Whether small talk is something you enjoy or not, it is undeniably an integral component of any social interaction.
The gateway to “big talk,” small talk opens the door to deeper conversation and is necessary for getting to know someone and building rapport.
Nevertheless, both small talk and initiating conversations can be a source of anxiety for many people. While hundreds of articles claiming to present the “ultimate list of conversation topics” can be found on the Internet, few explain the intricacies of applying small talk and conversation topics for the purpose of successful social interactions. Fortunately, we’re here to do exactly that.
Is Small Talk Really That Important?
Many people make it a habit to deny that small talk is an important part of social interaction, claiming instead that it is superficial and a waste of time. But the reality is that most people dislike small talk because they simply aren’t good at it.
Says Ruth Graham in her article In Defense of Small Talk, “[Small talk] is a social lubricant as essential as wine and laughter that allows strangers to make crucial first connections across demographic lines. And it’s far from meaningless. People are rebelling against it today in a misguided dismissal of social graces that seem old-fashioned, boring, or wasteful. In fact, we’ve never needed such social graces more. . .Excelling at small talk will make you popular, and justifiably so. Mastering it makes you a pleasure to be around.”
She goes on to explain that, without small talk, conversation would be forced to dive directly into the deeper topics that are simply inappropriate to discuss with strangers and are too heavy to discuss in many social situations.
Instead, small talk “lets self-revelation unspool with a more civilized subtlety.”
But small talk isn’t only important for success in “just for fun” social encounters; it is also necessary for success in the workplace.
Says Andy Molinsky in his article for Harvard Business Review, “…Small talk is essential to bond with colleagues, create a positive relationship with your boss, and win the trust and respect of clients, suppliers, and people within your extended professional network. Small talk is often used as a friendly, light-hearted precursor to the ‘serious’ portion of the discussion.”
In short: Yes, small talk really is that important. Keep reading to learn how to become great at it.
Small Talk: The Best Topics and How to Use Them Well
One of my pet peeves when looking up small talk and conversation topics is the mind-blowing number of articles a reader can unearth listing “the best random small talk/conversation topics.”
I cannot emphasize this point enough: Conversation and small talk should never be random.
If someone approaches you out of the blue and asks who your celebrity crush is without first breaking the ice and getting to know you through small talk that’s not random, you’re going to 1) be afraid and/or 2) think they’ve lost their minds. Because they probably have.
Randomness does not promote bonding. If your small talk is random, you are not working towards bonding with the other person and therefore you are wasting your time.
And if you have no intention or interest in genuinely getting to know someone through your conversation with them, just don’t bother– your true feelings will be transparent and the conversation will be unsuccessful and short-lived anyway.
To reinforce this point, a study done for the Journal of Personality in 2011 states, “Our results indicate that being curious [about other people] is relevant to creating positive social interactions. . . [Curiosity can] transform small talk by increasing the likelihood of interest, engagement, and closeness for both partners.“1
In other words, people who are genuinely interested in getting to know others are (unsurprisingly) much more likely to develop mutual feelings of closeness with new people through small talk. And after all, getting to know people and bonding with them is the entire point of socializing.
If good small talk shouldn’t be random, then that means you need to come up with a conversation topic that is relevant to the other person. But how is that possible if you’re talking to someone you’ve just met?
The key to relevant small talk that will allow you to get to know and bond with the other person is what I like to call The Three S’s of Socializing:
Situation + Surroundings = Small Talk
The formula is quite simple; the situation is the social event that both you and the other person are currently attending, and your surroundings can be anything from the decor of the event to the weather you’re experiencing.
No matter where you are or who you’re talking with, you can rest easy knowing that the situation and the surroundings are two things you already have in common with the other person, and that is why they should be your go-to when making small talk.
The situation and the surroundings can be translated into small talk by
- Stating an opinion or observation (about the situation or surroundings), and
- Asking for an opinion or observation (about the situation or surroundings)
While many people feel it is more polite to ask someone else’s opinion before stating your own, in actuality you are creating a comfortable environment for the other person to share their opinion when you share yours first (assuming the opinion you’re sharing isn’t inappropriate or controversial).
