I’ve always sucked at small talk. I’m one of those deep and meaningful types, so I can find it dull and difficult to navigate.
But, I have gotten better over the years. Because small talk is a social skill that we can all learn. The truth is that there are a few rules to follow to make sure you get it right.
Once you get the hang of that, it gets easier.
In this article, I’ll share some of the keys to mastering small talk, along with the best questions to ask.
So let’s get started!
Why is small talk important?
First things first, if you’re anything like me, perhaps you’ve wondered what all the fuss about small talk is.
For many of us, just the thought of making polite conversation creates anxiety and makes us what to slink off home without socializing.
Why do we bother with this seemingly surface chit-chat? Why not jump into more significant talks straight away?
Well, you wouldn’t start a marathon without a warm-up. And small talk is that warm-up.
Developing relationships takes time. It’s important to build respect and trust along the way.
We can’t assume it will happen in an instant.
In the meantime, this is how we create a connection, by showing an interest in others and developing that bond.
Small talk is simply a vehicle we can use to get better acquainted with someone and it lays the groundwork for a deeper connection.
What questions are considered small talk?
Certain “safe” topics are usually best for small talk. Things like:
- Arts and Entertainment
Ice-breaker small talk questions:
- How’s your day going so far?
- How was your weekend?
- Are you enjoying yourself?
- What do you think of it here?
- Where are you from?
- How do you know (insert name of a mutual acquaintance)?
- Did you find the place ok? how was the traffic?
- What are you drinking?
- How are you finding the neighborhood?
- What brings you to these parts?
General small-talk questions:
- Have you read any good books lately?
- Have you always lived in (insert place)?
- What are your favorite restaurants and place to eat around here?
- What do you do for work? Do you enjoy it?
- What do you like doing in your free time?
- Have you got any vacations planned for this year?
- What kind of music do you listen to?
- Are you a sports fan?
- Do you have pets?
- How’s the family?
- Watched any good shows or films recently?
- Are there any podcasts you like? I could do with some recommendations.
- Do you like to cook?
- What does a typical day off look like for you?
Quirky and creative small-talk questions:
- What was your least favorite job?
- What modern comfort could you not live without?
- If you could pick a superpower, what would it be?
- What was your favorite vacation ever?
- Do you have any role models?
- If you won a free trip and you could pick anywhere in the world to go, where would it be?
- Have you got any hidden talents or interests that people find surprising?
- What was your favorite subject at school?
- What puts the biggest smile on your face in life?
- If you could only celebrate one holiday a year, what would it be?
Work-based small talk questions:
- How did you get into this line of work?
- What did you do in your last job?
- I’m curious, tell me more about your role.
- What’s the best career advice you ever got?
- What’s the worst career advice you ever got?
- If you could give your younger self who was just starting out a piece of advice, what would it be?
- What did you want to be when you were a kid?
- If you had all the money in the world, what work would you do?
- If you had to pick another profession, what would it be?
- What’s the best thing about the work you do?
Date small talk:
- What would be your perfect date?
- On paper, what do you think you are looking for in someone?
- Have you ever had a really disastrous date?
- What’s your guilty pleasure band or TV show?
- What’s your signature dish that you do best?
- Tell me about your family
- Would you like to live abroad, if so where?
- What’s your bucket list travel destination?
- What’s your favorite way to unwind?
- How would your best friends describe you?
Important do’s and don’t of small talk
Now that we’ve seen some good small talk questions, let’s run through a few basics of small talk.
Why? Because there isn’t a specific list of questions that will fit each and every situation. It’s highly personal, as everyone you meet and every situation you find yourself in is unique.
These do’s and don’ts can help you to create firm foundations to build your small talk around.
- Try to find common ground
Look for the things you have in common.
Shared interests, beliefs, or values may be easier to spot with some people than with others. But there are usually always common unifiers, even with the most unlikely of people.
- Be curious
We can really end up pilling on the pressure. We obsess about what to ask or the right thing to say. But the key is just to stay curious.
Curiosity encourages us to find out about others, and that’s all small talk really is.
- Be observant
The art of all good conversation rests on staying alert and mindful. In other words, pay attention.
Read between the lines. It’s not just what they say, it’s how they say it. The words they choose and even their tone of voice and body language are all significant.
Picking up on as much information as possible helps you to respond better and read the room.
- Be creative
Small talk doesn’t have to be boring. It doesn’t demand that you only chat about the weather.
You can still be creative and quirky with your questions (as we saw with some of the examples above) without going too deep or personal.
- Listen, and show them that you’re listening
Being good at small talk means also mastering active listening. But sadly, listening is an area that many of us fall down in.
It’s easy to get inside your own head and that stops you from being fully present.
Really listen to what the person is saying, and show you are with reassuring noises and facial gestures (such as head nodding and well-placed ums and ahs).
- Have a few “go-to” stories or topics of conversation prepared
There’s no harm in a little prep work— which I’m guessing you know or your probably wouldn’t be reading this article!
Collecting some interesting anecdotes, engaging questions, interesting tales, and funny stories can be useful.
Most of us have all recycled a few of our best ones time and time again.
Like anything, the more we do it, the better we’ll get.
Especially when we feel socially anxious, then practice can be the best way to get over those nerves.
Find opportunities to try out your small talk. For example, in line at the coffee shop or waiting for your bus. You can even practice in front of the mirror.
- Be nosey or prying
The whole point of small talk is that it’s safe and polite. So remember your manners and don’t ask very personal questions.
For example, in certain countries I’ve visited, strangers have often asked “Why aren’t you married”. They clearly thought this was ok, whilst I found it non of their damn business.
Similarly, I had to recently let a young man I was talking to (and had just met) know that he really shouldn’t be asking women ‘why they never had kids’.
The golden rule is that if you are not sure if something could be overstepping the line, then don’t say it.
Similarly to the point above, neither should you spill all the juicy details of your life to someone you’ve just met.
In most social contacts it’s just not appropriate to divulge really private information to people who are practically strangers. Safe that for those who you have a more intimate connection with.
- Try to be someone you’re not
With small talk, it can be really tempting to put on a mask. Because in many ways we are presenting a more formal, polite, and polished version of ourselves.
But it still needs to be us. Authenticity is really important, for our own wellbeing but also in creating genuine connections.
Don’t fake it or put on airs and graces that aren’t you.
- Ramble on or hog the conversation
Conversation, and especially small talk, is all about finding an equal balance between talking and listening.
The fact is that we don’t like it when someone talks endlessly about themselves. But neither do we like it when someone keeps schum to the extent that it’s like talking to a brick wall.
To make sure you’re not making it all about you, asking plenty of questions is the best thing to do.
And hopefully after reading this article, you now have plenty of ideas around what to ask!
Lost Your Sense of Purpose?
In this age of information overload and pressure to meet others’ expectations, many struggle to connect with their core purpose and values. It’s easy to lose your inner compass.
Jeanette Brown created this free values discovery PDF to help clarify your deepest motivations and beliefs. As an experienced life coach and self-improvement teacher, Jeanette guides people through major transitions by realigning them with their principles.
Her uniquely insightful values exercises will illuminate what inspires you, what you stand for, and how you aim to operate. This serves as a refreshing filter to tune out societal noise so you can make choices rooted in what matters most to you.
With your values clearly anchored, you’ll gain direction, motivation and the compass to navigate decisions from your best self – rather than fleeting emotion or outside influences.
Stop drifting without purpose. Rediscover what makes you come alive with Jeanette Brown’s values clarity guide.