The 7 common mistakes 'people who are terrible at small talk' always make, according to a public speaking expert
Going back to the office soon? As a speech trainer, one common source of anxiety I've been hearing from people is the social interaction they'll once again have to make with colleagues.
But like any other form of public speaking — yes, elevator banter counts — small talk skills have nothing to do with your personality, and everything to do with learning to empathize with your audience.
If you want your skill and comfort levels to soar, avoid these seven mistakes that people who are terrible at small talk always make:
1. Assuming that nobody wants to talk to you
If you're shy, I get it. But you're not the only one. If you're fretting about seeming confident or "natural," you're missing the point: Stop thinking about yourself.
Instead, think of reaching out as an act of service. After so many months of social isolation due to the pandemic, odds are enormous that the person next to you is just as eager to make a connection.
2. Interrupting or intruding upon an existing conversation
Timing is everything. If you see two or more people vigorously engaged in conversation, they're probably not ready for you to barge in.
First, wait for a lull. Then once you have someone's attention and, ideally, receive a non-verbal go-ahead, that's your chance.
Keep distance in mind, too; don't stand too close or too far away. You do want to be heard. You don't want to shout or come across as creepy.
3. Start talking without having something to say
If someone appears distant or lost in thought, moving into their personal space and mumbling "hey" is hardly an icebreaker.
Try asking permission (e.g., "Hi. Is it okay if I talk to you?" or "Excuse me, do you mind if I ask you something?") and make sure you have a fully formed question or comment in mind (e.g., "Are you having a good time?" or "How do you like being back in the office?").
It's all about creating a comfortable opportunity for the other person to respond.
4. Broaching controversial topics
If you're talking to someone new, it's generally best not to talk about weighty, off-putting or polarizing topics, like abortion or politics.
If you gravitate towards those topics later on, great. But for starters, aim for something simple and close at hand that you and the other person can observe together. Maybe it's the music you're both hearing, the food you're both tasting or the big "Welcome Back" office banner you're both facing.
5. Being hard to follow
Once you've made a connection with each other, keep that connection going by making yourself easy to understand.
If you speak different languages, for example, slow your speech and enunciate clearly. If you tend to speak in slang, don't use words they might not know. If they ask you what you do for work, answer in a way that doesn't take five minutes or deploy a lot of workplace jargon.
6. Talking too much about yourself — or about the other person
It's often said that people love to talk about themselves, and that asking questions is the secret ingredient to good conversations. But that's not true for everyone.
Nobody likes to feel interrogated, so if you sense that questions aren't welcome, back off. Instead, tell a story, offer an opinion or otherwise relieve them of the burden of performance.
If you can't sense where their interests lie, try asking about subjects you're interested in (e.g., "Hey, do you think this shirt looks funny?" or "Have you been to any good, new restaurants in this area lately?).
7. Wasting someone's time
If you're talking to someone, talk to them. Don't stare at the floor or look over their shoulder at another person. Put your phone away. Be present and give them your full attention.
It's easy to dismiss small talk as an insincere, unwanted and unimportant social nicety. But every relationship you value began somewhere — with an initial conversation. Was it profound? Did you cure cancer? No. But you made a genuine connection.
John Bowe is a speech trainer, award-winning journalist, and author of "I Have Something to Say: Mastering the Art of Public Speaking in an Age of Disconnection." He has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, GQ, McSweeney's, This American Life, and many others. Visit his website here.
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