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!

How to answer poor questions

Questions that seem like conversation but offer no real dialogue are a bummer to any relationship.

Did you go broke shopping at the mall?

Where are you really from?

Didn’t you eat the sushi?

I couldn’t make up these questions even if I wanted to. Now, it’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with them. There isn’t. What I’ve noticed is that the conversation doesn’t really launch into any sort of anything but a back and forth tennis match of poor questions. And it can stop by how you answer them. And the best news, you can create a better conversation from it!

The first part of answering the poor question is to actually hear the poor question and not your interpretation of it or your thoughts about it. This requires a mind shift in how you view the question and you can learn more about that in the previous article.

We tend to answer poor questions like this:

Did you go broke at the mall? Ah, no, I managed to get what I needed.

It’s so subtle but we end up explaining our actions. And the question wasn’t asked: how and how much did you spend at the mall? We often (when not conscious of it) tend to answer from a place of defensiveness (of our actions). Even justifying them sometimes.

Once you understand that it’s the words of the other person that you need to respond to instead of how you interpreted the question, you can now answer it in a way that you want to. And if progressing the conversation to a dialogue is what you want, you can create a space in which to do so.

Here’s one way to do so. It’s called BBR (Bring it Back to a Response). But it originally comes from the work of psycholinguist Suzette Haden Elgin and she called it Baroque Boring Response. I modified it slightly and it’s a fantastic tool whenever you encounter a poor question.

The essence of the tool is to answer the question (even though it may be a Yes/No question) with 2-3 sentences that are related to the topic of the question. Now, in Elgin’s work it works to deflect verbal abusive statements or questions. Here, I use it to create a launching pad from which better conversation can happen.

One of the ways to do this and make it easier is to think of a response that includes talking about something you love or find interesting about the subject of the question. You add interesting, fun information rather than defending yourself and/or actions. Let’s tackle the questions form above!

Where are you (really) from? I was actually born in the hospital which the long running television series is based on. And one of my favourite actors happens to be in it. (Then I name the actor I’m referring to).

Did you go broke at the mall?

I found a lot of great shops that are owned by smaller brands and I hope that it continues that way and that smaller brands have a better chance of competing against the brands on the high street.

Didn’t you have the sushi? They make the best sushi rolls, don’t they? I’d usually order sushi but I heard about their signature dish of noddles with spicy shrimp and I couldn’t resist. I hope they offer a take away menu soon so I can enjoy it at home.

Believer or not, these questions have been asked of me and I’ve answered as above. Notice, I still answer their question (how I want to answer it) and then I add something of my experience that is genuine. None of these answers I had to “make up”.

This is really effective especially if these questions are asked with other people around. What usually happens is that someone else will jump into the conversation because of something I added and then the back and forth useless Closed questions becomes more of a conversation rather than a myriad of defending yourself.

If you’d like to hear more about this technique I discuss my experience with it in the podcast episode 6: How to handle poor questions Part 2.

Handling poor questions

Ever wonder why you’re annoyed by some questions? It could be because of how it’s been asked and then you feel the obligation of answering it because you don’t want to be rude. Or you know that answering it won’t lead to any sort of great conversation. And that’s basically a dead end.

Even when you’re asked a poor question, there are ways to get off that dead end path. Better yet, there’s one way to handle it so that you can change the dynamic of the conversation. And I’ll outline the first part of the strategy here and the second part in the next article.

Now, there are many more poor questions out there, I discuss a few of my favourites in the previous post. However, you can apply the following strategy with any question that you don’t particularly like.

This strategy is modified from the works of psycholinguist Suzette Haden Elgin whom I owe so much to. Her work helped me through conversational dynamics where I thought I was driving myself crazy. And it turns out I could stop doing so and respond to questions another way.

The first thing you need to do is change your mind about the question being asked. This is the hardest thing to do. Because once we’ve decided we don’t like a question or the conversation of a particular person, we see all the signs that point to why we’re right.

In order to help change your mind about the person asking a poor question, you’ll need to use Miller’s Law (based on psychologist George Miller).

Miller’s Law: You assume what the other person is saying is true.

What? You heard correctly. You assume but you don’t have to accept that it’s true. For example, when people ask me “Where are you really from?”. I make an assumption that what they’re asking is “why are you brown?”. But assuming what they’re saying is true means hearing the question without my added thoughts or interpretation of that question.

It doesn’t mean that I accept it’s true that they’re asking out of genuine curiosity about me. It only means that I assume their words are true without focusing on the intent of those words (which by the way is impossible to know because we don’t always know the true intent of our actions).

Instead of focusing on the intent, I only have to focus on their words (what they actually say) to be true.

It then becomes easier to see the words and then respond to those words. Instead of responding to their intention.

But wait? What if that question comes from a place of prejudice? Well, that could be true, couldn’t? Let me ask you this: is it your responsibility to reveal that that question is coming from a place of prejudice?

It isn’t. It’s the other person’s responsibility to communicate their true intention and have their actions match it. It’s not yours to decipher it and help them become a more effective communicator. And what you’ll find is that when you respond from a place of hearing their words instead of their intention, their true intentions will be revealed in the course of your conversation with them. And if it’s from a place of prejudice, you’ll know because of their actions through their words, not your assumption.

So, great? Then, what do you do? Well, then you can answer this question any way you want. It then becomes a question, a question that is inquiring a piece of information about you. That’s it. It’s not about your skin colour or their curiosity or anything else. Because you get to answer it how you want based on hearing the words.

In the next article, I discuss one way to respond to poor questions so you can deliver a message that you want. Check out the article on How to Answer a Poor Question. If you want to hear more about shifting your mindset around Miller’s Law, then check out the podcast episode 5: How to handle poor questions Part One.