How many times have I chatted up strangers and coworkers about the day’s weather report in an effort to make small talk? Mastering the art of going on and on about nothing is a gift some people possess in spades. Personally, I agree with Oprah—we should all be making our words a bit larger.
To learn how to transform knee-jerk conversation starters (“How are you!?” and “Gee golly, wasn’t traffic terrible this morning?”) into more meaningful conversation, I asked How to Be Yourself author Ellen Hendriksen, PhD, for a few pointers to avoid canned opening lines.
“We all know how small talk works,” she says. “It’s about the weather, traffic, or—if we’re a college student—it’s about finals coming up. It’s a way of connecting in a way that is known and safe.” Conversation offers a strong foundation for you to feel secure in your identity and emotions. If you’re simply sharing a 20-second elevator ride with a colleague, there’s no need to veer away from your tried-and-true topics. But if you find yourself out to coffee or lunch with someone you don’t know all that well, the improvisation technique of “yes, and” can help break the ice.
In case you haven’t improvised since high school drama class, the “yes, and” rule means you should never just give a flat “yes” or “no” answer. The idea is to tack something onto your response that allows the banter to continue. Same goes with small talk. “That gives your conversation partner something to riff off, and by revealing a part of yourself, it makes them like you more,” the psychologist explains.
You don’t have to dig deep to bring up random trivia on the benefits of arrowroot powder, or the psychological reason so many people fear the number 13. Just add one more layer onto your normally-scheduled small talk. For example: “Hi! The bus traffic sucked this morning. I heard it’s because the Rockettes were performing right in the middle of Fifth Avenue. I saw them perform at Radio City the first time I visited New York!” By offering a bit more about yourself, you’re cracking open the conversation just enough for your companion to reveal something about themself, too.
“That gives your conversation partner something to riff off, and by revealing a part of yourself, it makes them like you more,” Dr. Hendrickson says. Today’s weather calls for scintillating conversation. (Had to.)
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