Small Talk Etiquette

Modern Manners Guy's 3 tips for properly handling small talk (even if you're not a fan of it).

Richie Frieman
2-minute read

Small Talk Etiquette

Contrary to popular belief, small talk is a big deal. It's the key to networking; it's how we make connections; it's a gateway to real conversation. However, for whatever reason, small talk tends to make people feel rushed, aggressive, or uncomfortable. Odd, right? I mean, isn't the very concept of small talk just something we use to kill time or break the ice?

See Also: The Ice Breaker

Why do so many people have such improper small talk etiquette? For starters, maybe it's because their delivery turns even a short, 30-second "conversation" into the very last conversation someone will ever want to have with you. So, before you put your foot in your mouth, here are three surefire ways to properly handle small talk (even if you’re not a fan of it):

  1. Don't rush. Some people view small talk as something that they have to spit out at a rapid fire pace like a carnival barker, tempting the crowd to "Step right up, step right up!" Small talk is supposed to be casual, smooth, and effortless. This is not the time to tell your life story or a serious discussion about politics. Take your time, be calm, and let the other person get a word in every so often. Say "Great weather we're having today, don't you think?" Not, "Wow! Amazing weather, right! I mean, I haven't seen weather like this since 2003…which reminds me…" And so on. 

  2. Proper topics. And speaking of weather, that is an example of a perfect go-to topic for small talk. As is, "Did you see the game last night?" Or, "Nice shoes, where did you get them?" Basically, any subject which doesn’t pressure the other person to have some intelligent or soul searching response is fair game. If you bring up something about death, religion, politics, or news with a strong or controversial opinion, you will turn people off. Again, this is about simply getting comfortable with each other, not drilling for answers or spouting dogma.

  3. No pressure. Remember Thumper’s rule? “If you can't say something nice, don't say nothin’ at all.” Everyone knows it, and yet some people feel pressured to make small talk matter, when we all know it's only, well, small. If you find yourself pressured to engage in conversation, but have nothing to say, don't speak up about something that would require repeated back and forth (like politics, world events, religion, etc.).

There is no pressure to speak to someone just for the sake of it. You have to feel comfortable enough and shouldn’t be required to put yourself in an awkward situation. And if you push yourself, you may say something that will cause more harm than good. When we feel pressured, we get nervous, and that’s when we have a tendency to stick our feet in our mouths. Instead, just try a simple smile, wave, or head nod. That very motion could say everything you were trying to say in the first place.

Image courtesy of Getty Images