To small talk or to skip the small talk

"So, what do you do?" If you say you love small talk, I say you're probably lying, or an extrovert. But if you want to build new friendships and actually get to know other people, small talk is inevitable. We need chitchat to kick off connections, either surface-level (think barista or commute companion) or actually more meaningful (your new best friend?). These seeds of small talk can, truly, lead to a stronger sense of community and a greater happiness at home.

WikiHow has a step-by-step guide from eye contact to saying goodbye, but let's think bigger. How can we make small talk less painful — and more helpful? I spoke with a small talk expert to find out.

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This is not just a you problem.

Would you get a temporary tattoo? How about at a public transit station? What if the catch is that you have to agree with a total stranger on which tattoo you'll both be getting? 

That was the ploy that Ashley Kirsner came up with to convince random people to actually interact with each other, setting up a table at a subway station and inviting passerby to explore — and it worked. When the Miami native had moved to Boston, she knew 0 people. "It was definitely a transition for me to realize I was going to have to create my own friend group," she told me. She tried going to meetups found on Reddit, usually over craft beer or cocktails. It was meh.

"There were hours and hours of small talk," Ashley said. "Every so often we'd get to this magical conversational space where we could talk about what's going on in everyone's love life, career, and more. I kept showing up in the hopes that those parts would happen more often."

Then she decided to just build her own space for those parts to flourish. Drawing on her background in clinical and social psychology research as well as her stunts like the temporary tattoo event, Ashley started organizing Skip the Small Talk. She frequently hosts events in a local brewery and elsewhere where attendees (like me!) share our thoughts and feelings with strangers on purpose. No, seriously. Here are some good explanations of how those events work, and our chat, edited and condensed for clarity, is below.


Q: Why do you think people should skip the small talk?

A: I wouldn’t advise that in everyday settings you go ahead and skip the small talk entirely. But I do think it is important to get past the small talk. Loneliness is not based on how many people you know. It’s actually based on the sense that you have people you feel you can share about your life with. That’s surprising to a lot of people because you can have 2,000 to 3,000 Facebook friends, you can have infinite acquaintances, and still feel lonely. A lot of people don’t really put that together and think as long as you have access to people you’re going to feel socially satisfied. That’s not the case. You really do need to get to the more vulnerable topics. You really do need to share stuff that sometimes can be really scary to share and really risky to share. But if you don’t do it, the alternative is feeling really isolated. 

Q: Do you have any tips for how people can actually go about doing that? 

A: There’s two parts to this. The first is access to talking to other people in the first place. If all you do is wake up, work at home, make yourself dinner and go to sleep you're probably going to have a harder time finding people to connect with, versus someone who works in an office with people and has hobbies where they see a lot of people. Whether that’s going to events or developing hobbies, getting out of the house and talking to humans is step one.

Step two is really where the meat is. Once you’re talking to people, it’s as simple as changing the way you ask "how are you." You can say what have you been up to, what’s been on your mind, what’s new with you, what’s new in your life. It’s the sort of thing that might feel weird coming out of your mouth at first if you’re not used to asking it that way, but it really gets people to open up a little more. If they just say "nothing, how are you," you can ask a different how are you in a different way.

Another big piece of advice is being more open to sharing internal states (a.k.a. feelings) in response to small talk questions and asking about internal states. One example is, "What did you do this weekend?" with the answer "I went to the movies." A different way is, "I saw this movie and totally hated/loved it." That extra piece of your internal state is such a richer understanding of you as a person. That’s a total new opening to a conversation. 

Q: What's your favorite moment of skipping the small talk?

A: At the events we take an anonymous poll after the first paired conversation (when you randomly choose someone to talk to and each have a few minutes to really share your feelings) where we ask people to consider their previous conversation and how comfortable they felt sharing and how comfortable they felt with their stranger sharing. At every Skip the Small Talk there's usually a few people who felt like they'd overshared, but exactly 0 times has anybody said they felt like their partner overshared. Our brains are designed to overestimate the risk of sharing. Having this evidence over and over and over again that people really are comfortable with other people sharing their inner lives, is really helpful to remember. It’s totally natural for your brain to try to convince you not to be vulnerable with people because it's really risk-averse, but if you feel like you're safe enough to even try it then it's generally worth a try to share a little more.

Q: Your main takeaway:

A: I think one of the biggest assets in actually skipping the small talk in your everyday life is the willingness to suck at it a little bit and the willingness to embrace the awkward. Having your goal being maximizing connection versus minimizing awkwardness will get you so much farther — if you accept awkwardness as the entry fee to having deeper connections and getting someone who might be your best friend someday or someone who might be your romantic partner someday or be somebody who connects you to your next job. If you’re really interested in getting that, you’ll have to put up with some awkward situations. It's about willing to be vulnerable and put yourself out there.

Go sow: Challenge for the week.

Time to ... you guessed it. 

Small talk! Embrace the awkward moments of silence as opportunities to start a conversation, from the cashier to the person sitting across from you on the bus to the maintenance worker to the person washing her hands next to you in the bathroom your boss's boss to your roommate's friend she didn't tell you she was inviting over.

Or, skip the small talk and delve into a deeper conversation with someone you want to get to know better.
Write back and let me know how it goes!

P.S. If you're interested in going to a Skip the Small Talk event, so far Ashley is only holding them in the Boston area. Tea With Strangers is another type of event around the country that encourages people to meet up with, well, strangers to chat, though it's not structured like STST.

I can also vouch that gathering a group of (willing!) friends for a DIY skip the small talk is fun, too. My roommates, upon hearing my experience at Ashley's STST, cooked up a batch of chili for a Hygge + Chill(i) event — their ingenious idea for a winter event name — with some friends where we each came up with three meaningful questions we put into a basket and passed around to start the conversation. Steal our questions:
  • Have you ever had an out-of-body experience?
  • If money didn't exist, what would you be doing?
  • What's the best way you've ever made a friend?
Here are other ideas of meaningful questions, too.

And the New York Times' Anna Goldfarb wrote a helpful article on maintaining friendships this month — shoutout to a friend for sharing it with me! A top tip: "Ask questions that invite reveals ('How was your vacation? How’s your new job going?') and avoid statements ('I hope you’re having a great day!' or 'You’re in my thoughts'), which don’t tend to prompt meaningful back-and-forth exchanges."

Grow the Sow.

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