Big parties and social gatherings can be terrifying; but to many, having distant, polite conversation about boring topics like the weather, known as “small talk”, is far worse.
On a basic level, small talk allows you to socialise and talk to people without annoying them by avoiding controversial topics. It also allows you to test the waters of a conversation, particularly when meeting someone for the first time. When you know nothing about a stranger’s personality or interests, it feels natural to talk about something completely neutral, like the weather. There’s the off-chance you could be talking to a hyper-enthusiastic meteorologist, but that’s unlikely.
On the surface, small talk appears meaningless, which is why so many people avoid it. In reality, small talk serves an essential role in social situations. It is part of basic manners and courtesy – like holding the door open for the person behind you, or speaking respectfully to your elders. When you meet someone new, think of small talk as a polite compromise or unspoken agreement to limit conversation to topics acceptable (or, at least, unoffensive) to everyone.
Because we know that small talk is necessary, here are some tips to improve your small-talking skills.
Keep it safe, but keep it real
The one thing that scares a lot of people is the lack of authenticity behind small talk. In other words, people worry they will appear disingenuous or come off as “fake”. Although small talk is meant to help maintain a healthy distance between yourself and the person you’re talking to, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be authentic and true to yourself; you just have to tone it down a little bit.
Read the news
Certain subjects like global politics are usually too divisive for something like small talk. Still, keeping up to date with current affairs will help you be ready for any topic that comes up. No matter what is being discussed, it helps to know what’s going on in the world outside school or your favourite television show, and knowing what you’re talking about is a great way to make a good first impression.
Observe your environment and the people you are with
Good situational awareness is key to thriving in small talk. For instance, if you’re at a charity event, then talking about charitable deeds and organisations is a great conversation starter. Also, pay attention to the atmosphere of the event – is it casual or formal? If it’s a casual event, keep the conversation light and playful. If it’s formal, try to choose topics that are more serious and sophisticated.
When in doubt, talk Hong Kong
What’s the one thing we all have in common? We live in Hong Kong and, therefore, care about Hong Kong related issues. Weather is something that Hongkongers love to whine about, but you shouldn’t be afraid to expand the conversation to things like traffic, supermarkets, and – if you’re feeling adventurous – the person’s backstory; what brought them to live in Hong Kong if they aren’t from here.
No matter what you end up talking about, and who you are talking to, the most important thing is to remain calm. It’s easy to notice if someone is uncomfortable in conversation, which isn’t the impression you want to give off. Whether you are so nervous that you’re sweating buckets, or whether you’re talking about something incredibly mundane, try to remain confident and poised.
Remember, it’s just small talk. What’s the worst thing that can happen? You can always walk away with your head held high.