Master The Art of Small Talk

Over the next few weeks, many will be attending family gatherings and holiday parties for the first time in two years. Concern about rusty social skills is amplifying anxiety. “I don’t know how to make small talk anymore,” explained my patient. “I dread awkward silences. Even worse, what if there is a lull and the conversation turns to politics? At least on Zoom Thanksgiving it was possible to pretend my internet was glitching.”

It’s time to stop agonizing about your ability to make better chit chat. Studies show that it’s “deep talk” that we crave and there are simple strategies to make more of it and none of them involve politics. We long for substantive exchanges though fewer than half of people’s conversations are deemed meaningful. People who spend more time engaging in deep conversations tend to be happier than those who spend their days chit chatting about the weather or what they ate for dinner.

There are many reasons people mistakenly think it’s better to “keep it light.” For starters, we underestimate how much others care about our interests and the details of our lives. We also overestimate the awkwardness of a deep conversation. (The reality is that shallow conversations can be extremely awkward). Additionally, we under appreciate how connected we will feel to our conversation partner after a meaningful exchange and how much we will enjoy the conversation. Put simply, the barriers to having more meaningful conversations are all in our head.

Dr. Arthur Aron of Stonybrook University created a list of 36 questions proven to enhance and generate closeness.

Here are some examples:

  • Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
  • For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
  • If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future, or anything else, what would you want to know?
  • Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
  • What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
  • What does friendship mean to you?

Belonging is a fundamental human need and deep talk is one way to enhance our connection to others.

Bottom line: Social life and the holidays in particular provide many opportunities not only to engage, but to engage more deeply. Stop worrying about making meaningless small talk and go deep instead.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman