While the world opening back up has been exciting, it comes with the dreaded return of social situations that require small talk. After a year of being out of practice with public encounters of all kinds (public transit, parties, the infamous office watercooler), it might feel like an ordeal simply to engage in frivolous chitchat, and you’re definitely not alone if your first few in-person interactions post-lockdown made you think you’ve lost all social skills. Luckily, Nicholas Epley, a professor who specializes in behavioral science at University of Chicago Booth Business School, says we can expect a quick bounce back into our old social habits. The thing is, reverting to old habits isn’t necessarily good news when it comes to small talk. “My suggestion that we’ll return back to normal doesn’t mean that conversation will be flowing and alive. There are lots of times when it’s weird for people. Small talk will still be as awkward as it ever was,” Epley says. Small talk was widely disliked long before we spent a year inside. But our discomfort is mostly in instigating a conversation, rather than the act of conversing itself.
Epley has spent years researching our general aversion to engaging in conversations with strangers. The overwhelming reality is that while we might say we dislike small talk, or even consider ourselves bad at it, it does make us happier to partake in it (no matter how awkward it is). “The result is so reliable, it’s almost becoming boring in my lab. No matter who folks are talking to, or what they’re talking about, it’s better than expected,” he says. In Epley’s most recent study with Juliana Schroeder, “Hello, Stranger?”, they found that while commuters on the London Underground knew that socializing would make their rides more enjoyable, they still felt apprehensive toward starting a conversation — out of fear of people around them not being interested in chatting, or fear of simply failing to strike up a conversation.
Now that the world is opening back up, everyone is more eager to socialize, so how do we overcome our fear of small talk? The Cut went to experts for advice.
Adjust Your Expectations
According to Epley, the best thing you can do to get better at small talk is to just try it, because the biggest hindrance to building our skills is our negative perception of the conversation going in. In “Hello, Stranger?”, participants consistently underestimated how much they would enjoy engaging in conversation during their commute. At the same time, overwhelmingly, participants who were asked to spend their commute socializing felt happier than those who weren’t. When it comes to small talk, we all suffer from pluralistic ignorance. Put simply, part of the reason we hate small talk so much is because we think everyone else hates it, not because we have any kind of negative experience with it. Next time you’re in a situation that might involve chitchat, remind yourself that the people around you want to socialize just as much as you do, and the conversation might not feel so miserable.
Put Away Your Phone
The most important part of engaging in any type of conversation, with any kind of person, is to remain present and read social cues. In Epley’s most recent small-talk experiment, one participant reported feeling deterred from holding a conversation with fellow commuters due to everyone using their phones or headphones. According to the study, cell phones have (obviously) become a massive impediment to social interaction, and act as a signifier for disinterest in conversation. If you are looking to get better at small talk, it helps to make yourself more approachable for others to engage in conversation with you. So remember to take out your AirPods next time you’re on the train or picking up coffee.
Start Where You’re Ready
Okay, so some of us prefer to keep our AirPods firmly in our ears. It’s okay if you aren’t totally comfortable striking up a conversation with a random stranger right away, but you can take small steps to work up to that. Kerry Curran, a therapist and executive director at DASC Chicago, advises that it’s best to find a level where you feel most comfortable and start there. “Don’t expect to go from having been in your house alone for a year to suddenly being at a party every night.” she says. For those who suffer from social anxiety, Curran recommends monitoring the types of situations that cause the most stress, and begin easing into small talk in low-stakes situations. For example, if striking up a conversation with a stranger on the train seems terrifying, start with someone you’re more guaranteed to see regularly (like a distant co-worker).
Try This Conversation Technique
A huge critique of small talk is the idea that it feels superficial, but there is a way to build up deeper connections without carrying around a deck of We’re Not Really Strangers cards. Curran recommends the “Match Plus One” technique, which encourages those engaged in a conversation to match what the other person says, and add one additional piece of information, so the conversation doesn’t die prematurely and both parties are contributing equal parts. For example, in a typical “How are you” conversation, you might add an additional detail about your day after your initial answer. Or, if a mutual friend at a wedding asks you how you know the couple, you might ask for their favorite memory with the newlyweds, instead of ending the conversation with your answer.
Bring Talking Points
This one might be obvious, but it is helpful to have a mental list of topics to keep conversations flowing, especially if conversations with strangers make you especially nervous. They can be as mundane as the weather or as specific as your hypothetical Met Gala outfit. And when all else fails, one of the best ways to strike up a conversation is to pay a compliment to the other person.
This advice might seem a little redundant, but truthfully, the best way to get better at small talk is by practicing and engaging in it. No matter how awkward it feels at first, you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised by how much happier meaningless conversation makes you.