Small talk is any superficial personal communication between two or more people. It is the vehicle through which you approach people to test to see if you share interests, attitudes, philosophies, values, histories, and experiences on which you and the other person can build. It is the method by which you discover if you are interested in getting to know the other person better.

You can make small talk during in-person meetings, in chat rooms, on bulletin boards, on voice mail, and in text messaging. However, it is important to note that the more impersonal forms of communication are not as effective as face-to-face communication because they lack the texture, depth, and richness of in-person interaction which is essential to developing relationships.

But “small” talk is a misnomer. There is nothing small or trivial about it. It is the basis and beginning of every relationship, from personal to professional to business; that is, it is virtually impossible to meet and get to know people without the aid of simple, casual conversation in some format.

Yet, surprisingly, at least 95 percent of Americans report being uncomfortable conversing with strangers. Why?

Small talk is a form of speaking in public, which, according to polls, is still our number one fear. Children are repeatedly warned not to talk to strangers. Today, much of our communication is automated and anonymous so that our everyday, in-person communication skills with new people become rusty. We become shy and unsure about how to act. Consequently, we discount the necessity of small talk and try to avoid it.

Small talk is like a casual game of tennis. The goal is to keep the conversational ball in the air while giving both participants an equal opportunity to hit the ball. You strive for a comfortable rhythm. Playing to your partner’s strengths is more important than concentrating on your own. Making fancy shots or acing out the other player will likely bring the conversation to a speedy conclusion. The object of the game: everyone’s satisfaction, a good workout, and the mutual desire for another game.

When you work on small talk, it is essential that you focus on the process, not on the outcome. This means you need to develop skills in both approaching and speaking with others and make a plan to use these skills. This is what Pauline did.

Pauline was tired of staying home or standing on the periphery of conversations at social gatherings, so she decided to become more socially effective. She began to think of being with a group of strangers as being in a rowboat in a sea of interaction possibilities. To move herself forward, she needed to use an oar—the first principle of small talk—observing others, asking questions, and revealing something about yourself.

She began by developing eye contact, a smile, and open body positions to make her more approachable. Next, she wrote a brief but interesting introduction for herself (e.g., “Hi, I’m Pauline, and I coach people to laugh.”). Sometimes the introduction included an interest, hobby, activity, work, etc. Once she had heard the other person’s name, she repeated it to get it right and remember it.

In order to make knowledgeable small talk in each new circumstance, she learned about the event and the people likely to be present beforehand. She examined her reasons for going and what benefit she wanted to receive (e.g., contacts, fun, making friends, business) so she could determine afterward if she had achieved her goal. Furthermore, she took time to be up on current events, scanning a paper daily, to give her more possibilities for finding topics and similarities.

She discovered that she needed to have icebreakers ready. Using a short list of boilerplate small talk examples, she could tailor a conversation opener to any situation or person. They reflected a variety of open-ended questions and comments for each of three basic topic areas:

event, circumstance, or environment (weather, what’s going on in the news, or the actual physical environs of the event, like the lighting, colors, artwork, music, furniture, architecture, accessories)
the other person (name, accent, appearance, attire, belongings)
yourself (name, job, hobbies, interests, attire, background, belongings).

The event and environment were guaranteed to give her something in common with the other person because they were experiencing these things together.

Pauline found that she shouldn’t discount the weather as a topic. She would make it into amusing anecdotes or into something with which the other person could identify. One she liked: “I was in such a hurry to get here before the rain started that I left my bag on the roof of the car but didn’t realize it until it began to pour, and the soggy bag slithered down the windshield onto my wipers.”

In her initial conversations she kept her topics neutral so as not to engender strong emotions and polarize the conversation. Since this is all very tentative at the beginning, when she was not sure there was a match, she remained somewhat impersonal; that is, while she was upbeat and enthusiastic, and disclosing to a degree, she did not immediately pour out her innermost dreams and desires to this new person because too much personal sharing too soon can be overwhelming.

When she first arrived, she stationed herself by the door and greeted people as they entered. Her acting as a host, not as a guest, created an immediately friendly and positive first impression. If they had been wearing name tags, it would have given her the opportunity to see and say their names and to determine if there were certain people with whom she wished to speak later. She then would have been able to locate them with relative ease, and they would have recognized her. She found that the buffet table and bar offered similar opportunities.

Pauline discovered that she could give herself more control in an interaction by introducing herself first. She would choose the person and prepare what to say and how to say it. This allowed her to direct the topic by making the first statement or asking the first question. Being first also removed the anxiety-producing anticipation of waiting for someone to speak to her and not knowing what would be asked or how to respond. The rest was listening, dovetailing what the other said, and disclosing a little about herself.

Her maiden voyage into the world of small talk was at a photographic gallery opening. While she felt a little awkward at first, she found that remaining relaxed, focusing on the other person, and looking for and commenting on commonalities made it a very pleasant experience. She even made some acquaintances with whom she could follow up.

As Pauline learned, the whole object of small talk is to find bonds on which you and the other person can build. Once you find them, you can explore them and expand on them. When you reframe small talk as the relationship generator and acknowledge what it can do for you, you can begin to make it your own most powerful social effectiveness strategy.

** This article is one of 101 great articles that were published in 101 Great Ways to Improve Your Life. To get complete details on “101 Great Ways to Improve Your Life”, visit

Author's Bio: 

Known as the Social Effectiveness Guru, Signe A. Dayhoff, PhD, has helped thousands transform their self-presentation anxiety into social effectiveness. She is a psychologist, coach, trainer, and President of Effectiveness-Plus, LLC. As a former social phobic, she can show you how to replace your fear of small talk, networking, public speaking, personal marketing, and selling with presentation confidence. She is the author of five books and over 100 published articles. Her latest book is Diagonally Parked in a Parallel Universe: Working Through Social Anxiety. Discover what she can do for you and claim your free newsletter at