Making small talk a little bigger – 10 conversation topics instead of complaining about the weather

This weekend’s East Coast blizzard got everyone talking snow — and that makes sense, because I can probably count on my fingers the good snow storms we’ve had in NYC since we moved here almost seven years ago.

But John and I have noticed that if it’s colder than, say, 68 degrees, people complain about how cold it is, and if it’s warmer than 75, they complain about the heat. They complain if it’s rainy, or windy, or cloudy, or humid, pretty much anything but 72 degrees and sunny.

Some of that is no doubt because modern heating and cooling have gotten us used to having our environments temperature regulated to our comfort.

But I think some of it also comes from searching for an easy, universal conversation topic. There’s a good chance the person you’re talking to walked through the same snowstorm you did, so you know you’ll have common ground if you make small talk about it.

We can do better.

How about trying to connect in a more meaningful way? For example, maybe get people chatting about what they enjoy doing:

1. Did you do anything fun this weekend/ do you have any fun plans for the weekend?

2. Do you have any trips planned this winter?

3. I’m looking for a good restaurant/ movie/ book/ band. Do you have any recommendations on a favorite I should try?

4. I need to get some more exercise. Do you do anything around here that you enjoy?

5. Have you been to the new park (or any recreation nearby)?

Or maybe ask about family:

6. Where are you from? OR How long have you lived here/ Did you grow up here?

7. Do you have children? How old are they? (Note, I don’t have kids and often find people don’t know where to go with it when a woman in her 40s says no. Don’t assume the answer will always be yes.)

Or ask about work — and it doesn’t just have to be the generic “what do you do?”

8. Are you working on any interesting projects?

9. Are you working on anything especially challenging?

10. What’s changed the most about what you do since you got started in your line of work?

Obviously some of these are more appropriate at work, or with people you know a little bit, than with strangers in line at the Post Office. But you can read the situation and figure out whether asking a question about the neighborhood feels right or, if you’re at your kid’s school, maybe talking about children is the most logical shared experience.

And if you still feel compelled to talk about the weather, how about saying something positive? How sunny it is? How fun it was for the little ones to go sledding? How clean everything smells after the rain?

More thoughts on starting more meaningful conversations:

Keith Ferrazzi gives some pointers on making connections at holiday parties — but there are good tidbits for the rest of the year, too:

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Categories: lifestyle

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5 replies

  1. After I wrote this post, I looked on the side of our filing cabinet and saw a 2010 Psychology Today article hanging by a magnet with the headline “Get Beyond Small Talk.”
    http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201006/how-get-beyond-small-talk

    It includes four tips, including giving your full attention to the person you’re talking to, looking for something you have in common with the other person, finding a way to get comfortable in your environment — and most relevant to my post above, making your own personal disclosure.

    So instead of just asking a series of questions, share something about yourself and see if that fosters conversation.

    Maybe that’s one reason the bank tellers asking about your weekend feels stalker-ish, Margaret. They aren’t telling you about themselves so it feels less comfortable for them to poke into your life.

  2. Every time I go to the bank, the teller always asks me the same thing. If it’s Monday or Tuesday, I hear, “How was your weekend? Did you do anything fun?” If it’s Wed/Thu/Fri, I hear, “Got any good plans for the weekend?”

    It drives me crazy! I know it’s not sincere because every single teller asks the same thing. They don’t give two farts about the answer, they are just filling their small-talk quota. Plus, it feels rather stalkerish when a man asks me that. It makes me queasy and I try to use the ATM as much as possible in order to avoid the whole mess.

    In order to not be creepy, I’d cross weekend plans off the list when talking to total strangers. (It’s different for someone you know a little bit.) A comment like, “Have you tried any of the new restaurants downtown?” or “Have you seen the new James Bond/Jackie Chan/Peter Jackson movie?” might be a safer bet.

    • You raise a couple of good points, Margaret — one is reading the situation, the other is intent.

      If I know you’re reading from a customer service script, as opposed to chit chatting with another mom waiting for school to let out or in an elevator with an acquaintance from another department, it will feel different. Because really, no matter what you ask me, if you ask it every single time, I know you could not care less how I answer.

      So maybe the advice should include not asking a question if you aren’t interested in the answer?

      And always try to gauge what level of personal is too personal — but honestly, if a stranger asked me about my weekend, I’d just disclose the level I felt comfortable with. For me, personally, I’d rather someone try to be a human than to be scripted or nervous.

      • The bank tellers must think I’m a boring person. Whenever they ask about my weekend plans, or what I did last weekend, I always say, “Nothing.” That’s all I’m comfortable with, especially when I’m getting that stalker vibe I mentioned.

        I feel sorry for the bankers. It’s obvious that they have to ask that question. I wish they didn’t.

        • Maybe you should flip it on them and ask about their weekend plans every time — maybe you don’t care enough to ask, but maybe you’ll find a book idea?

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