The Art of Small Talk

By: Angels
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Whether you run into an ex boss or a former fellow from your school days, all that is usually required is light, casual conversation. Yet for many of us, small talk is hard work. And there are times when we fail miserably.

If you have comforted yourself by saying small talk doesn't matter, think again. It builds rapport and often leads to bigger things, like friendship and new jobs. Small talk is but a misnomer. Those little conversations probably have more impact than any other.

In fact, people who know what to say or when to say are viewed as friendly, gracious and interesting. While some seem to be born with this gift, it can be developed by practicing. Most of us are shy but that doesn't excuse you. You have to make the effort. It's part of being decent, polite human being. Here are ten secrets of talking to anyone about anything.

1. Silence your inner critic

In the film Annie Hall, the characters played by Diane Keaton and Woody Allen have just met, and they're eager to impress each other. While the two talk, subtitles flash on the screen, revealing the fears racing through their minds. "Listen to me...what a jerk," "He probably thinks I'm stupid," "She senses I'm shallow." A clinical psychologist says such harsh self-criticism is the most common obstacle to successful talk. If you feel there is nothing there is nothing to lose, there is no agenda; then you can relax and suspend the fear of judgement. That's why many of us who are able to chat easily with a stranger on an aero-plane draw blank when it comes to exchanging a few words.

2. Begin with the obvious

Your neighbour recently had a child: ask her how she is enjoying motherhood. Your boss's boss was just promoted: congratulate him or her and ask about the new job. You don't have to be clever. Just show you'd like to talk by commenting on the person's interest or whatever it is you have in common. No matter how tenuous it may be. When you don't have anything in common or when you both are just killing time, it is perfectly acceptable to talk about weather. What if the person gives only grudging one word responses? Take the hint. It means he or she wants to be left alone. But don't take it personally.

3. Compliment carefully

Follow up a compliment with care and intelligence. Avoid potentially troublesome areas, such as a person's physical appearance. Your comments, however well intended, may hurt and, worse, there's usually no appropriate comeback. Don't compliment a person about something controversial. Avoid it.

4. Use friendly body language

A quick way to end a conversation before it even starts is to fold your arms, lock your face into a grim expression and dart your eyes. Whether you mean it or not, you appear uninterested or aloof. Instead, make eye contact, keep an open posture and smile. Body language speaks before you do. If you send out friendly messages, you get back friendly messages.

5. Turn the spotlight on others

We have all been bored by the proud parents who talk on and on about their wonderfully talented child, never bothering to ask us about our equally special child. At some point the person who is talking has an obligation to turn the conversation round and ask, "How are your children?" People will think you are fascinating if you get them to talk about themselves." Ask questions. Discover the person's interests. If you do not understand what he or she is talking about, say so. People are usually so flattered by your interest that they don't notice if your questions are not brilliant.

6. Listen

You are at barbecue, trapped in conversation with a bore. What do you do? Listen closely for a nugget to explode. Even boring people have passion you can learn from. If that fails, small-talk expert ask "What do you mean by that?" to encourage the other person. Or they nod in agreement and say "Oh, that must have been very exciting," or "It sounds as if that was tough for you."

7. Keep it light

Traditionally, etiquette experts have warned against controversial topics. While talk of personal illness, money woes and marital problems should still be avoided, nowadays politics is usually considered standard small-talk fare.

8. Give equal time

You are at a dinner party and have spoken to the man on your left for ten minutes. Do you owe the woman on your right equal time?  If she looks bored, common courtesy require that you involve her in your conversation. We all have been in that uncomfortable situation of being ignored. Even if you want to continue talking to someone, you have to be considerate of the other person beside you. I might say something to the first person such as "I am sorry I've been monopolizing you. Your other companion should have the chance to talk to you too"

9. Have a sense of humour

The most important tool for any effective small talk is sense of humour. But humour should be objective, not subjective, if it to be effective. Even the most gracious and considerate people sometimes say stupid, offensive or insensitive things. If you're the butt of such "humour", shrug it off. The person is probably not mean-spirited, just unaware.

10. Make your exit

You have suffered through that kitchen conversation. Or the conversation has simply wound down. How do you move on without being insulting? Simply, excuse yourself during a lull, saying you need a drink or want to say hello to someone else. On the other hand, do not drag the conversation needlessly. Take a lead in making exit before the other person can do so. The more you practice small talk, the better you'll get at sensing what is appropriate. This is the real secret of small talk. Very often people who avoid small talk imagine everyone else is a sparkling conversationalist. Everyone else is snot sparkling, they are just connecting.

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