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!

What makes you interesting

Did you catch the trick in the title? I’m not asking: Are you interesting? It implies that you already are interesting. Even if you don’t think so (and I didn’t for a long time), you can learn about your innate ability to be interesting right here!

If you were to list 3 things that make you interesting, you probably would answer that in the same way I would or your neighbour would. The most common pitfall in reflecting on what makes us interesting is that everyone thinks about it in the same way. Which, in fact, nullifies being interesting. And this brings me to my first point:

Circumstances don’t make us interesting.

We tend to think that our circumstances are what contribute to how interesting we are. There are actually 2 types of circumstance that create the interesting trap.

  1. The ones in which we’ve had no choice (gender identity, sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, childhood, etc.)
  2. The ones in which we’ve had a choice: the results we’ve achieved in our lives (roles, profession, hobbies, money, friends, etc.).

Linking our circumstances to this definition of interestingness brings about a small problem. In groups, where you share certain circumstances with others, the criteria would slowly dwindle away. For example, a group of Indian women who are in the medical profession, what would then make each group member interesting? Which brings me to my second point:

Our total circumstances may contribute to being interesting but ultimately it would be relative to others.

If you were to add up all the circumstances of each group member, even then, you might see some differentiating factors. But how would each individual stand out on their own or be unique? To answer that, we would need to veer away from circumstances to something else.

Uniqueness cannot be based on any one trait or circumstances simply because it would cease the moment another acquired it. Instead, how we interact with the world or experience it is our uniqueness.

There’s nothing wrong with viewing our circumstances as contributing to who we are, in fact, our circumstances help to bring about connection. When we relate to others because of shared circumstances or experiences, we tap into our ability to connect with others.

Circumstances are how we initially relate to others.

If you’re a woman you can relate to other women, if you’re Indian, you can relate to other Indians.

The conundrum, then, is how we connect with others while seeing our uniqueness.

Our uniqueness is determined by how we experience our world which would inevitably be different for each of us, even with groups that share multiple circumstances. How we interact and show up in this world is innately unique to each of us.

This uniqueness has nothing to do with our personalities (i.e. introvert, extrovert) either. It’s deeper than that. It has to do with how we choose to show up, behave, take action while having those circumstances and personality along for the ride (of life).

Your collective experiences of interacting in the world is entirely unique to you. You own those experiences, those stories. And everyone, including you, has a story that’s unique.

To hear about my story on what makes me interesting, head over to the podcast episode 3: What makes you interesting?