I was pretty shy growing up so it took years and plenty of practice before I felt comfortable-ish engaging in small talk. I'm horrible with names, easily distracted, and my brain-to-mouth filter is unreliable. These factors, plus my fear of awkward pauses (I over-compensate by spouting ridiculous random facts) can take small talk from "mildly awkward" to "stick an olive fork in me, I'm done" in seconds.
So even though I'm better than I was, there are still times when conversing with strangers can be stilted and uncomfortable, but it doesn't have to be this way.
"Small talk is an art," says Hank Hunse, owner of aptly named Small Talk Vineyards. "It isn't a skill that people are born with, but it can be mastered. Small talk is the starting point of all relationships and whether you are at a friend's wine tasting party or a networking event it is an important starting point for everyone."
The staff at Small Talk Vineyards know all about the art of good conversation and have become experts at small talk. So, to help us conquer our social jitters, they have compiled a list of five tips to mastering the art of small talk. *I have added a few "helpful" notes to the end of each tip.
1. Remember Names
Introductions tend to pass in a blur. Names are forgotten just as quickly as the hors d'oeuvres disappear, but make an effort to slow down and stay present. Repeat the person's name in your head a few times and if you forget a name, discreetly ask a third party for help. Remembering someone's name goes a long way and they are more likely to approach you at future gatherings.
*If you use mnemonic tricks to remember somebody's name, don't call them by their physical trait reminder by mistake. Calling him "Guppy lips" instead of Gus won't score you any points.
2. Establish Eye Contact
This may sound like a no-brainer, but in uncomfortable situations people tend to avoid eye contact. Casual eye contact and a warm, friendly smile demonstrate your interest and desire to communicate. Eye contact for five to ten seconds indicates curiosity and is generally considered friendly. Make an effort to keep your body language open and relaxed - you'll send out confident and friendly signals that will draw people to you.
*Intense eye contact for ten to 60 seconds makes you, frightening.
3. Discuss the Setting
Finding a topic of discussion after introductions is the hardest part of small talk. Try commenting on the location of the event — how long the line is for drinks or discuss the floral arrangements — this is an easy way to create common ground.
*Another common ground topic, besides the weather, is party guests. Ask how they know the event host, who else they know at the party. Who knows, you might even find yourself in a six degrees of Kevin Bacon situation.
4. Have Fun!
It's important to remember that you aren't alone. There are others in the room feeling just as uncomfortable as you, so stop hiding behind your glass of wine and enjoy yourself! Allow yourself to be curious and ask questions.
*Asking questions is great! Mind you, I was on a blind date once and clearly someone had told this guy that firing questions across the table at your date was a good move. I felt like I was out with Phil Donahue. (Yes Donahue. Or Merv Griffin even. That's how old I am.) His best/worst question? I'll never forget it... he asked me to name my top three favourite breakfast cereals. That was our first and last date.
5. Make a Clean Escape
When your conversation starts to draw to a close, take the opportunity to make a natural exit. Using phrases such as "I need to grab another drink" or "I need to say hello to a friend who just arrived" allows you to make a clean exit. Make sure to end the conversation with something like, "It was great talking to you. See you later." This keeps the lines of communication open for another meeting.
*Think "George Costanza" and exit on a high note whenever possible.
Thanks for reading. (Small) talk to you soon!