Why is even the mere thought of having to do small talk so stomach-clenching? Why, sometimes, would we rather gnaw off the hand holding our glass of ropey red than actually speak to a stranger? Or is that just me? I usually only realise how tense I’ve been in a stranger-party-chat situation when I get in the taxi home and feel myself starting to breathe normally again.
Maybe it’s because the stakes are high, because it can go so wrong. There’s that moment when someone joins your group, and you realise you can’t introduce the person you’re talking to as you’ve already forgotten their name, even though they told you one minute ago. And there’s trying to decipher what the flip is being said over party noise; one friend talked to a man she met for 20 minutes about what it was like to go on tour, until he told her he was a plumber, not a drummer.
Enter the experts who can save us: the jolly, friendly duo of best-selling authors Mikael Krogerus and Roman Tschåppeler whose book, The Communication Book: 44 Ideas for Better Conversations Every Day (Portfolio Penguin), sums up key concepts of communication theory in just a few words and diagrams. Krogerus is Finnish-born but lives in Switzerland. Tschåppeler is Swiss and now lives in Spain. Cross-cultural small talk, they tell me, is the most fraught – because you can’t make jokes in a second language until you get really, really good at it. And the Swiss and Germans apparently do small talk in an extremely straightforward manner. “Everyone in Britain can tell a joke,” says Krogerus. “But in Germany, small talk is mistakes being pointed out, direct conversation. ‘I don’t like your jacket.’ ‘I don't like yours.’” Phew, at least we are spared from doing German small talk.
You might also be relieved to know that pretty much everyone feels wary about small talk, in whatever language. “The risk of speaking to a stranger is that he or she doesn’t like you,” says Krogerus. “Instead of facing that we’d rather avoid it, we don't go to the party, we don't go up to people.” But it doesn’t have to be like that, with their small-talk suggestions…
1 Remember, it’s not about you. “The art of small talk is about creating a nice atmosphere between two people, a space where all the parties feel, 'I’m OK,'” says Krogerus. We live in a selling culture and we’ve got used to selling, but small talk is not your elevator pitch. “Create the space by being attentive and listening and kind.”
2 Desperately seeking an opener? Ask for advice, because people love it. “The psychology behind this is, if you ask for advice, you create intimacy; intimacy makes rejection difficult,” says Tschåppeler. Also, it’s a win-win. Pick something you actually want – book, sofa, hotel, beautician – and think of the hours of online research you’ll save.
3 Ask a second question. It’s this follow-up that makes it small talk, not talk tennis. Sadly, we’ve lost this skill – possibly by having 90 per cent of our social life via text and WhatsApp. “They shouldn’t be able to answer the question with a yes or no,” says Tschåppeler. “The question shouldn’t contain the word 'I', because then it’s about you and not really a question. It shouldn’t be a show-off question that is impossible to answer because it needs some knowledge.” Travel is good. Try: "What was your best-ever journey?" Or: "When has been the longest time you’ve spent away from home?" Or if it feels right, go deeper: "When was the last time you did something for the first time?"
4 Never, ever ask: "What do you do for a living?" It’s rude for two reasons. One, “It is asking, are you interesting to me? Are you useful to me?” says Krogerus. And two, “For people without a job or who don’t want to talk about it, it is awkward.” What to ask instead? "What’s keeping you busy these days?"
5 Break the rules… a bit. Talking about the weather is probably a little bit too much of a cliché, says Tschåppeler, a bit dull. “But don't start your conversation too far out, with: ‘Did you vote for Leave or to be in the European Union?'” Try finding out the other person's thing, not your current obsession.
6 Don’t get really, really drunk. You know this. But, when you’re nervy or standing on your own, it’s so easy to keep sipping. “Alcohol takes away the shyness that is a huge hindrance to small talk. And it makes you more emotional and that’s also good,” says Krogerus. “But too much alcohol? You are just annoying. Small talk becomes big talk.” And if that happens? It’s time to get in that taxi.