The Secret to Mastering the Art of Small Talk

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We spent waaaay too much time cooped up inside with our families, with our partners, or by ourselves for the past year and a half. While that meant a total loss of solitude for some of us—and an abundance of it for others—quarantine also meant the disappearance of something we didn’t know we needed: random, chance encounters with other people. And science has shown that those fleeting conversations with the grocery-store clerk or a friend of a friend are actually really good for you.

For one, such exchanges can improve your mood, says Juliana Schroeder, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. In one study, researchers found that individuals who habitually made small talk felt “a greater sense of belonging” and less lonely overall. “Talking to people, even those on the periphery of our social network, exposes us to new information and broadens our perspective,” says psychologist Gillian Sandstrom, Ph.D., one coauthor of that study. Social connections can even help maintain your immune system and increase your life span.

If pandemic life taught us anything, it’s that people need one another. So push past those fears, embrace the unknown, and get to know your fellow man again. Here’s your four-step plan.

actually listen

Why it works: Listening attentively “is one of the most socially attractive behaviors you can engage in,” says Harry Weger, Ph.D., a communications professor at the University of Central Florida who studies listening. Research has found that people consider good listeners to be friendlier as well as more trustworthy, understanding, and socially appealing. Plus, the behavior encourages deeper, continued small talk.

How to do it: When someone says something, paraphrase it back to them, Weger says. For instance, if a colleague mentions how he almost fell into a manhole the other day, respond with something like “Wow, if you’d fallen into that manhole, you could’ve broken your leg!” This forces you to listen but also shows you’re listening. And notice that last clause: You’re keeping up the conversation by adding to the scenario. This simple detail kicks the chat back to the speaker. Poor listeners leave people hanging.

speech bubble

Why it works: Awareness of your surroundings enhances the opportunity for social bonding. (Sociologists call this “triangulation.”) It indicates you’re in a place with other people, you’re experiencing something together, and you can talk about it. The topic—the weather, a street performer—doesn’t really matter as long as it’s shared. Note: This is nearly impossible to do if you’re staring at a screen.

How to do it: Comment on how what’s happening makes you feel. Say you’re in a crowd that’s watching a mime (random, yes, but follow along for purposes of illustration). You could say, “I’ve always been a little afraid of mimes.” The remark doesn’t demand a response, yet it invites one—if somebody else feels obliged to weigh in.

speech bubble

Why it works: You’ll only stay engaged in the conversation if it’s interesting. Smart questions prevent small-talk drag. And you can only talk about the weather for so long. . . .

How to do it: Start off questions with what, where, how, or why. They’re unanswerable with a yes or no—total small-talk killers—and they “give [people] an opportunity to reveal more about their own personal feelings,” says Weger. One example: If you’re talking to a barista, ask, “What would you order here?” If they respond with “Honestly, I’m not a fan of the coffee we serve,” you’ve opened up a new line of discussion and found a new reason to visit a better coffee shop.

move on to bigger talk

Why it works: People divulge more when youopen up; psychologists call this the “disclosure-reciprocity effect.” Think of it almost like raising the stakes in a poker game. The other player will call your raise . . . or up the ante. And the deeper your discussion gets, the more powerful the benefits of the small talk.

How to do it: With honesty. If an acquaintance asks how work is going, admit, “It’s been really challenging.” Chances are, they’ll either follow up with another question or share their own emotional experience. But you don’t have to go negative: Share your excitement about your kid’s baseball season finally starting after the pandemic or your newfound respect for manhole covers.

A version of this story originally appeared in the July/August 2021 edition of the magazine.

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