The Shy Person’s Guide to Improving Small Talk Skills

Small talk may not be the most exciting thing in your day-to-day life, but it is a necessary evil. In a world where your networking skills could determine whether or not you leave college with a job, or where online dating requires you to engage the stranger you’ve just met in a few innocent questions to gauge whether they’re a serial killer or a good match for you, your small talking abilities make a world of a difference. For those of us who are shy, small talk may be something you dread. Just thinking about it brings up awful memories of awkward silences and racking your brain for something to fill them. Don’t you wish you could just skip this stage and ask the real questions, the heavy hitters that really allow you to get to know someone?

Well, to get to that point, you have to set a foundation that’ll help the person to realize what an interesting (or more importantly, interested) person you truly are.

1. Shut your inner monologue up! If all you can hear during a conversation is yourself saying “your skirt’s too short, your hair looks a mess, you probably have broccoli in your teeth, you’re boring him,” then how the heck are you going to enjoy the conversation, much less ask follow-up questions. A lot of the time, I psych myself out before going somewhere I knew I was going to be interacting with a lot of people by telling myself that I’m boring or that every conversation I start will probably end awkwardly. Don’t let your inner monologue be right! I’ve learned to tell myself that it’s going to go great, that I look fantastic, and that I have a really unique personality and should share it with other people. Yeah, it’s hard to do so when you’re shy but if you put yourself in a more positive frame of mind, you’re setting yourself up for more success than if you’re thinking negatively.

2. Listen. Chances are if you’re an introvert, you prefer to listen than to talk in a conversation and therefore your listening skills have become top notch. But just in case they haven’t, realize that listening plays an extremely important role in small talk. Here’s an example: You just met this really interesting guy at a work function that you’ve never seen around the office before. You ask him what he likes to do on the weekends and he responds with something interesting, but you didn’t hear it because you were either too busy coming up with your next question or you just weren’t listening. Rather than following up and potentially learning about something very interesting that you two could connect further on, you ask your next question and he’s feels like you’re just firing question after question at him. Hold it there! This is not an interview. Instead in this situation, let’s say he just told you he loves windsurfing, an activity that you know very little about. You can follow up by saying, “How did you get into that?” or “Wow, that’s awesome! I’ve never actually been windsurfing, what is it exactly?”

3. Have fallback topics. Let’s say the conversation’s hit a bit of a lull; maybe you’ve asked all you can possibly ask about windsurfing and now the two of you are just staring at each other, smiling and sipping your drinks. You could always get out of that situation, or you can choose to make an effort to step outside of your comfort zone and go to that little part of your brain where you’ve stashed a few go-to questions. I often will ask people where they’re from because typically there’s a good story to come out of it, whether they liked their hometown or not. You could always ask them what they major(ed) in in college. If it makes you feel more comfortable, you can think of some fail-safe questions or topics before you even go to the interview or event, whatever have you, maybe even jot them down in your phone. Avoid topics like religion, politics and relationship status and instead opt to talk about family, occupation, education and recreation.

4. Strive to be interesting. Have you ever been to an event where you talk to several people and seemingly have the same conversation with them all? “Where do you go to college? What year are you? What’s your major? What do you plan to do with it?” It gets boring and exhausting repeating the exact same spiel to this rapid fire questioning. I mean, is this an interrogation? These are fail-safe conversation topics but that’s exactly it, they’re safe! Safe as in boring. I know I just gave you some topics in number three that might include these questions, but spice it up a little because it will make for a significantly more interesting conversation and ensure that the person remembers you. Just think of something interesting to ask that you genuinely would care to know about the person. I know, easier said than done which is why I’ll provide you with a few as a jumping off point.

  • Ask where they see themselves in five years.

  • Ask what’s on their bucket list.

  • Ask the person to tell you their favorite joke.

  • Ask about a recent event or phenomenon. (For this, you’re going to have to be up on current events.)

  • Ask if they’ve seen any movies lately that they’d recommend.

  • Ask if they have any interesting plans for (Insert the weekend or an upcoming holiday, etc.)

5. Know what to avoid:

  • Don’t ask questions that are too broad because they’ll confuse the person and probably require further explaining on your part. For example, “What did you think of that presidential race?” I mean, what aspect? There was a lot leading up to that result so be specific so you don’t have to awkwardly explain what TF you’re talking about.

  • Don’t ask yes/no questions. These just don’t allow a natural flow of conversation because it just kinda stops abruptly with a one-word answer. So just don’t put yourself in that situation.

  • Don’t get too personal. If the person tells you they were adopted at the age of 10, don’t ask why his/her birth mother decided to give him/her up. That’s a touchy subject and quite frankly none of your business.

  • Controversial topics. I touched on it earlier but honestly religion, politics and relationship status are kinda off the table when you’re first getting to know someone. And while we’re at it, maybe don’t bring up how drunk you were at a frat party last Saturday or all the guys you hooked up with and barely remember. I mean, unless you’re at another frat party in which case, scratch that last part.

  • Don’t ask, “What do you do?” I realize I told you to ask about occupation but everyone asks that and what if the person just got laid off?

6. Not every silence is an awkward one. I remember one time I was talking to this guy I liked and it was a good conversation for the most part. The conversation hit a brief lull as we were both laughing at something the other had said, I freaked out a bit and ended up saying I had to go. Sometimes a conversation hits a bit of a lull and depending on how short it is, it’s not anything to freak out about. Take a sip of your drink, regroup and ask about something related to the last topic of conversation. Don’t be like me and ruin your chances with a perfectly good guy just because there’s a brief pause. Not every second has to be filled with stimulating conversation.

7. Give yourself an out. Sometimes it can be overwhelming for shy people to keep up a long conversation and often times you’ll psyche yourself out when one is going well. Come up with a believable excuse to leave the conversation but make sure you say you enjoyed talking to or meeting them. Examples of valid excuses: I need to use the bathroom, I haven’t greeted the host yet and I want to make sure to do that, I need a refill of my drink (tip: make sure the drink is empty if it’s a clear cup), I have to wake up early for work in the morning and I need to call it a night. For the most part, people aren’t going to question your reason for leaving the party so you shouldn’t feel weird leaving the conversation.

Let’s recap with five easy to remember steps:

  1. Find someone that is by his/herself. This will make it easier and less intimidating to start a conversation without feeling like you’re interrupting another one. Start with an easy opening line by making a comment that is mutually applicable. For example, if you’re waiting in line to get into a bar, talk about the bar or how crazy long the line is. If you’re at a friend’s event, ask them how they know so-and-so. Another great way to start a conversation is to pay the person a compliment. It shows that you are a nice person, that you’ve taken notice of him/her and opens the person up to further engage with you.

  2. Introduce yourself by saying your name and a quick, fun tidbit about yourself that will ensure they remember you. For example, “I’m a fashion merchandising major, though I may not look like it right now.”

  3. Pick a topic, any topic. If he/she doesn’t respond to it, try another one. This is where it helps to be prepared by staying updated on current events. Talk about a good movie you recently saw or the new self-help book you’ve been reading.

  4. Prevent lulls in the conversation by segueing into the next topic that is related to the last.

  5. Close politely by saying it was nice to meet the person and excuse yourself.

Sources: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 |