When you’re the kind of guy who thinks shooting the breeze is beneath him, some social situations tend to be awkward, especially when you’re not amid a familiar crowd.
In most cases, however, those who shun what is known as “small talk” are usually intimidated or afraid of it — afraid of being rejected or simply looking stupid. But remember, for most people outside of diplomatic circles, small talk is a big deal. Some believe it’s boring and superficial — and it can be — but never underestimate the value of small talk. It’s one of the best ways to build rapport and eventually relationships. Think of it as a way of separating the wheat from the chaff.
First, small talk isn’t the same thing as “schmoozing,” at least not if you’re sincere, genuinely interested in other people, you don’t have any sinister ulterior motives, and you’re not shaking anyone down for money. Thus, there’s nothing inherently untoward about striking up a conversation with someone you’ve never met or don’t know very well. Second, small talk doesn’t require some mysterious innate talent; it’s actually an acquired skill. You have no good reason, then, to thumb your nose at this fine art of conversation.
The primary purpose of small talk is to connect with other people in short, casual conversations in a graceful manner. You’re looking to establish common ground, and there’s nothing superficial about that. What most people never realize, however, is that small talk provides an excellent opportunity to exercise the Christian virtues — and that’s primarily why I believe there’s such a thing as “Catholic small talk” — “Catholic” in this context meaning both “universal” and “Christian.”
Many “experts” have written treatises on the fine art of small talk, usually from the perspective of building business relationships, where the bottom line is, well, business. I can’t claim to be an expert or even claim to be a successful small-talker. But I have long taken an interest in this subject I formerly disdained, not for business purposes but for purely social situations — and would like to offer you what I think are the most helpful and sensible bits of advice that I’ve discovered through the years.
If you can believe the hype, conventional wisdom holds that you have only three seconds — yes, three! — to make or break your first impression, supposedly that image that the other person will carry with him or her for ever and ever, Amen. You’re right, there’s not much you can do in three seconds, but an introduction doesn’t take longer than that. Some rules of thumb, then: Be the first to say hello. Smile, maintain eye contact and always state your name, even if you think they may already know it. Often times, they won’t know it; even if they’ve met you several times before. If they have to ask, “And you are…?” you’ve just been reduced to the role of a child being prompted by an adult. Ouch! And it’s always embarrassing when you ask, “Remember me?” and they don’t. Double ouch! At the same time, make the effort to retain the other person’s name, and address that person by his or her first name at least once during the conversation, and once at the end. People generally love to hear their names. It indicates that you’re interested enough to retain their names.
Bearing in mind that small talk is a way to establish some common ground, stick with “safe” topics at the outset. This isn’t the time to cut deep into controversial topics like religion and politics (plenty of time for that later!). You will also do well to stay away from heavy sledding like philosophy and microbiology, and never open with a quiz question, such as “Do you know which European nation has the highest fertility rate?” or “Do you know who Dante consigned to the lowest ring of Hell?” Small talk isn’t designed to make others look ignorant. Nor is it a time to show off how many factoids you’ve got packed between your ears. You’re not Paul Harvey.
Again, stick with the safe stuff: current events (though it’s often good to stay away from mass murders, pedophilia scandals, and UFO sightings), sports (but don’t insult their favorite baseball team or soccer club, and never say “that’s a sissy’s game”), weather (unless you’re in the subtropics during hurricane season), and family life (unless a dysfunctional family is involved).
Don’t strike up a conversation with a litmus test, e.g., “Do you believe the Novus Ordo Mass is valid?” or “Is there salvation outside the Catholic Church?” No matter what your intention, this is super-duper tacky. (Yes, people I’ve never met before have actually come up to me with these questions.) Oh yeah, and unless you're at a convention filled with angst-filled Goth artists in Berlin, don’t jump into conversation with some complaint or negative comment. Sure, it’s sometimes difficult to refrain from saying something such as “Were you as bored as I was during that last presentation?” or “You know what really makes me sick?” but, if you must, vent your spleen in front of someone you know well and who might be sympathetic.
Don’t try to be brilliant during small talk; there’s time enough later to show off how fabulous you are. Stick with the simple and straightforward — and be sincere. Besides, why risk coming across as a clown so soon after meeting someone? Not everyone is cut out to be David Letterman. In other words, small talk is not a time to practice your stand-up routine. A good rule of thumb: be more interested than interesting. If you can do this right, they’ll walk away thinking you’re fabulous without your having to do much work.
And that brings up the most important point of all when it comes to small talk: refrain from long-winded stories or talking too much about yourself. Ask open-ended questions, and let the other person do the talking. Listen, listen, listen. People enjoy talking about themselves, especially when they think someone is interested in what they have to say. Of course, listening takes a great amount of discipline. It’s difficult to resist bringing the spotlight back onto yourself. Nevertheless, resist!
In small talk, the little things matter: the words you use, the details of what you talk about, and how sincerely you present yourself. A reminder: insincerity is the kiss of death. If you don’t have something sincere to say, keep your trap shut. Facetiousness should be tabled for a day yammering with your best mate or your kid sister.
When all is said and done within the space of the precious four or five minutes you have together, be sure to make a graceful exit, whether or not you ever want to see or talk with the person again. If you do want to talk with the person again, make sure he or she knows how to get in touch with you, and if you enjoyed talking to him or her, say so. Your small talk may be the beginning of a long relationship, and that’s exactly the purpose of shooting the breeze. Small talk builds the foundation of common ground that lets you move into deeper, possibly more significant discussions and chatter the next time.
Michael S. Rose is author of several books including Benedict XVI: The Man Who Was Ratzinger.
This article has been re-published with written authorization of Catholic Match, LLC.
© Copyright 2006 Catholic Match, LLC. This article may not be copied, reproduced, republished, uploaded, posted, transmitted, or distributed in any way without written authorization of Catholic Match, LLC.