Introverts find small talk mind-numbing — so here’s how to use it as a bridge to more meaningful conversation.
“Hi, I’m Gary. What do you do?”
Five minutes into the event and the small talk had started. I was already negotiating with myself to leave — or go hide in the bathroom a while.
I used to handle it in one of two ways:
- Make polite noises, zone out, not listen
- Attempt to create a deep connection by asking a wildly inappropriate question
As you can imagine, neither worked very well.
For years, I was convinced small talk was an extroverted-created strategy, designed to suck the joy out of talking to someone. We are not taught how to communicate with strangers. It can be painful, awkward, and exhausting. I often left events feeling drained with an introvert hangover the next day.
However, the cost of not knowing how to chit-chat with strangers is high.
Small talk can help you form friendships, get dates, land jobs, and feel more confident in general.
Like a lot of introverts, I crave deep connection and the thought of meaningless chatter is mind-numbing.
But then I started looking at small talk as the bridge that opens the path for more intimate conversation. It is simply a way to acknowledge a person as being very real and there. I realized that small talk actually plays an important purpose in conversations.
It is designed to prevent us from getting hurt.
Having a few minutes of light chit-chat allows us to assess the other person:
- Are they someone we want to spend our time with?
- Are they worth the energy we will spend getting to know them?
- Are they the type of person we might like?
By using small talk as a tool to circle above deeper topics, it gives us some breathing room to judge the energy of our conversational partner. And who knows, after two minutes you may realize they are not someone you want to continue talking with.
How to Overcome Small Talk Anxiety
Feeling anxious about talking to strangers is normal. In fact, from a young age we are told that strangers are dangerous (“stranger danger”) and should be avoided.
If you feel yourself becoming anxious, try these strategies:
- Stand up and plant your feet firmly on the ground. Sway slightly forward and backward, toward the left then the right. Feel every inch of your foot on the ground. Breathe. After all, much research shows that breathing deeply has a relaxing effect.
- Ask yourself: “What do I need right now?” Sometimes we neglect to check in on ourselves. Maybe we need to look at an inspirational quote to motivate us, or have a snack to sustain us. If you can’t think of anything, a big glass of water is usually a good place to start.
- Cultivate pronoia. The opposite to paranoia, pronoia is the belief that the world is conspiring to bring good things into your life. Tell yourself that this is a great opportunity to learn new things from wonderful people. Set yourself the challenge of discovering something new from the conversation.
Now you’re ready.
5 Ways to Turn Small Talk Into ‘Deep’ Talk
1. Keep your introduction simple and have a variety of them ready for different settings.
Keep it simple and straightforward. Have a few default introductions that can be used in various places: the grocery store, gym, a work Zoom call.
Think of something that makes you happy, smile, and make eye contact. This adds warmth to your voice, helping you come across as friendly and approachable. Someone that people want to speak with. Start off with: “Hi, I’m [your name], nice to meet you.” Then you can add specific knowledge and contextualize who you are, depending on your audience.
For example, if you are on a work call or at a networking event, there may be additional information that would be helpful to include, such as a project you are enjoying working on at the moment. If you are at a grocery store, it might feel natural to finish with a short contextual-based statement, such as: “It’s busy here today!” or you can ask the person a question about what to buy.
2. Stop using social scripts along the lines of, “Where are you from?”
Avoid the default questions that you’ve been asked millions of times. They keep us on autopilot and we tend to switch off approximately 0.342 seconds in. Skip anything about the weather (unless it’s an unusual event), what you do for a living, and where you are from.
Instead, replace them with context cues from the environment around you (this can work online and offline).
Ask questions like:
- Do you know anyone here?
- Have you met anyone new today?
- I’ve wanted to read that book on the shelf behind you for a while, would you recommend it?
- I love the plant in your background, what is it?
Highlighting that you are both in the same place indicates that you are an ally. You’re not someone to be afraid of, and neither are they.
If you are running out of things to say, take a deep breath, glance around, and take inspiration from the environment.
3. Ask questions that spark joy, like “What is something you’re looking forward to doing?”
You’ve introduced yourself, mentioned how lovely the venue you’re in is, and now it’s time to be the person someone enjoys spending time with. Asking questions that trigger dopamine (the “feel-good” hormone) in your partner’s brain creates a memorable conversation that both parties enjoy.
Ask questions like:
- What was the highlight of your day?
- Any vacations coming up?
- What is something you’re looking forward to doing?
Then dig deeper into their answers. Responding to something they’ve shared is a sign that you are really listening. Ask open-ended questions to encourage further conversation:
- That sounds great! Tell me more about …
- Oh interesting — how did you … ?
- What was that like for you?
- I’m curious, what did you … ?
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4. Have three good stories ready, like that time you swam near a waterfall.
Asking questions in a conversation is a great way to help the other person feel seen, heard, and understood. It also gives us time to recharge our energy if we’re starting to feel drained.
We also need to be aware about not falling into the role of an interrogator. This is someone who will ask question after question after question … and so on.
Having stories ready to share adds value to the conversation. It also reduces the panic about having to think of something on the spot. (Sound familiar?) A good conversation might remind you of a dance: introduction, question, question, story about yourself, question, story about yourself, question.
Having three versatile stories on hand that I can drop into any number of conversations makes me feel a lot more confident.
The stories can be about anything in your life. If you’re struggling to come up with something, think back to a time when you had to overcome a big challenge. Or when you were really happy. Or something that makes you smile.
Everyone I know has an extraordinary experience of one kind or another to share. Maybe you’ve traveled to a spectacular waterfall and swam in the lake next to it, or perhaps you once had a seven-course meal with extended family.
Most of us are ordinary people just trying to live our lives. We are more alike than we are different, and our common thread as human beings opens the door for connection and conversation.
5. Make use of “same here” moments, such as something you both have in common.
If there is something both of you have in common, make sure to highlight it.
We love when someone has had the same experience as us. We feel like we are less alone in the world, that there is someone who understands and “gets” us.
Lead with questions about hobbies or interests to find “same here” moments. Perhaps it turns out you both love hiking, or watching anime, or reading thriller books.
Ask questions like:
- What do you love to do in your free time?
- If you didn’t have to work, how would you spend your time?
- What do you do on an unexpected free afternoon?
Creating connections over shared passions and interests can lead to sparkling wonderful conversations about how you love to spend your time. Maybe you’ll even find out something new in the process!
Knowing how to use small talk to create deep and meaningful connections changed how I approach conversations.
You may learn interesting facts, discover a mutual love of Van Gogh, and — who knows — maybe make some new friends.
If you feel unseen and unheard, hate small talk, and hide in the bathroom at social events, download your free copy of How To Connect With Anyone for more of the strategies I use to fill my life with meaningful conversations.