The elevator doors shut. Ten floors to go and you’re stuck with someone you kind of know, but not really, and you’ve already made eye contact. The awkwardness is seeping in like poison gas.
You have three options. You could give in to the urge, thrust your hand into your pocket, pull out your phone and hide behind that screen like a kid hiding behind his mom's dress. You could say and do nothing, just staring at the floor like spring formal all over again. Or you could be unthinkably bold, deflate the tension, and make good small talk.
Good small talk – is that an oxymoron? Does anyone really like doing it? Isn’t that why Apple exists, to shield us from these situations, relegating small talk to the same unpleasant and outmoded category as outhouses or wool knickers?
Well, yeah, you are the master of your destiny and you could easily just hop on Trivia Crack and never look back. But that’s what everyone does. And in our world, real social connections are the best way to get anywhere. 90 percent of small talk interactions will probably be nothing special, but you really never know. That guy in the elevator could prove to be a valuable social asset, or heck, just a good guy. Every important contact you have probably started with small talk.
Besides (and here’s the key to the whole thing), you have nothing to lose. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. There are ways to make small talk more palatable for everyone, and we happen to know them. Ready?
Confidence is the single most important factor in good small talk. But just like everything where social interaction is concerned, it’s a lesson in balance. You want to be confident, because it'll set the tone for a decent conversation. But on the other hand, you don’t want to be smarmy by letting your confidence becomes so self-focused as to exude arrogance or self-important swagger.
You broadcast confidence in both verbal and nonverbal ways. Verbally, punctuating statements with words like “I think,” “maybe,” “I guess,” “like,” and so on makes you sound like you either don’t know what you’re talking about, or like you don’t have the guts to commit to an actual opinion. Nonverbally, be sure to stand up straight, look the person in the eye, and don’t be afraid to have facial expressions – talking to someone who's giving you a poker face the entire time is unnerving. Sometimes guys get psyched out and deflate into poker-faced, slouched, eye-contact-avoiding human bean bag chairs in these situations. Don’t be a bean bag chair.
A lot of small talk confidence is as simple as knowing what you’re talking about. You have great interests – things you actually know about – so talk about those. Don’t get roped into a conversation about sports if you never watch them. On the other hand, if you’re genuinely interested in a topic that you don't know much about, ask questions. People love to talk about their interests even more than they like to hear about yours.
Granted, there is the possibility that even when you try to ask questions, your counterpart in the conversation will just be dead weight. You ask about sports, they give you a one-word response. In these circumstances, the other person is clearly way more nervous than you and either a.) would like to be left alone or b.) needs you to carry the conversation.
Knowing when a situation calls for a or b is an art unto itself. If it’s b, you’re in luck: talk about anything that has a chance of striking a chord. The reason people talk about the weather isn’t because the weather is interesting – it’s because we all experience the same weather together. It’s guaranteed to be something they know about. So, if you work for the same company or live in the same city, there should be a few contexts shared between you. And after a couple tries, if the person is still clamming up, cut him loose.
Don't Care So Much
Realize that it doesn’t matter. This simple fact is the freedom-granting key to small talk. So long as you don’t say something radically stupid or offensive, your conversation with this person is just an opportunity get to know them, and they you. In all likelihood, neither of you will ever think about it again. Unless you make a great impression and they have a reason to care, in which case, you win.
People expect small talk to be vapid and awkward. You’ll either meet that standard, or exceed it. So really in the end, what do you have to lose?
Now that you've got newfound confidence in your small talking abilities, you’re ready to face the world without using your phone as some sort of invisibility cloak, like a socially awkward Harry Potter. You’re a man. Wit, humor, charm – all of these will develop with practice. But for now, feel free to start with the weather.