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How to do it, why it matters. The line snaked through the coffee shop, moving slowly as one complicated drink after another was ordered. Standing there like a bunch of lemmings, waiting eagerly for our caffeine fix, the woman in front of me and I began chatting. We talked about the long line, the totally high-maintenance drink orders and the heat from all of the bodies crammed into one small space. We kept the conversation going until her drink came up, and she left with a quick “Enjoy your day.” My line-buddy was gone, and the conversation was over. The small talk had served its purpose of entertaining us and connecting two strangers while we were held captive with nothing better to do. Audrey Nelson, Ph.D., a communication consultant and speaker, defines small talk as “a conversation ordinarily enacted between two people who have never met or don’t know each other well.” She says it is the most difficult kind of communication because it requires skill, and some people are simply better at it than others.

As with so many other areas of life, men and women approach small talk differently. For women, small talk provides social maintenance. It bonds, connects and increases the level of comfort between people. Men often complain to Nelson that it drives them nuts when they attend meetings with women who make a lot of small talk before the meeting can get underway. Neither the observation nor the level of annoyance surprises Nelson. “Men are task-oriented, so their small talk is the same way. They don’t buy the value of it. But it’s the way all conversations should be done,” she says. “Small talk eases the comfort level so they can get down to business.” According to Nelson, there are rules for small talk that should be carefully followed. “First, small talk shouldn’t exceed more than 15 or 20 minutes; otherwise, it becomes boring and tedious,” she says. Exit the situation in a tactful way, such as “Well, have a great time. I see someone I need to say hi to.” Second, be aware of which topics are acceptable and which should be avoided. Nelson’s list of acceptable topics includes the immediate environment (“That buffet looks amazing!”), the weather (“I’ll be glad when this cold snap is over”), work (“So what do you do?”) and sports (“Did you see the game last night?”). Nelson says to avoid topics that are potentially too personal, such as sex, religion, weight and cultural values.

Joanne Davidson prides herself on being able to “make conversation with a brick wall.” As The Denver Post society editor since 1985, she frequently engages in small talk when she covers the charity fund-raising scene in the metro area. She finds that even if individuals to whom she’s talking are reluctant to jump in and talk back, they usually come around if she shows she’s genuinely interested in what they have to say. “You do that by establishing eye contact and actually listening to what is being said so you can respond in kind,” she suggests. “As the other person becomes more comfortable with you, the conversation becomes more substantive.”
Davidson finds that people who are bad at small talk are usually so caught up in themselves that they really don’t care about others. “They’re the ones who make judgments before even speaking to the person they can’t be bothered getting to know,” she says. “They don’t give others a chance to show who they are and how interesting they actually might be.” Still others say they just find small talk superficial and don’t want to engage in it.

Some people avoid small talk out of fear of saying something they shouldn’t. Davidson says people worry that if they ask someone a question as simple as “Do you have children?” they might learn the person is unable to have kids, or perhaps lost one to an accident or illness. “To me, small talk is an entree to a friendship, a business connection or someone who can be a valuable resource,” Davidson says. “It’s something as simple as asking a person’s name, what brought them to the gathering, or giving a compliment like ‘I love your hair. Who cuts it?’ or ‘That is a gorgeous dress. Who’s it by?’ One question or tidbit of information leads to something else, most always good,” she says. “Most of what I’ve learned in life has begun with small talk.” Nancy Rebek, owner of Nancy Rebek Public Relations, is in the business of talk — talking up a person, product or business. She also produces speakers’ series, which means she’s had to make a lot of small talk during long car or plane rides with some famous people. Rebek says that small talk gets a bad rep, but it’s really an avenue to find a common ground. She elaborates, “Sometimes small talk is a necessary evil. It can be an initial conversation between strangers, acquaintances or even great friends. It’s a simple exchange of niceties before a more meaningful, more involved chat.”

Rebek feels using small talk to promote oneself, a cause or business can be tricky. “Even when asked by the other party, it’s wise to assume they are just being polite or filling a void, killing time,” she says. “If they ask (about your business) and there is sincere interest, then it’s best to exchange business cards and make plans for a future meeting. Having said that, there are instances where it is appropriate — but it’s best to use common sense and not be pushy with one’s own agenda.” According to Nelson, we shouldn’t feel guilty about using small talk for personal gain. “All communication is persuasive and manipulative — everyone has an agenda, whether they acknowledge it or not,” she says. “On a very basic level, we make connections for affirmation; small talk provides an opportunity to let someone know in what way they are important to you.” Since small talk — whatever the purpose — does require some skill, Nelson advises doing it whenever possible to become good at it: “Make small talk with anyone you encounter — starting with the places you go frequently, such as the people who work at your grocery store, dry cleaner or car wash. Small talk begins a relationship and can be the start of a deeper connection if you want it to.”

Effective small talk also requires the skill of thinking on your feet. Someone who knows a lot about that is Linda Klein, an improvisational comedian with A.C.E. Entertainment and cocreator of GIRLS ONLY — The Secret Comedy of Women. In her job, she has to respond to varying, unrehearsed situations and be willing to say whatever comes to mind. If she’s done that well, the audience laughs and the joke doesn’t fall flat. She offers these words of wisdom: “Thinking on your feet reminds me of teaching a child to ride a bike. You have to encourage your thoughts to flow and resist the urge to hang on to them.” Whether to cope with an awkward silence, further a career or just be friendly, small talk serves many important purposes even though it seems like a trivial thing. As Nancy Rebek puts it, small talk is an easy way to “connect with another human in an increasingly isolated world.”

Written by COURTNEY DRAKE-MCDONOUGH