Hiding in the toilets or pretending to make an urgent phone call – these are just two of the strategies for avoiding small talk that people have shared with me over the years. What should actually be an enjoyable experience is all too often seen as – at best – a necessary evil.
If you dread having to make small talk, you may have been putting it down to your English. And, of course, it can be challenging in a foreign language. But have you ever wondered whether your aversion has got more to do with the person you’re talking to?
Here’s a light-hearted look at five types who give small talk a bad name.
(All of these types could be male or female, for the sake of readability I’ve alternated between he and she.)
The over-sharer supplies too much personal information way too fast. At a stage where you’d expect be talking about the weather or the presentation you’ve just heard, she’s already launched into an account of her various health problems, her husband’s struggle to lose weight and her disappointment at her daughter’s choice of partner. Such candour takes your breath away, leaves you temporarily at a loss for words.
Embarrassed, unsure how to react, but absolutely certain that you do not want to share similar information about yourself and your family, you attempt to bring the conversation back onto a more neutral footing by asking “So, what did you think of the last presentation?” Nice try! But the over-sharer just moves closer and tells you in a hushed voice every little detail of the speaker’s ongoing conflict with her boss, who has said what to whom and the probable consequences for her career.
The non-stop talker
This type of small talker is also never short of something to say. He has a very clear opinion on any topic you bring up and is more than happy to share it with you. He also has a never-ending stock of long and complicated stories to tell. Stories you get the impression he has told many times before. Stories in which he features as the superhero, saving the day for all concerned.
As he talks on and on, you find yourself getting more and more frustrated, thinking “Hey, this is supposed to be a two-way thing. Let me join in!” You hope he’ll ask for your opinion. But he never does. And there’s never a slight pause which would give you a chance to jump in and share your experiences. Interestingly, he seems to be able to talk without ever drawing breath. How does he manage to do that? Fascinated your attention shifts to this. You find yourself observing him closely, determined to work out how it’s done.
The unwilling small talker
The unwilling small talker understands that small talk is all part and parcel of social events, he realizes that it’s expected of him in certain situations. So he bravely tries to play along. Although he seldom volunteers any information, he does answer your questions politely – albeit incredibly briefly: “Yes.” “You’re right.” “Munich.” From time to time he tries to do his bit by asking you a question too. But as it often doesn’t follow on naturally from what you were just talking about, it takes you by surprise and leaves you wondering if you understood him correctly.
And so the conversation runs haltingly from topic to topic. All the time he’s staring at his shoes and looks terribly ill at ease. So much so that you feel sorry for him and perhaps slightly guilty for being the reason for such discomfort. You decide the kindest thing to do would be to move on, and there’s no mistaking his relief when you do.
The distracted small talker
Things start off very promisingly with this type of small talker. She’s open and easy to talk to. She seems interested in you, asking questions to find out more. But after a few minutes you begin to suspect that she’s not actually listening to your answers. Instead of looking you in the eye, her gaze darts around over your shoulder. You realize that she’s scanning the room to see who else is there, who’s wearing what, who’s talking to whom or what the buffet has to offer. She frequently asks you to repeat what you just said or loses her own train of thought.
This obvious lack of attention can trigger various feelings on your side. You may become uncertain: Oops, have I been going on about this topic in a little too much detail? Or hurt: Why does she find everything else that’s going on more interesting than what I’m saying? Or annoyed: Why bother asking me a question if you’re not going to listen to the answer?
You certainly can’t complain about a lack of eye contact with the interrogator. He looks you directly in the eye – the whole time. And no-one could accuse him of being self-absorbed, either. He wants to know about you – everything there is to know about you. To this end he fires off question after question to get very specific – sometimes very personal – information. This isn’t a relaxed conversation that goes back and forth with each of you sharing information, it’s more like a police interview.
Feeling uncomfortable under such intense scrutiny, you desperately aim for a more balanced conversation. First you give just a short non-committal answer, but it’s no good, he fires the next question at you. So you try to get in with a question of your own, but he answers very briefly, and then – you’ve guessed it – asks you another question. No matter what you do, the spotlight remains firmly on you.
So does that let you off the hook when it comes to small talk? I’m afraid not. 😉 After all, there are plenty of people out there who it’s a pleasure to talk to.
Read this earlier post to remind yourself of the importance of initiating small talk. And here are some ideas for finding a topic to talk about.