I just love when I’m working very hard to engage someone I barely know with some benign bit of mindless patter and am rewarded with an impatient, “Look, I’m not good at small talk.” NO ONE really likes making small talk. Filling 60 to 90 seconds with improvised nonsense is nerve-racking and intensely awkward. And if you did like making small talk, you wouldn’t admit it. It’s like boasting of being good at foreplay, which puts into question your ability to handle the more consequential stuff.
Of course, there are people in our lives we know not to bother with small talk: the gruff boss who has no time for your inane pleasantries, the weird co-worker everyone avoids making eye contact with, your teenage kid who might — might — deign to raise an eyebrow in your general direction before getting back to the serious business of Snapchat. For them, the merest whiff of small talk can be triggering.
But generally, if you’re not comfortable with small talk, don’t feel you’re particularly adept at it or flatter yourself by thinking you’re above it, I’ve got news: Get comfortable with it, get better at it and don’t flatter yourself.
In today’s virtual world, where so many interactions happen online, small talk is more than a conversational lubricant. It’s essential in making a human connection and letting your colleagues and co-workers know that you care enough to ask them about nonessential things. Being all business on a Zoom call — unless you’re 15 minutes late — is not good for business.
Fortunately, it’s not hard to raise your small-talk game. Stick to the time-honored chestnuts — the weather and sports — but avoid embarrassing mistakes by doing your homework. Show that you’re paying attention, but keep it moving. The last thing you want is to turn this into a real conversation on climate change.
For example, I was recently on a call and someone congratulated a Kansan on the Kansas City Chiefs. Wrong state, dude. If you’re not going to do the bare minimum, you might as well just pretend your finger is caught on the mute button and resort to hand signals until it’s time to get down to the topic du jour.
Making small talk in “live space” is hard because you have to make eye contact when you want desperately to scan the room for a familiar face to throw you a lifeline. On a Zoom call, your wandering eyes give you endless fodder for small talk. Pick a chotchka or book lurking in the background, and you can spin it into another 90 seconds of innocuous chatter.
It takes some effort and skill to become comfortable with, even good at, small talk. Bear in mind that two of the greatest literary masterpieces were built on small talk: Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” is small talk raised to an art form, and Joyce’s “Ulysses” is small talk about big things: history, religion, literature, language, politics. And let’s not forget that the greatest sitcom of all time was, famously, about nothing. No one is expecting James Joyce or Jerry Seinfeld, but with a little preparation and discipline you can become quite good at being effectively superficial.