Be More Fun At Parties By Destroying Your Small-Talk Phobia

If you’re the type of person with at least two friends and an active profile on social media, it’s only a mater of time before you’re invited to a summer BBQ or a “fun and totally casual” dinner party on someone’s roof. The good news? There’s alcohol and at least one (possibly overcooked) burger in your future. The bad news? Lots of strangers with whom you’ll have to make small talk. And if you’re the type of person for whom talking about the weather sounds like a fate worse than death, you’ll probably consider not going. That’s understandable, but it’s also a mistake because hiding behind all of that boring minutiae could be a potential new friend or even a love interest (you might have sex! (…eventually)) .

While small talk is agonizing, it’s also an important part of any new relationship, so let us teach you how to become the social conqueror you’ve always wanted to be:

Don’t ask people what they do for a living

This is the first thing people usually ask after being introduced and it’s a total conversation killer. That’s not just because it forces people to reveal if they’re in between jobs, but because it suggests that one’s job is where a person’s sense of self lies. As Elizabeth Spiers noted in an essay on the subject, asking someone what they do also raises questions of how much they get paid, what their true interests are, and whether they’re worthy of your friendship based only on their job title.

Most of us don’t have jobs or careers that reflect who we are as a person, so asking what someone does to make rent doesn’t help you to get to know anyone. The best conversations are the ones that allow room for open-ended answers, so try asking how your new acquaintance knows the friend that invited you both to the same soiree or ask what their interests are. “What are you into?” may be a little risky, but it’s probably going to turn into a much more intriguing conversation than one that starts out with “well, I’m an exec assistant now, but what I really want to do is direct, you know?”

Pay the person you’re talking to a compliment

This may feel unnatural at first, but it’s a great way to build the foundation for a conversation that branches outside of the usual “great to meet you!” followed by a period of awkward silence. That’s not to say that a compliment will immediately make you best friends, but consider how good you feel when someone says something nice about you. Do you feel more open to interaction? Feel a little bit more acknowledged? Probably! And it’s a good way to start finding common ground with the person you’re speaking to.

What do you compliment without sounding like you’re insincere? Anything will do! Like the other person’s shoes, their pants, or how cool their haircut is. It doesn’t really matter. As long as you’re letting them know that you see them and are interested, they’re likely to respond in a positive way that leads to at least a minute or two of pleasant conversation.

Listen more than you speak

Are you a chatty person? If so, it’s possible that you’re going to be a tad more talkative than someone you’re meeting for the first time. That’s not an immediate red flag, but people do notice whether a conversation is actually a lecture. It may sound counter-intuitive, but people are more likely to remember you if you listened more than you talked. Why? Because it shows a genuine interest in the thoughts and feelings of the other person.

If this sounds difficult, you’re not wrong. That’s why it takes practice. According to Celeste Headlee, whose 2015 TED talk on the subject of being an effective communicator has more than three million views, we talk much slower than we actually listen. That means that paying effective attention takes a lot of work. If you can’t pay attention, Headlee says, you’re not actually a part of the conversation.

Stay away from sensitive topics (at least for a little while)

Many people reject the notion that small talk is an essential building block of relationships. They want to jump right into the big issues, start debating politics, and discuss the meaning of life right from the jump. In fact, that whole “I can’t staaaaand small talk” thing even became a meme for a short while and everyone violently agreed that it’s better to talk about sex, death, and atoms instead of how great it is now that you don’t have to wear a sweater anymore.

It’s a nice thought, one that some people might even consider deep, but it’s also misguided. Outside of movies, where characters have a very short time to get acquainted with each other before the plot has to be pushed along, getting right to “the important issues” might actually repel people away from you instead of inviting them to become closer.

“But those aren’t the kinds of people I want to associate with anyway,” you might be thinking. Sure, but how do you know what kind of person they are in the first place? The reality is that people need to know that you’re safe before they can talk about their true feelings and beliefs. Finding something both you and your conversational partner can agree on (at least on the surface) builds the scaffolding necessary to get into something deeper.

In a piece for Psychology Today, Christine Keller points out that self-disclosure is like a funnel. You start a conversation with something broad and slightly superficial and when both people express their comfort in some way, you go a little deeper. This is an example of social penetration theory, which posits that interpersonal relationships have to be established before you delve into all that ooey gooey stuff you really want to talk about. Otherwise, a conversation can feel like a hostage situation.

A good way to deepen a conversation is to follow the ARE method outlined by communications expert Dr. Carol Fleming: Anchor the conversation in the setting you and your partner are both in, reveal something about yourself as it relates to that situation, and then encourage the other person to contribute.

Learn to read social cues

How many times have you thought back on a conversation and realized that the person you were talking to really wasn’t all that interested in the impassioned monologue you delivered on the decline of the Norwegian leather industry. It’s okay, we’ve all done it! That’s why learning to read non-verbal responses (and reciprocating appropriately) may be even more important than being up to date on current events or having a fun fact or a joke at the ready.

Are you and the person you’re talking with making eye contact? Are they leaning in? Are you mirroring each other’s stances? Do the tone and pitch of your voices line up? These are all things to subtly keep track of while conversing. If one of you is making it clear that this conversation is the last thing you’d rather be doing and the other person isn’t picking up on that, it’s going to lead to a negative impression. That’s why practice is so important. You don’t have to turn every interaction into five minutes of uninterrupted eye contact, but taking some time to pay attention to how you communicate with others, how they perceive you, and how they respond to what you’re putting down will make a huge difference in how you interact in a situation where you’re trying to win friends and influence people.