” right focus on the that part that you enjoy talking about and add in a few tidbits that you’ve learned along the way.

I used to the a quality control technician. Yeah, it wasn’t exciting. And it sounds like a quick way to dead end the conversation but here’s what I used to answer with:

I work in a lab and I'm responsible for checking the quality of a food ingredient that goes into about 80% of the beverages consumed in my country.  It goes into beer, ...

When I started answering this question this way, people could connect to the story. Very few can connect to “quality control technician”. Not even those of us who are one!

Whenever I did this, someone would jump in about one of the beverages or would be curious about how it could be in 80% of beverages. It peaked people’s curiosity, no doubt!

Using these two strategies, I’ve gotten out of the more small talk conversation to actually getting to know other people a bit better. It didn’t mean that we became best friends but it made for great conversations and a lot easier to talk to them again when I would see them another time.

I share with you my answers to these question is the podcast episode 18: Make small a success. Enjoy!

The truth about boundaries

There is one key element of boundaries that I never knew. And once I got the “truth” in my head, I started to handle my boundaries differently and more effectively. And this “truth” makes setting boundaries a lot easier.

After 10 years of practicing setting boundaries I first had to get this clear in my head:

People don’t need to respect your boundaries, you need to uphold them.

Basically, this means letting go of putting the responsibility on someone else to honour your boundaries and then, you taking action (not the other person) to uphold them.

But the one “truth” I still missed was what I was actually upholding?

When you uphold a boundary you are in essence managing your time commitments.

Yeah, I didn’t know that boundaries actually was a time commitment skill. A skill I didn’t have.

Commitment as defined in the dictionary is about dedication and lack of freedom due to obligation. Now, while this is an accurate definition, it fails to direct how we handle commitments.

Commitments are a decision you make ahead of time about your time. And looking at it from this perspective you can see how setting boundaries relates to time.

We give our time to work, our family, health, etc. And when we set a boundary around it we make a commitment about the amount of time we dedicate to it. We say we’ll go to the holiday dinner and spend time there. We say we’ll help a friend move so we’ll spend time there.

Upholding your boundaries means that in the moment when your boundary is challenged you keep your commitment. When we say we’re going to exercise at 9AM Saturday morning and your best friend texts you to have coffee at the time. What do you do?

Now, it may seem like there is no freedom as the formal definition suggests. But when you look at all the decisions about your time and map it out you actually become more flexible. How? Because you have the knowledge of how your time is being used and then, can adjust your schedule from an informed place rather than being at the whim of whenever someone asks you for your time last minute.

Time commitments at first look like a time management problem but really it comes done to what you commit to ahead of time and then, what you choose to do in the moment.

I speak more about this when a friend gave me an opportunity to evaluate my time commitment and ultimately my boundaries. Listen below.

Mispronunciation of Your Name

“What’s in a name?” Juliet once asked herself in Shakespeare’s play, Romeo & Juliet.

A question that has been recently answered differently by a number of celebrities. Many of them have reclaimed their names that were changed either by accident or part of assimilation in anglicised culture.

English actor Thandiwe Newton used to go by the name of Thandie Newton due to a misspelling when she began her career.

I found myself asking the question again, What’s in a name?. Immigrants to anglicised culture often have their names changed, my own father had a slight adjust to his name and my name has been mispronounced continuously.

And it used to irritate me to no end. Correcting the mispronunciation to have it mispronounced again and then the task of spelling it, I definitely judged others for this.

That judgement came with a rude awakening. When learning another language, I struggled pronouncing other people’s names and names of towns. Basically, I sucked at it.

And thinking back on my father who spoke English well, he struggled with certain sounds in the language. He never meant anyone disrespect whenever he mispronounced English names. His only fault was that he couldn’t make a certain sound that wasn’t part of his native language.

Is there disrespect in mispronouncing someone else’s name that is unfamiliar to them?

Of course, if it is used to insult someone, then Yes. However, most of us aren’t doing that. I speak other languages with an accent and mispronounce words all the time. Giving space for that is something that is required to get there.

So then, when we have space to use our original names, space must be giving also to allow those that have difficulty pronouncing it as well.

At any point in life, we can easily be on the other end.

Terribly mispronouncing names isn’t particular to the anglicised world, we are all capable of sounding ignorant.

Is there so much invested in our name, our identity, that mispronouncing it would shatter it? Or is it merely are own discomfort with dealing with the person mispronouncing it?

A discomfort that, no doubt, drove the anglicised people to change unfamiliar names and others to mitigate that discomfort through assimilation.

Allowing discomfort is the only way, at least that I know of, of allowing the uncomfortable to become comfortable.

I ask one more time, What’s in name? Shakespeare was way ahead of his time, a name is just that, anything we make it out to be becomes a burden we chose to carry every time we’re asked: What’s your name?

I talk more about my journey on learning a language and letting others mispronounce my name in podcast episode 16: Mispronunciation of Your Name. Listen below.