How To Make Small Talk

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When words fail you

If you're on Dictionary.com, you love words. So, why is it so hard to put two words together when you’re at a wedding reception, holiday party, or networking event?

Making small talk is not about the size of your vocabulary. Many people get anxious at the thought of talking to strangers or dislike idle chitchat because it feels fake. The good news is that making small talk is a skill that can be learned, and these idioms can be your guide to enjoyable and lighthearted conversation.

Put on a brave face

Before you even say a word, put on a brave face so you appear more confident or cheerful than you really feel. Pay attention to your body language—smile and uncross your arms.

When you do connect with someone, make eye contact rather than looking over their shoulder; it will make them feel like you're interested and engaged . . . even if they are talking about their dog's holiday outfit.

Keep your finger on the pulse

The idiom keep your finger on the pulse reminds you to do a little homework before you head out to converse. Scan the news on the internet so you’re up on current events. That way, when you’re in a group you’ll have something to contribute to the conversation.

You could even start a conversation with the open-ended “what do you think about . . . .” But, if you’re talking to a complete stranger, remember that it’s best to avoid religion, politics, and other controversial topics. When in doubt, comment on your environment, such as the music or the ridiculously long line for food.

Nose out of joint

While you may follow the advice to avoid controversial topics, others you meet may not be as smart or sensitive. If someone says something that offends you, don’t get your nose out of joint, or get upset or pissed off. They aren't worth it.

Instead, take a deep breath and then make a clean getaway by saying “I need another drink,” and if you're talking to a person like this, you probably do need it.

Nodding terms

If you feel like you don’t know anyone to talk to, look around to see if you’re on nodding terms with anyone—that is, do you recognize someone you know just well enough to say “hello” to when you run into each other?

Then, take this opportunity to get to know that person better. You could start with a simple introduction: “Hi! I see you all the time at the gym (or while you’re walking your dog, or at awkward parties like this). Then, follow up with a question related to your commonality. That way, you set the stage for future conversations the next time you inevitably run into each other.

Lend an ear

When someone talks to you, lend an ear, or listen carefully and attentively. You can encourage the other person to keep talking by simply saying “tell me more.” Resist the temptation to interrupt and hijack the conversation.

Then, when the other person asks you a question, respond with more than a simple answer. If, for example, someone asks where you live, explain where and why to keep the conversation going. You may discover you have more in common with the lady who always wears the flower sweaters . . . than you thought.

Talk nineteen to the dozen

If you’re feeling nervous, avoid the tendency to talk nineteen to the dozen, or too fast or too much. This odd idiom can be traced back to the 18th-century Cornish tin mines, which often flooded. Beam engines could pump 19,000 gallons from a tin mine, while burning just 12 bushels of coal.

If you tend to speak too quickly when you’re nervous, remember to slow down and take some deep breaths. Pause between sentences. You might try taking a sip of whatever you’re drinking so you have a moment to collect your thoughts (and build your confidence with that liquid courage).

Bare your heart and soul

The tendency to bare your heart and soul, or reveal too much personal information, is another no-no for small talk in social situations. While you do want to reveal something interesting about yourself, that doesn’t mean you should overshare and tell a stranger your entire life story and all your problems.

Think of small talk as a way to build relationships that could lead to deeper conversations down the road.

Penny for your thoughts

Okay, we’re not suggesting that you actually go up to someone and say a penny for your thoughts (to find out what someone’s thinking). But, a good way to keep a conversation going is to ask someone a question. Closed questions are those that can be answered with a simple "yes" or "no," so avoid them.

Instead, ask open-ended questions, which require a more thoughtful response and will extend a conversation. You want to know why your neighbor planted the roses instead of the azaleas this year, we promise.

Burn a hole in your pocket

The idiom burn a hole in your pocket typically refers to money you’re tempted to spend. But, in this case it can act as a reminder: When you feel the phone in your pocket vibrating, don’t answer it.

A study called “The iPhone Effect” showed that even the mere presence of a phone can ruin a conversation. So, embrace the face-to-face interaction that it's so easy to shy away from these days and get to know a stranger . . .  unless they are offering you candy, then run, run far away.

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