That twinge of anxiety. The paralyzing fear of having to fill the air with chatter to avoid standing together in complete silence.
It's not just you; studies suggest about 1/3 of the US population identify as introverts.
As a self-identified introvert, I’ve struggled with small talk throughout my career, and to be honest, my whole life. When opportunities come up to get to know coworkers better, or to network at events, I’ve been known to isolate myself or stand in silence—the visibly painful-looking type of awkwardness.
Eventually, I realized that my behavior was often perceived as rude and aloof, rather than shy, and that my social interactions were beginning to affect me professionally and personally. So, I decided to push myself to engage in more meaningful small talk.
It started off awkwardly, as expected. But, once I began to commit myself more fully to conversation, it became clear that “small talk” was actually just setting the stage for “big talk”—more open and intimate conversations that resulted in deeper relationships, career connections, and increased productivity. The gains were tangible and immediate. Since, I’ve come to realize that embracing small talk has been one of the most fundamentally rewarding actions I’ve taken in my career.
Now, I'm passing on the lessons I've cultivated to aspiring extroverts and networking gurus like you. That’s why I wrote “The Introvert’s Guide to Small Talk.”
Breaking the ice
Yes, you're an introvert, and that’s OK. No one is asking you to blossom into a social butterfly, but first impressions matter. Basic introductions are the basis of every new relationship.
Whenever I'm frozen in the presence of a new person, I turn to this dialogue:
"Hi! Nice meeting you. My name is Geraldine, what's your name?"
After receiving a friendly response, here’s the key to kickstarting conversation—transitioning to questions you know the other person will be able to answer:
"What brings you here? How do you like this event so far? How do you know (so and so)?"
Be sure not only to listen intently, but also to share your own answers to the questions you ask. For instance, if they met Jason in a tai chi class, you can share that you met him at work—or, that you’re super interested in tai chi!
And that’s how you crush an icebreaker. Once you're able to move past that point, you’ll feel more at ease, and conversation will follow a more natural pace.
Curating a Rolodex of topics
When starting a conversation spontaneously is not your forte, having a small selection of pre-vetted points (or maybe even an elevator pitch) doesn’t hurt. Not to mention, it can help control anxiety, as it gives you control over the conversation. Remember, there's nothing to fear from the expected. Here are some topics you should have in your small-talk Rolodex:
- Where you’re from or where you live
- The venue you're at
- How you spent your day
- Your favorite media or sports
- Anything food related
- Each other’s hobbies
- Career and professional interests
- Travel experiences
Channel your inner Curious George
Having successfully broken the ice, it’s time to master “the art of back and forth.” People tend to value attention, and one way of making them feel special is by asking questions. Here are some tips for making your conversation flow naturally.
- Be inquisitive. “So, how’s your day been?”
- Share a bit about yourself. “I’ve been busy with a big project and it’s nice to get out.”
- Repeat and validate. “Ah, me too. Sometimes it feels like there just isn’t enough time on my schedule to get everything done.”
- Follow up with another question. “You said you were on a photoshoot? How’d you get into that? What kind of gear do you use?”
The key to success is to show that you’re an active listener. Getting them to share with you is one thing—it’s quite another to make someone felt heard and that you’re interested in what they have to offer.
Small talk in the workplace
It’s time to work some color and excitement into your small talk that keeps others engaged and interested in everyday situations at work.
For example, on your way to the office coffee machine, you can surely expect to run into a coworker who will ask how you’re doing. Although you know a "good, thanks," will suffice, I have a challenge for you. Tell them what you’re working on, or preparing to jump into.
"I'm doing well, thank you. Getting ready for a social media meeting and trying to wrap up some projects for our new client. What about you?"
See? Different. By sharing more and bedazzling your answers, you’ve transformed your coffee break into a small talk starter.
Your body speaks louder than your words
As you engage in small talk, remember that your body speaks louder than your words. If you find yourself struggling to maintain eye contact, or feel the urge to pace around, try the following.
- Take deep breaths. Inhale deeply through your nose, and exhale from the mouth.
- Clasp your hands, squeezing them together gently or rubbing the skin with your thumb. Occupying your hands can help to calm the mind, without distracting others.
- Tap your feet gently. Mild fidgeting is normal and OK, just as long as you remain an active listener.
The challenge of long-distance small talk
Whether you're the first one to hop on a conference call, or you're waiting for others to join a video chat, small talk with strangers in completely different locations as you can be excruciatingly awkward. But the ones who take charge and own these moments have the opportunity to set themselves apart as leaders of their respective organizations. While waiting for everyone to join the meeting, try something as simple as:
- "How are things going over at your office today?"
- "How’s everyone doing? Anything fun over the weekend?"
- "Before everyone joins, is there anything you want to make sure we cover in today’s call?"
Sealing the deal: bringing small talk to an end
Every small talk must come to an end. Interestingly enough, the ending is just as crucial as the beginning. Want to secure that follow up meeting? A date? A connection on LinkedIn? Consider conversation-enders to be the call-to-action of your small talk.
- "This has been great—thanks for telling me about X. Do you have a card? I'd love to connect."
- "Mind if I reach out over email to set up some time to talk further?"
- "Are you on LinkedIn/Twitter/Instagram? I’d like to give you a follow."
Or, when you’re simply ready to move on:
- "I'm going to [grab some food, or say hi to a friend]. It was great to meet you. Maybe I’ll run into you later!"
All right, friend. Now that you’re equipped for conversation, the ball is in your court. Head out there and practice, practice, practice. Before you know it, you’ll be a small talk extraordinaire. And perhaps, not so much of an introvert after all.