Have you ever been trapped with a group of strangers and needed to kill time? I’m not talking about physically trapped, more confined to a space and time – ie recently I got a ride to a function with a group of people I didn’t know. The car trip was longer than anticipated and I needed safe small-talk subjects. Are you good at small talk? I had nothing in common with these people and the small talk was a stretch. The car ride seemed to go on forever and there were lots of awkward silences.
Afterwards I told a close friend about the experience and asked what he thought were safe small-talk subjects. I also asked, what are no go areas? These are the subjects he told me to keep far away from. Never talk about politics. Never talk about money – this is divisive. Never talk about religion. Never talk about refugees or climate change. People become emotional about these subjects. Don’t mention Barnaby Joyce. Don’t mention Barnaby Joyce’s wife. Don’t mention Barnaby Joyce’s wife’s new body. Don't mention Barnaby Joyce’s second baby. Actually, it’s not even safe to mention his first baby. And avoid talking about dogs, because there are people like me who aren’t into pets. Also I’m told the world of pet lovers is divided between cat lovers and dog lovers. Finally don’t ever ask someone how they are unless you are prepared for a sincere answer. How will you respond when they tell you they lost their job, their wife is having an affair with a woman and their teenagers sniff glue? Unless you are prepared to go there, it is better not to enquire. And whatever you do, never ever ask someone how they ‘feel’.
So what are safe small talk subjects?
You can talk about the weather.
And after that … you can talk more about the weather. Tomorrow is going to be cloudy with a top of 26 degrees. We haven’t had much rain lately, have we?
You see, people are terribly thin-skinned and can be offended by a great many things so there aren’t really that many safe small talk subjects. I am actually so desperate to find small talk subjects that I googled this. Here is what my research uncovered. The first site that came up was called Fluentu and it guides people from non-English speaking backgrounds how to make small talk. This is the information provided by the site:
The silence – time when there’s no sound – you get when two people don’t have anything to say is called an awkward silence. Awkward means uncomfortable and embarrassing.
To avoid these awkward silences, you need to know how to make small talk in English.
Small talk is the kind of conversation you make when you want to talk to someone but neither of you wants to get into a very deep or complicated conversation. It’s “small” because you talk about unimportant things, in a way that fills up silences and makes you both feel more comfortable and friendly with each other. The more you practice small talk, the easier it will become.
Until you’re comfortable making your own small talk, you can start out by learning a few excellent topics for making small talk that will leave you sounding and feeling comfortable and confident.
Making small talk can help you:
- Avoid awkward silences
- Easily get to know someone new
- Seem friendlier
- Become closer with acquaintances and coworkers
- Sound more like a native speaker
You can make small talk pretty much any time you and one (or a few) other people are gathered in one location, aren’t busy and aren’t already talking about something. You can make small talk at a party, before a work meeting or while waiting for your food to microwave in the office.
I love the way the author suggests we need to fill up the silences. Well, that was what I was trying to do on my car trip. And I particularly like the recommendation that small talk is essential around the office microwave, however I’m not sure about these suggested topics.
Things like the weather, current news, sports and entertainment are usually safe conversation starters.
No, no, no. Never go near current news (especially anything to do with Barnaby Joyce), although the weather, sport and entertainment are better suggestions. What comes next?
Look around and find something to comment on, or look at your partner and find something nice to compliment them on. Nothing makes people feel better than a genuine compliment. Examples: “I love your shoes today, they really pull your outfit together.” “Did you see? They finally fixed the light in the toilet. It’s been broken for almost a month!” “Hey Pam, your cookies last night were delicious! Thank you for making them for the party.”
Okay, I’m sorry but I think I’d stick with awkward silence rather than telling someone I don’t know, that their shoes are great and pull their outfit together. As a man, if I turned to a male colleague and said this it would send out totally the wrong message. Talking about the lighting in the toilet would probably make the situation a whole lot worse, and I definitely would not discuss ‘cookies’ people were eating at a party.
So where does that leave you? You can talk about celebrities. Celebrities live in the public domain and are owned by everyone. You can talk about speeches at the Oscars (provided they weren’t political) or what happened on the last episode of Married at First Sight (although that show is morally questionable).
Alternatively you can ask someone what they do for a living. But who wants to talk about their job when they are socialising? Not many of us. I don’t ask people where they work because there are only a minority of us doing what we love. The question that I ask if I really want to start a conversation is, “What is your passion?” That is a brilliant question because the answer will reveal so much about the person you are talking to. It will tell you about their character. If they are into photography or art you know you are dealing with a creative soul. If they do a lot for charity, you are with a humanitarian. Ask them to tell you more about their passion. With this question your small talk goes deep, but not into dangerous territory and you are suddenly having a real conversation with another human being.
Perhaps I’m actually not that into small talk. I’m into ‘big talk’ because I want to live a BIG life!
This planet has a population of 7.7 billion. I hope you find people to have lots of meaningful and real chats and connections with. Good luck!
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ABOUT PAT MESITI
Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.