This is because many people feel a lot of pressure when being asked to share an opinion on something when they don’t already know where the other person stands. Consider these two scenarios:
You: [Referencing Bon Jovi song playing in the background] “So what do you think about Bon Jovi?”
Acquaintance: “I… Uh… Well… They’re okay I guess.”
You: “I don’t usually like Bon Jovi, but this song is actually pretty good! Do you like Bon Jovi?”
Acquaintance: “Really? I love Bon Jovi! This song is one of my favorites!”
As you can see in the small talk scenario above, a person may be hesitant to state their opinion one way or the other without first knowing what the other person thinks. But if you state your opinion first, even if they disagree they are likely to be more comfortable sharing their true opinion with you because you have already been honest about your own opinion with them.
The stating and asking of opinions in this way not only helps you get to know the other person (and the other person get to know you), but it also promotes rapport-building and bonding.
Because small talk relies on the sharing of opinions, it’s important to note that not all opinions need to be shared.
According to Minda Zetlin in this article for Inc.com, negative or controversial opinions should be kept to yourself. “Political [comments] (unless you really know the listener’s politics), anything that could be seen as offensive, and most complaining is off the table [when making small talk]. So is gossip,” she says.
Zetlin recommends making positive observations instead. “There’s something positive to say in nearly every situation, so find it and say it.”
With this in mind, it’s time to get started!
Some examples of situations you may find yourself in that can be used when making small talk include:
- Work meetings/conferences
- “It’s awfully early for a conference call. Are you a morning person?”
- “It’s nice of them to feed us when we have to stay late for these meetings. What type of pizza are you going to get?”
- Standing in line at the grocery store/post office/DMV/etc.
- “I’m convinced that they hold up the line just so we’ll be tempted to buy these candy bars. Which ones are your favorites?”
- “I didn’t realize I’d need to take the whole day off just to renew my driver’s license! How long have you been waiting?”
- Cocktail party/Wedding/Other formal event
- “What a beautiful ceremony! How do you know the happy couple?”
- “I love seeing everyone all dressed up like this! Do you enjoy black-tie events?”
- Taxi/Bus/Train/Other transportation
- “Uber has really been a lifesaver for me. How long you have you been a driver?”
- “I’ve never seen you on this train before! Where are you headed?”
- Networking event/Meet-and-greet/Other social event
- “There are so many new faces here tonight. Which company are you here with?”
- “I’m so excited to meet the author! Which of his books is your favorite?”
Examples of observations about surroundings that can inspire your small talk include:
- “This sunshine is much-needed after that awful cold snap. Are you enjoying the warm spell?”
- “It’s really coming down out there! You staying dry?”
- “This is a really interesting music selection for the event. How do you feel about jazz?”
- “I’m always curious to see what type of music people will choose for a party. Do you have any favorites?”
- “The food looks delicious. Do you enjoy Indian food?”
- “The wedding cake is beautiful. What flavor do you think it will be?”
- Give a compliment
- “Your shoes are so cute! Are they comfortable?”
- “I love your cufflinks. Are they sentimental?”
- “This venue is incredible. Do you know anything about Victorian architecture?”
- “I had the hardest time finding this place! Have you been here before?”
- “That chandelier is impressive! Do you think it’s hard to change the light bulbs?”
- “These centerpieces are so elaborate. I wonder where they got the idea!”
Here are some more examples of how to use the three S’s of socializing to state and ask opinions or observations:
- “State opinion about situation: I love the theme of this party! Ask opinion about situation: Do you like masquerades?”
- “State opinion about surroundings: These flower arrangements are beautiful. Ask opinion about surroundings: What do you think about the multi-colored roses?”
- “State opinion about situation: This party is so much fun! Ask opinion about situation: Are you having a good time?”
- “State opinion about surroundings: It’s a bummer that the cookout had to be moved inside. Ask opinion about surroundings: Did the storm make it difficult for you to get here?”
Stating opinions and observations about the situation and surroundings, followed by asking for a reciprocating opinion, is a foolproof way to make meaningful small talk that will help you get to know anyone, anywhere and at any time.
