An Expert Guide On How To Make Small Talk
Illustration by Mr Joe McKendry
In 2016, small talk is seen by some as a big problem. Writing for Wired magazine earlier this year, Mr Dan Ariely, professor of psychology at MIT, and Ms Kristen Berman, a behavioural consultant, declared small talk the “lowest common denominator” of conversation and called for it to be banned from dinner parties. Instead, they believe we should fast forward straight to Big Talk: politics, religion and sex – even with complete strangers.
Unsurprisingly, British experts disagree. Ms Catherine Blyth, author of The Art Of Conversation describes small talk as: “The overture to a conversation. Everyone is a portal to another world and small talk is the knock on the door.” Far from being meaningless, when done properly, light badinage often leads to meaningful exchange.
It is also enjoyable in and of itself, and far better, surely, at this time of year, when we might want to relax a bit, than to be accosted by an overly earnest stranger asking, “So, what’s your relationship with God?” – halfway through a vol-au-vent?
What’s more, research by networking experts such as the founder of Editorial Intelligence, Ms Julia Hobsbawm, has shown that job opportunities are more likely to be found via new acquaintances than among close friends. Rather than being inane and trivial, small talk makes your world bigger, opening it up to new possibilities, and in a far more interesting and unexpected way than, say, Google or Facebook might.
“People dislike small talk because of the pressure to perform. But you don’t need to be Oscar Wilde,” says Ms Blyth. “It’s important to remember, people hardly ever remember the content of what you say; they remember the feeling you left behind.”
With the help of an expert in Ms Blyth, here is our guide on how to master the art of feel-good small talk this festive season. (“Put others at ease; put yourself at ease; establish shared interest; actively pursue your own.”)
“No one thinks it odd to wake up and think, ‘What do I want to eat today?’ It’s quite normal to prepare for a party by asking yourself, ‘What do I want to talk about today?’ If you go in with no particular thing you’re interested in talking about, immediately you’re disadvantaging yourself,” says Ms Blyth. Who’s going to be at the party? Who would you like to meet? And, crucially, what do you want to talk about? What do you want to know? In Georgian England, people noted down interesting things – bits of prose and poetry – in “commonplace books”, and referred to them for interesting conversational gambits. Make a mental note of preparation and you’ll reduce performance pressure.
Going to a party on your own is the social equivalent of parachuting in behind enemy lines in the dead of night, only far more dangerous. What if no one wants to talk to you? “At a house party, hand round food and drink and you’ve a ready-made subject. Or catch their eye, smile, then comment on something in the room: the decor, drink, music, guests – but don’t criticise.” Instead of trying to impress immediately with witty barbs and thus putting performance pressure on yourself, Ms Blyth has a simple formula for keeping a conversation going, “It’s a bit pat, but it works: take two observations about where you are and then weave in something that’s relevant to that person, and add a question to the end of it.”
(Indirect) flattery gets you everywhere
“Some of the most unbelievably successful people I know are not the great intellects, they’re not the great wits” says Ms Blyth. “What they’re extremely good at is making people feel wonderful in their company. They are interested and pay attention.” She cites Mr Benjamin Disraeli, the great politician-cum-socialite, who befriended and charmed the notoriously taciturn Queen Victoria as one of the masters of small talk. His maxim: “Talk to a man about himself and he will listen for hours,” is as relevant as ever. Be careful with direct flattery, especially any comments regarding a woman’s physical appearance as this increases self-consciousness, “Admire the blouse, not the breasts.” Remember, the most flattering compliment of all is your full attention.
Other oblique forms of flattery such as asking for advice and help are also good. “Find a way to make them help. Seek advice, seek help – people always love that. It makes them feel good. People are really helpful. The truth is, if you’re talking to a stranger they are world of contacts and information and cultural reference points that you aren’t part of. That’s why I think small talk is amazing.”
Ms Jennie Jerome, Sir Winston Churchill’s mother, once made this comparison between Mr Benjamin Disraeli with his great rival Mr William Gladstone: “When I left the dining room after sitting next to Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But when I sat next to Disraeli, I left feeling that I was the cleverest woman.” And that’s the effect you’re striving for.
“If you think you need to perform in order to engage people, you’re looking at it the wrong way round,” says Ms Blyth. “What about the other person? There’s always someone else that feels lonely, embarrassed and self-conscious. Find that person that’s floating around. Everyone is prepared to engage someone with a smiling face and a listening ear.”