Last night, my family and numerous other people set sail on a lovely dinner cruise. The annual fundraiser for the non-profit my dad runs, this evening was filled with food, strangers, and small talk. What most would view as a relaxing evening was a night of high anxiety and dread for me. Although I refused to eat in front of strangers and hid away part of the trip, overall I had a victory simply boarding the boat and attending the event.
Small talk terrifies me more than almost anything else. Ask me a question about literature and I will drone on for hours. Compliment one of my siblings and I can reminisce dozens of old stories. Even come to me with a deep dark problem or moral question and I will enjoy a meaningful discussion. But when attending parties or meeting new people, I am at a loss for words. Is it still proper to talk about the weather or is that a topic of past eras? Should I ask multiple questions to get to know someone or is that prying into their life? How much eye contact am I supposed to make without staring them down? So many unanswered questions race around in my head.
Worse yet, everyone seems to know how to behave except for me. Feeling lonely and discouraged, I just want to skip each social event and hide under a blanket in my room. However, that also is a miserable way to spend one’s whole life. Thus, I have made up a list of ways to do small talk effectively.
Before you begin, I should warn you that this is written by someone with Aspergers and social anxiety. Is it possible that I have anything valid to say about people skills? Maybe not. However, I know that I am not alone in my trepidation and fear of small talk. Thus, my tips might not be the most helpful or successful out there. These are simply coping skills that I have developed and adapted through my struggles in groups of people. Hopefully you will find some that are helpful in your own life.
- Ask the basics. These might include name, job, age, home, family, pets, schooling, and marital status. However some of these should not be asked in certain situations.
- Share your background. Without being too long-winded, tell others a little bit about yourself. This might be scary but it only needs to be as much as you are comfortable with disclosing.
- Compliment sincerely. Anything you admire or respect can be used such as clothing, hair, name, career, or accomplishments. If you can find a deep quality, that is wonderful but if you are not close friends, that might be hard to do without it coming off as flattery. You have to make sure that you really mean what you say to them.
- Wrack your brain for any memories. If you can remember even the tiniest detail about the person you are speaking with, it will make things less awkward. For example, is this the mother who brought that wonderful snack to your son’s soccer game? It doesn’t matter if you can remember all of the specifies as long as you can recall some past encounters.
- Find a connection. Try to find any acquaintance that both of you have in common. Places or events can work as well such as the same school, church, concert attended, etc. This link might help you have some context of who this person is.
- Ask several “ice breaker” type questions. Now, I am awful at reading people so I tend to ask more general ones. However, my mom can tailor her questions to each person she meets. If you can, try to use the setting and previous comments to help you know what to ask. Sample questions might include have you seen any good movies lately, how long have you lived in the area, or do you have any exciting summer plans.
- Answer all questions. Conversations are supposedly two-way streets. That means you have to both talk and listen. So, try to give similar length answers to what they give you. Rambling on about some obscure is not the best idea but being to brief can come across wrong too. Try to find a balance between the two extremes.
- Focus on similarities. If you find any interests, goals, or view points that are the same, talk more about those. Chatting about your favorite book, recipe, or political candidate is much more simple than discussing something you have no interested in.
- Allow other to join. It is likely that another person might come over and begin to talk with you. This can be rather nerve-wracking. However, it is apparently a normal social situation so try to be flexible and include them.
- Exit when needed. You do not need to feel stuck talking to someone for hours. When you are ready to move on and are at a break in the conversation, excuse yourself politely.
So, those are some of my techniques for surviving small talk. I hope that they are helpful to you if you also struggle with this social grace. If you have any to add, please let me know! I would love to learn new tricks for relating to people better.
Links to related articles:
How and Why to Make Small Talk from Health and Wellness
How to Make Small Talk Naturally from Redbook Magazine
12 Tips for Making Small Talk from Career Builder
Asperger’s Syndrome at Work: Why Small Talk Matters from Autism Spectrum Directory
Small Talk, Small Minds from Asperger-4-Life