Another of the many benefits of small talk is that it allows you to get a feel for the other person. Do you have a lot in common? Do you share a similar sense of humor? Do they seem open to continuing the conversation? Do they seem open to talking more in depth about their life, or do they seem more closed-off and private?
The answer to these questions will help you to determine whether it’s appropriate to take your conversation to a deeper level or whether you should end the conversation and move on to someone else. Keep in mind that sticking with small talk only may be the safer route the first time or two you encounter someone. Depending on the person, deeper conversation may not occur until they are more comfortable with you, which may not happen until they’ve spent more time (and had more small talk) with you.
If your conversation is going well and you feel you’ve hit it off with the other person enough to move past small talk, then you can begin phase 2– making conversation.
Making Conversation: Small Talk as a Lead-In
Although all small talk is conversation, not all conversation is small talk. Thus it is necessary to learn how to move out of the small talk phase (or more surface-level conversation topics that help you get to know someone on a basic level) and into the deeper conversation phase (or more personal–but still tactful!–conversation topics that help you bond with someone more deeply).
Although regular conversation, does not have to draw solely on the situation and the surroundings, your small talk questions (about the situation and surroundings) can be a tool you use to lead to deeper conversation.
Let’s use one of the examples we mentioned above.
You: “This sunshine is much-needed after that awful cold snap. Are you enjoying the warm spell?” (Small talk)
Acquaintance: “Actually, I prefer the cooler weather. My job is outside.” (Small talk)
You: “Oh, where do you work?” (Small talk)
Acquaintance: “Well I used to work as an IT person for Apple, but I got laid off and now I’m working for my father-in-law’s landscaping business.” (Deeper conversation)
In this situation, what started as mere small talk quickly turned into a deeper conversation when the other person decided they felt comfortable enough with you to share more intimate details of their life.
Here, you could choose to continue the small talk route and say something like, “Oh okay, well I hope it gets cooler again for you! The forecast showed the temperature dropping again over the next few days.”
But because the other person has already given you the go-ahead for deeper conversation by confiding more personal information, this is a good opportunity to take the conversation in a direction that will promote bonding and deepen your relationship with the person.
The first component of deeper conversation is empathy and relatability in your responses.
Whether you’re discussing a lay-off or your thoughts on a new movie, attempting to relate to the other person will always promote bonding.
With the example above, continuing to make small talk may come across as though you’re unsympathetic to the other person’s situation and could cause them to feel embarrassed for having shared such a personal detail with you. This may prevent them from sharing personal matters with you again in the future.
However, saying, “I’m so sorry to hear that. Lay-offs seem to be happening more and more often these days. How are you doing with all that?” is a way to express your concern for the person and let them know they did not make a mistake by confiding in you. Your apology and question about their well-being show your concern and sympathy, and your statement about the frequency of lay-0ffs serves as a form of relatability.
With this response, you will create a safe space for the other person to continue opening up to you, and the bonding process will have begun.
Here’s another example of using small talk to lead in to a real conversation:
You: “These flower arrangements are beautiful. What type of flowers are your favorite?” (Small talk)
Acquaintance: “I really like the red roses with the babies breath. They’re similar to the flowers I had at my wedding.” (Small talk)
You: “Those are gorgeous! How long have you been married?” (Lead-in to deeper conversation)
In the conversation above, small talk about the flower arrangements at a social event led into a conversation about the other person’s personal life when they mentioned their wedding.
*Note: As a rule of thumb, it is usually best to refrain from asking about the status of people’s romantic relationships (and children!) until they bring it up themselves. You never know what someone may be going through, and this rule prevents you from finding yourself dealing with the awkwardness of accidentally bringing up a sensitive subject.
Using small talk as a lead-in is a great way to transition naturally into deeper conversations that promote bonding with other people.
Making Conversation: Revisiting a Previous Topic (Or Conducting a “Check-Up”)
If you are speaking to someone with whom you have had multiple past conversations, you can still use small talk to lead into a deeper conversation (as we explained above). Another option, however, is to revisit the topic of the last conversation you had with that person (or “check up” on them).
