We introverts know the value of some good, refreshing silence. Aaaaah. Silence. Yes. There are situations, however, when silence can become awkward and unpleasant even for us. Car trips. Visitors. People who stare at you expectantly because they are shy and/or introverted too and hope you will make the first move. In these cases, less introverted persons usually resort to small talk – anything to fill the void and banish the silence! But what are people to do who dread lengthy talk about the weather more than dentist appointments? Who would rather have a deep and meaningful conversation, but do not feel sufficiently accquainted with the current conversation partner to do so? Fear not, my fellow introverts, for I am going to let you in on some secrets. The art of small talk for introverts.
I’d like to mention, by the way, that my credentials in this regard are impressive. For example, I recently had a six-hour car trip with a loose acquaintance. It was not the least bit awkward and I ended up making a genuine new friend. Being from the countryside and, consequently, having had a beat-up old car since age 18 has really helped me get so much better small talk. When you drive people around all the time, you learn to fill the silence with something other than complaining about other drivers. So let me share my petrol-fuelled wisdom.
The trick about making small talk enjoyable for introverts is not actually having small talk (for most of the time). Don’t talk about the weather unless it really interests you. Instead, strike up a real conversation that lets you get to know the other person a little better. The key is to not make it quite so personal that it would be inappropriate for typical small talk situations (say, with your boss or someone you barely know), but to still make it interesting. Let’s see.
1. That person is… okay-ish, I guess?
First, take a second to figure out why you want to talk to this person. If you feel like you need to talk now because you cannot escape the conversation, if there is really no way you can excuse yourself or get rid of them – if you let them into your home, chose to visit theirs, or opted to share a car rather than find some other means of transportation -, then this probably means that you don’t hate that person, right?* That you think of them as pretty okay? That you might even like to get to know them better, if you only knew how? Great! Then you’re going to have a chance now. Trust me, it’s going to be okay.
*(If you do hate their guts, make one of those desperate remarks about the weather, a common acquaintance, or their new haircut/wallpaper/shoes and get out of there as soon as possible. Small talk is not impossible even under circumstances like these, but it’s simply not going to help. Besides, there’s really no point in wasting our limited energy for socialising on people who will never, in a million years, be pleasant to be around.)
2. They are!
The next step is both stupidly simply and mind-bogglingly difficult: Try to put yourself at ease. Let go of the perceived pressure of drawing a conversation from thin air and try to get used to the thought that this conversation might be pleasant. It will change your body language and attitude, which your conversation partner will notice and which will put them more at ease, too. Like a positive self-fulfilling prophecy, this will probably lead to a conversation that actually is enjoyable.
3. Start simple
Okay, so you’re in the right mindset to have a decent conversation. Now, start with something simple.
3a) Are you meeting for the first time and have just been introduced? Ask what they do, where they are from, how they know the host of the party/how they came to work at your company. Don’t make it an interrogation; alternate between showing an interest in their life and sharing some similar information about yourself.
3b) Have you been acquainted for a while, but never really got to know each other? Ask them how their day was, or, if you recently experienced something odd or funny in a context they can relate to (e.g., if you are talking to a colleague, something that happened at work or during your commute; not something from your weekly game of Dungeons&Dragons), share it with them.
4. Let the conversation develop
Unless the other person is extremely shy or actually unwilling to talk to you, two or three attempts from the section of “simple topics” will organically lead to more interesting areas. They might mention that they have a dog/kids/a funny neighbour/a certain hobby. Ask about it! If they were uncomfortable discussing the subject, they probably wouldn’t have brought it up. If you learn to pick up on clues like that – and, don’t worry, this is the kind of thing that we introverts and sensitives are good at! – you’ll have a real conversation before you know it and will probably have a pretty good time getting to know the other person.
If they don’t want to talk, that’s fine
Usually, this strategy works like a charm. If it doesn’t, however, don’t beat yourself up about it! The most likely reason is that the other person didn’t really want to have a conversation, in which case, you have nothing to blame yourself for and can peacefully go on your way without worrying about it. If you’re at a party/in the office/visiting the other person, excuse yourself in a friendly manner and go on your way. If you cannot leave, e.g. because you’re sharing a car, then the other person is most probably perfectly okay with silence, so you can let your thoughts wander, read a book, or doze, and don’t worry about it. After all, we introverts are good at silence. So if there’s no demand for talk, that’s fine with us, right?
What are your strategies for handling small talk as an introvert? Dread it? Love it? Have an ambiguous love-hate-relationship with it? Leave a comment and let me know!