20 Ways for Introverts to Make Small Talk so It's Tolerable, Not Toxic!
Making Chitchat Forces Us to Live in the Moment and Engage With Others
If you're an introvert like I am, getting your teeth drilled seems less agonizing than making chitchat. When I was growing up, my mother was the queen of small talk— yakking it up with the gas station attendant at the pump, shooting the breeze with the clerk at the supermarket, and talking up a storm with the mailman on our front porch. But I went in the opposite direction, avoiding chitchat at all cost—using self-check at the store, pumping my own gas, and always hiding behind a book.
While living in the urban oasis of the Bay Area, it was easy to avoid chitchat because most other people were trying to avoid it as well. They had those tell-tale signs that said, "I don't wish to converse," whether it be a cell phone clinging to the side of their face, a computer on their lap, or ear-buds in their orifices. But, when I moved to Central Oregon with its slower pace, I encountered friendly people who wanted to make chitchat with me everywhere I went. They seemed too forward and intrusive to me, and I got flustered by their behavior.
I got caught off guard when store clerks would ask, "What are your plans for today?" My initial reaction was to say something rude or snarky like, "None of your business" or "I'm going into the woods to dump the corpse in my trunk." Their over-zealousness made me long for the Bay Area where I could go to a convenience store and get rung up by a clerk talking on his cell phone with no eye contact, no words, and no connection.
I had become accustomed to that impersonal treatment and found it oddly comforting. Now I had to adjust to a new environment that required me to let down my guard and engage. Through time and practice, I found these 20 ways to make chitchat more tolerable, less toxic and, yes, even enjoyable:
1. Realize You're Not Alone
You probably heard public speaking is the number one fear of Americans. But do you know talking to strangers is another dreaded phobia? Debra Fine, the author of The Fine Art of Small Talk, says 4 out of 5 people are afraid to chitchat with strangers. So stop thinking you're a freak and accept it's an anxiety-producing endeavor for most of us.
2. Focus on the Other Person
Since chitchatting makes us nervous, we may stumble over our words, lose our train of thought, or make inane comments. To avoid this, focus on the other person and let her do the talking. If it's stormy outside, ask an open-ended question such as: “What do you think about this weather?” If you're in the park with your child, ask the mom near you: "What do you think are the best kid-friendly places in town?"
Because we're anxious, we often try too hard to say something clever, witty, or memorable. This makes our interaction even more nerve-racking. Being nice, polite, and genuinely interested in the other person is far more impactful than an artful line.
4. Let Your Body Do the Talking
Instead of fretting over what to say, keep in mind that communication is 93 percent non-verbal and only 7 percent verbal. Non-verbal communication includes our facial expressions, gestures, posture, and tone of voice. Looking someone in the eye and smiling at them expresses more kindness and openness than a thousand words.
5. Just Do It
We typically don't enjoy what we're not good at doing. That's why it's important to practice our chitchatting skills. When we do so, we become more confident, relaxed, and natural. It starts becoming tolerable and even enjoyable
6. Turn It Into a Game
When tackling my fear of chitchat, I went to places where I could practice. I'd go early to pick up my boys from soccer so I could make small talk with the other parents on the sidelines. I volunteered in my boys' classrooms so I could interact with the teachers and students. When I made chitchat with someone, I gave myself a point. When I reached 20 points, I bought myself a special treat—a book, a CD, or a necklace.
7. Take Deep Breaths
This is a great idea when you're in a stressful situation and need to relax. Breath slowly in and out, releasing the feel-good endorphins throughout your body. This helps you stay calmer, more focused, and less anxious.
8. Become More Assertive
This was the first step I needed to take to enjoy small talk. In the past, I'd been passive in social situations, feeling trapped by someone talking off my ear and not knowing how to escape. Now I end a conversation when I'm ready with a polite “Good talking with you” and walk away with confidence.
9. Appreciate the Benefits of Chitchat
For far too long, I only saw small talk as a waste of time—superficial and irritating. But, as the world becomes larger and more impersonal, interactions with strangers bolster our sense of community and connect us to our humanity.
10. Realize It Can Lead to Something Big
You never know where small talk may lead. You may get a terrific restaurant recommendation, find out about a company that's hiring, or hear about a fantastic preschool for your child. You miss out on a lot when you're closed off to chitchat.
11. Give a Compliment
At first it was hard for me to give compliments. It felt forced and phony. But then I began doing it and immediately saw how powerful it is. When I told a clerk I liked her necklace, she smiled broadly and told me she had made it. When I complimented a dad on how nicely his son was playing in the sandbox, he beamed with pride. He then opened up about the problems he had experienced with his boy after getting divorced.
12. Ask Their Opinion
People love being asked their opinion because it makes them feel valued. When I see a person reaching for a particular cheese at the store, I'll ask: “Why do you like that cheese?” When I'm at the park with my kids, I'll ask a parent: “What do think about the new animated movie?” Since my goal is to make chitchat, I stay away from religion and politics—hot-button issues that garner lengthier responses.
13. Leave Your Cell Phone at Home
It's so easy to hide behind our cell phones and avoid making connections. If you truly want to improve your chitchatting skills, you must leave your cell phone behind and welcome any opportunity to converse.
14. Embrace It
For too many years, I avoided situations that involved chitchat. That made my anxiety get out of control. Now I push myself into new (and sometimes uncomfortable) situations to give myself a challenge. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger!
15. Ask Yourself: Why Do I Hate Chitchat?
I grew up in a household during the 1970s with a father who believed children should be seen and not heard. I can't ever recall my parents asking for my opinion or letting me talk in length about a problem. This turned me into an inarticulate and insecure person. When I accepted my history, it motivated me to change.
16. Nod Your Head
Making small talk gives you a narrow window to build rapport. Nodding your head is one easy way to create a quick connection. Nodding one's head doesn't necessarily mean agreement. It's a sign of understanding, support, and enthusiasm.
17. Talk With Your Hands
Talking with my hands didn't come naturally so I had to force myself to do it. It gradually became a natural part of my communication. Studies show that people who express themselves with their hands get seen in a more positive light— warmer, livelier, and more agreeable.
18. Be Empathetic
Even though you're not engaging in deep conversation, making chitchat still requires one to show emotion. Otherwise, it's just empty words. When telling someone I have an autistic son, I don't expect them to counsel me or give me a hug. But some acknowledgment of what I just shared such as “That must get challenging” builds connection.
19. Lower Your Expectations
Small talk is insignificant so don't expect it to change your life. Keep in mind the bigger picture. By chitchatting with others, you're making the world a better place, even in a small way.
20. Have Fun With It
If you don't enjoy chitchatting, you'll soon return to your old anti-social ways. Keep it light and playful. You'll soon reap the benefit of small talk just like I did.
If You're an Introvert Like I Am, This Book Is Your Guide for Making Chitchat
If you're like me, making small talk doesn't come easily. This book was a great help when I decided to become more social and stop avoiding chitchat. Whether you're at a party, in the office, or riding the subway, this book gives great advice on how to connect with others, even if it's just for a moment. It helped me become more confidant (and even fearless) when speaking with strangers and acquaintances.
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© 2017 McKenna Meyers