Say you’ve run into your acquaintance Joe at the bank. Last time you spoke with Joe, he mentioned being on the hunt for a new job. Instead of making small talk with Joe and seeing if it leads to a more in-depth conversation, you can jump directly into a conversation by coming back to the topic of his job search.
You: “Hey, how is that job search going?”
Joe: “I’m off the hunt! I just got hired at a new place last week!”
Part of relatability, which is one of the key components of making conversation that we mentioned above, is expressing excitement over the things that excite the person you’re speaking with. Therefore your response to Joe’s revelation of a new job should be one of enthusiasm.
You: “Joe, that’s awesome! Congratulations! Tell me about it!”
In this way, you are opening the door for a conversation that is deeper than just small talk. This will create an opportunity for bonding and deepening of your relationship with Joe.
Making Conversation: Starting a New Conversation (And the Best Topics to Use)
While using small talk to lead in to a conversation and/or “checking in” on the topic of the last conversation you had with someone are two great ways to start and maintain conversations, sometimes the person you’re talking to or the circumstances of the conversation simply aren’t compatible with those methods.
But don’t worry- starting a conversation from scratch isn’t as difficult as you might think. First, let’s look at the anatomy of a conversation.
We learned that a small talk conversation is composed of stating an opinion or observation and asking for an opinion or observation in return, and a deeper conversation follows a similar format:
- Sharing your thoughts/ideas/beliefs/opinions, and
- Asking about the other person’s thoughts/ideas/beliefs/opinions
The difference is that the content of the thoughts/ideas you share and the questions you ask in a deeper conversation will be more substantial than what you shared and asked when making small talk.
Remember, though, that if you aren’t already close with the person and you didn’t make small talk first, the deeper topics may be too deep or too personal to be appropriate.
Let’s look at an example of a conversation that follows the format above:
You: “Did you hear about the new law being passed in Georgia? I think it’s a great idea (stating thought/idea/belief). What do you think about it? (Asking for thought/idea/belief).”
You brought up a new conversation topic (although not a random one, because it’s a current event) and shared your own opinion before asking the other person’s opinion. Remember: Use caution when discussing politics or other controversial topics; it is best to only broach these subjects with people you already know fairly well.
Here is a list of other (not random) conversation topics that you can use when following the conversational format we mentioned above:
*Note: Many of these conversation topics require an existing knowledge of the other person and his/her life. This is why we recommend first using small talk to get to know someone.
- “How’s work going?”
- “Did you hear anything else about that merger you mentioned?”
- “What book are you reading with your book club right now?”
- “Have you been out to the golf course lately?”
- “Are you still taking that class online?”
- “How are the summer classes going?”
- “How’s your mom doing?”
- “Have you gotten to see your nieces lately?”
- “Did you hear about that new Marvel movie coming out next month?”
- “Have you heard Adele’s new album?”
- “Did you watch the Grammys the other night?”
- “What do you think about Tom Cruise’s new movie?”
- Local Establishments
- “I just heard they’re opening another Chick Fil A by your office!”
- “Did you see the renovations they’re doing on Main Street?”
- “We need to check out that new Thai food place that just opened!”
- Current Events
- “That attack on Syria was heartbreaking. What do you think will happen now?”
- “What do you think about the President’s latest tweet?”
Using these topics within the conversation format we presented previously will help you have a successful conversation about virtually anything. Remember that a good conversation is a two-way street; while it is important to share your own thoughts and opinions, it is equally important to ask for the other person’s thoughts and opinions and give them the opportunity to share what’s on their minds as well.
Good conversation is the nucleus of social interaction; all other social behaviors and (more importantly) social successes revolve around conversation.
But what many people fail to remember is that small talk is a necessary precursor to good conversation. Learning to do both–make small talk and deeper conversation–will take your social skills to an entirely new level.
Which small talk or conversation topics are you most excited to try? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
- Kashdan, T. B., McKnight, P. E., Fincham, F. D., & Rose, P. (2011). When Curiosity Breeds Intimacy: Taking Advantage of Intimacy Opportunities and Transforming Boring Conversations. Journal Of Personality, 79(6), 1067-1099. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2010.00697.