How to Be (Slightly) Better at Small Talk

Because it's a big part of life.

Fatherhood forces you into a lot of social situations. Playdates. Birthday parties. Baby music classes. Some of these are fine; some of them should be listed as forms of torture. All will force you to interact with a variety of other human beings who aren’t married to, or tiny and dependent on, you. Parents. Teachers. People you sort of know and like. People you sort of know and really can’t stand. These interactions will require small talk, something, which, well, most people are bad at these days because phones are bright and shiny and have made us people-averse. But, as you don’t want to come off as cold (no one wants to have playdates or grab a beer with the kid whose “dad was sort of a dick”), it pays to brush up on your small talk.

Small talk is far more than just a social obligation. Recent studies suggest chatting about the weather or where someone bought their coat, however trite it may seem, is key to maintaining the fabric of society and plays an important role in what sociologists call reaffirming the social link. In other words, it’s essential to forming the connections that make us human. Here, then, are some tips on how to be better at small talk. Because it’s a big part of life.

Ask Open Questions

Experts suggest that a good formula for conversation is the 20-80 approach. This means one person is responsible for 20 percent of the conversation, asking questions, and the other person shoulders the rest of the load. The key to doing this successfully, according to psychologist Shae Vianis to ask open questions because most people just want to talk about themselves. “Open questions require a person to give you more than a simple yes and no answer — this is called a closed response — and forces them to explain themselves,” says Vian. “This helps make small-talk much easier.” The key to this is to actually ask questions that encourage longer responses. In other words, less “Getting a lot of rain here, right?” and more “What have you been up to this summer?”

Study Your Old Man

Chances are, your dad or father-in-law is good at small talk. Older folks have a knack for it because they have a lot of practice (no access to Netflix will do that). Listen to them talk. Act like an anthropologist and study their ways. You’ll probably notice that they often have Very Interesting Facts! or some sort of inoffensive anecdote at the ready so they fill any awkward gaps that appear, right? They’ll ask you about hobbies. They don’t ask a lot of yes or no questions. They listen. Do more of that.

Play Catch

If you want to get into the nitty-gritty of talking to other humans, Jodi Smith, a nationally-known etiquette consultant, suggests thinking of conversation as a game of catch. The other person lobs a topic at you, you catch it and lob a response back. That sense of back and forth, Smith says, is essential to keeping a conversation going and keeping it engaging for both parties. “Good conversations involve give and take,” she says. “If you find that you are not talking at all or that you are doing all the talking, something is off in your game.” In other words: You want to have a nice rhythm and not your glove down mid-catch.

Reveal Some of Yourself

Your name is only going to get you so far. It’s essential, per Smith, to offer up a small bit of information about yourself to engage and interest other people enough to keep talking. “It is this bit of information that will help you start a conversation or help the other person ask you a question,” Smith says. For example: “Hi, I’m Jeff. I just moved to the neighborhood from Buffalo.” Or: “Hi, I’m Jeff. I’m Skylar’s dad. She’s the one over there spinning in circles.”  Or: “Hey, I’m Jeff. Want to see my Ferret?” Eh, probably skip that last one.

Take It Slow

If small talk isn’t your thing, it’s understandable that you might be nervous. However, those nerves can work against you when it comes to trying to hold a conversation with someone. “People speak faster when they’re nervous,” says Carol Barkes, a professional coach with mediaambassadors.com. “Instead, slow down and the other person will respond better.” Additionally, Barkes suggests the simple fix of using fewer words. “We can all think of times when we felt someone was just rambling,” she says. “Our brains fade away to thoughts of our ‘to do’ list, other places we could be, et cetera. By using fewer words, we get our point across without overloading the other person.” This is hard to recognize. You will word-dump on people. It happens. Be aware of it and, with time, it will happen less.

Practice Makes Perfect

Small talk isn’t something you just break out at a cocktail party and then retire until next time. It’s something you should be working on every day no matter where you are. You get better at small talk by, well, making small talk. “The more you practice, the more comfortable you will feel,” says Smith, “and the better you will be at small talk.” So, how about that weather?