Needless to say, things can get awkward — uncomfortable, even. But, we don't think there's cause for panic or for hiding by the bar all night. (Cocktails do not a good small-talker make.) Instead, we — real-deal and wannabe schmoozers alike — gathered the advice of the most seasoned chitchatters, namely PR execs, career-advice pros, and those whose BFA party pics can warrant a website all their own.
We know, small talk is stressful, but it can also be fun — and rewarding — and these 10 tips ahead will teach you how to stop asking about the weather and start enjoying yourself.
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Before you can break the ice with others, you need to melt your own, Vickie Pynchon, creator of She Negotiates, tells us. Start slowly, and approach the folks standing alone or around the edges of the room. Like you, these are the people who want someone to talk to. "I would just walk up and say hello. I’d hold my hand out, introduce myself, and ask them how they’re doing or what brought them to the event. 'How ‘bout those Lakers?' It can be anything." Eventually, you can both warm up a bit and become more confident within the social setting.
Keep It Open-Ended
Perhaps the oldest but most successful trick in the book is to ask an open-ended question. Yes or no questions may get you an answer, but they probably won't spark up a real discussion and invite others to join in. Leslie Stevens, co-founder of the major PR firm LaForce+Stevens, says there are a few inquiries that can help get the ball rolling. "I start out with four questions: 'Where do you work?' 'Where are you from?' 'Where do you live?' 'What do you do for fun?' This is playing it safe but will get the conversation started."
Throw Yourself In There
Pynchon, who specializes in helping women negotiate within their careers, recommends that once you engage with a new friend, don't just rest on your laurels. As soon as you've established one connection — be it on the perimeter of the room or near the hors d'oeuvres — "the next challenge is walking up to people in groups." If it sounds intimidating, it is. "I think that’s the hardest thing to do, walking up to people who are clearly together [or] know each other from [somewhere else]." However, if your small-talking occurs within a networking situation, the group should be welcoming you to join the discussion. In purely social situations, this may be a bit more challenging, so think about bringing your new friend from the outer edges of the room with you to approach the new circle of partygoers.
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Humor is a tricky situation. You never want to be the one cracking jokes and hearing crickets in return. But, relaxing and allowing yourself to be playful is another thing. "Think Larry David," says Danielle Snyder of Dannijo and NYC girl-about-town. "Intense social settings are a playground for awkward encounters that make for great content." In other words, embrace the discomfort. "I usually break the ice with something I think is funny (which may or may not be funny to the stranger you’re standing with). It always works for me because I don’t really care if the other person finds humor in it as long as I get a good laugh. Smiles are contagious."
Remember Your Worth
Believe it: "Everybody is waiting for you to approach them," says Pynchon. You certainly don't have to be the person in the room making conversation with everyone, but taking a few moments to recognize your own worth may help you feel more confident when engaging with others. "Remind yourself that you have a lot to offer," Snyder agrees. "There’s a reason you’re in that room with those strangers to begin with. Focus on finding common ground and making the people you’re conversing with feel comfortable and at ease." For instance, if you're all there celebrating a friend's birthday, talk about your mutual acquaintance. Or, if you're in a crowd with a bunch of business owners, ask them how they got their start. They may need your help to feel comfortable in the situation as much as you need theirs.
Keep Your Foot Away From Your Mouth
Small talk can make us nervous, but be sure to keep your wits about you and avoid those conversations that can lead down a dark and dreary road. Or, bring your conversation to a halt. "Asking about someone else’s love life is an accident waiting to happen," says Snyder. "When you ask how someone’s boyfriend is and they tell you they just broke up, it’s awkward." Therefore, tread lightly on sensitive topics, and take your cues from what the other person is saying. If they bring up their S.O., feel free to ask them how long they've been together. Obviously, in a purely business situation, the rules are a bit stricter. "I don’t think you can gossip, for example," Natalie Joos tells us. The Tales of Endearment creator also suggests these hard-and-fast rules: "You don’t talk about your sex life. Business small talk should be short but chipper."
The Name Game
Like Fashion Week, the social events that only come around every once in a while do present a different kind of challenge: names. Some people say, "I'm not good with names"; some call everyone "hun" by default; and others put themselves in potentially embarrassing situations. We've all been these people, and we can help you avoid it. "I always say it’s nice to see someone because I automatically assume I’ve met them somewhere before," Patrick Bradbury, founder of PR company Bradbury Lewis, wisely tells us."It’s the absolute worst when you say it’s nice to meet someone and they say you already have." Of course, that's not to suggest you're completely in the clear just yet. "I’ve learned to completely go along [with the conversation]," Joos says. "Then, grab a nearby friend and introduce him or her to the mysterious person so they reveal their name." When in doubt, try to find the host of the event to remind you of your apparently not-so-new friend's name, and when in absolute doubt, just be honest. If someone's name escapes you, just say so toward the beginning of your exchange when there's plenty of time to recover the conversation.
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Even if you're the kind of person who could sell milk to a dairy farmer, put the sales pitches away when you're small-talking. "There should be a sincerity in the small talk," says Bradbury. "Talk about things on your mind, things that matter; it doesn’t have to be politics, but if you lead someone down a path of engaging them, it flows naturally." Should the conversation lend itself for talking business or exchanging cards, great. But, if not, don't force it.
To Thine Own Self Be True
If you're in a social setting where you don't know anyone, it's easier to act a bit differently than you normally might. But, frankly, it's not sustainable, and you won't truly enjoy yourself. "No matter what situation you’re in, you should always be you," Snyder tells us. "If it’s business, you can be a more professional version of yourself, but still be you. I find that my personality and impulsiveness can be my greatest asset and my biggest downfall. At the end of the day, we’re all human." The statement-jewelry designer reminds us that, ultimately, everyone in a room may experience some anxiety about socializing. "There’s comfort in knowing that everyone is in the same boat — some people are just better at hiding it and making you think they’re captain."
It's Okay To Walk Away
Don't be afraid to excuse yourself from an uncomfortable situation. If you and the people you are talking with are just not clicking, don't linger there. And, the same goes for when the other person may not want to talk to you. It's not a great feeling, we admit, but if someone doesn't appreciate your company, don't feel like you have to stick around. "Pick up on someone’s body language. If you listen, you’ll be able to tell if they want to talk or not," Bradbury advises. "At the end of it all, give them a compliment, say it was 'lovely to see you,' and bid them farewell.”
Illustrated by Caitlin Owens