I don’t know about you, but two things happen to me the instant I walk into a bookstore: I have to pee, and I forget the title, author and subject of every book I have ever wanted to read. It’s similar when I am confronted with a group of strangers in a social setting and I have to make small talk: my mind goes totally blank, and if my nervousness doesn’t have me searching for a bathroom, my desire to lock myself in one does.
For some reason, I’m always convinced each person I encounter will try to talk to me about zombies or astrology and that my hatred of both will cause us to become enemies forever, which will make it pretty uncomfortable when we’re both lurking around the fruit plate later.
Maybe you, like me, think you are “not good at small talk.” But who even knows what small talk is? To me, the phrase invokes stuff you aren’t particularly invested in, about which you can have a sort of mindless scripted interaction. First of all, that is not being good at small talk; that is being middling at it. Second, if you are reading this column, you probably wouldn’t enjoy those types of interactions anyway. You are looking to have an in-person social interaction that won’t make you wish you’d stayed home on the Internet.
Well here is a mind-freak I’ve only recently started to internalize: Staying at home with the Internet is also engaging in a ton of small talk. It is for me, anyway. I’ll post something I’ve been wondering about lately and it will start an expansive conversation. I’ll jump into a friend-of-a-friend’s thread with a relevant anecdote that is maybe embarrassing but too good not to tell. I’ll share news and commentary that I need to process with others. There are also conversations about astrology and zombies happening all over the place, but I’m able to avoid them easily. And when things get tricky, we all resort to talking about our pets!
While initiating and animating online chatter is my main job, I know it doesn’t come easily to everyone. So I made a formula of all the ingredients of high-quality banter.
What you need is a balance of Familiarity + Surprise + Enthusiasm. That’s it! It is ideal for the person with whom you’re talking to be like, “Right. Right. Right. OH! I had no idea! Really?”
By way of illustration, here is an anecdote. This summer, I went to the Buzzfeed Anniversary shindig with a bit of a fever. As soon as I arrived, I realized I was wearing the same dress as I had worn to my unsuccessful job interview there a few months earlier and that I was basically the Miss Havisham of this party.
Luckily I was not there alone; my date was non-stop-charm-machine Anne Theriault. We sidled up to the first person we recognized from Twitter and stammered our way through half-heartedly catching up. I mentioned that I had recently turned forty, which is a very boring topic indeed, but then I remembered that on the road trip to celebrate this birthday, Anne had insisted we listen to her “favourite podcast about rabies.” I announced this fact, and all of a sudden it was the greatest time. We all knew enough about rabies that Anne didn’t have to shout a ton of complex science over the too-loud music, but none of us knew the details of the podcast that had captivated Anne so entirely.
Her joy at sharing these details was completely contagious and hilarious, and it was a great jumping off point to confess our own weird interests, too. Within a couple of minutes we were having so much fun that we completely forgot we weren’t on the Internet.
So, next time you are headed to a party, think about the most recent book or article or podcast you listened to, or the best conversation you’ve been part of online. Think about how you would condense it into a tweet, or a handful of tweets. Then find someone who seems to have the exact opposite to your taste in snacks (just to avoid future rivalry if it goes poorly) and tweet at them…but out loud.
Just like online, not everything takes off straight away. But also just like online, if all else fails, you can draw attention to something your host’s pet is doing or pull up a picture of your own on your phone. It never fails.
One more thing in case you need it: If you can’t stop worrying about the concept of “small talk,” try to re-frame it as “engaging chatter that won’t require too much emotional labour or specialized knowledge from the person you are talking to.” (If you think of a more catchy way to say that, please email me.)