There's no reason small talk should exist. Humans have created ways to order food without calling restaurants, tools to talk to one another without speaking, and images to express emotion through emojis. Despite those advances, small talk continues to exist and haunt the human race, and it's still used to foster some friendships, spark some romances, clinch deals, and land jobs.
In the face of this universal, man-made evil, humans remain undaunted and will continue to cheat the system (partly because they want jobs) and give other humans rubrics and guides on how to deal with the awfulness of small talk. The latest guide comes from The Wall Street Journal's Elizabeth Bernstein who examines the five-step process of a chit-chat:
- Getting Started
- Personal Introduction
- Pre-Topical Exploration
- Post-Topical Elaboration
OMG MAKE THIS STOPWrap Up
It's all pretty self explanatory and perhaps transactional—be nice, find a topic, make sure someone knows your name, and say goodbye. But following that script is a lot easier said than done. If it were easy, then we wouldn't need endless news articles and tip sheets about it. Sometimes a conversation goes on a bad tangent, or someone won't stop talking, or someone is talking about that one time they did this one thing that you've heard them say a billion times. It's these hangups that got me thinking of the different types of conversation styles and small-talk traps humans tend to fall into:
The Dominator: Remember: it's a conversation, not a monologue. One way to tell you're a dominator is that when you stop talking, people have left your conversation circle and you didn't even notice. Just kidding, sorta. Bernstein says that if you pause, or take a breath, and someone changes the subject it means that you killed that conversation.
The Doormat: While dominators tend to run conversations into the ground, there are conversations that never get off the ground. This might be the work of a doormat who offers little to information about themselves or the observations they have. What doormats have to remember is that people are genuinely interested in talking to you or what you have to say. A smart observation here or a little bit of insight into your job could brighten the conversation and keep a dominator in check (which they should thank you for later).
The Junkie: From politics, to fashion, to Orange Is the New Black, to umami burgers, to whatever Pitchfork just wrote—you are on top of it, and you love talking about it. There's one problem though, not everyone is an expert and you run the risk of dropping a reference that your fellow small talker won't pick up. The bigger problem, as The Wall Street Journal points out, is that you tend to dominate the conversation and run the risk of creating a monologue no one wants to take part in. That said, picking a more neutral topic is probably better and allows a two-way discussion. Don't worry though, there are plenty of Internet forums and, well, Twitter too, to satisfy your junkie cravings.
The Downwardly Mobile: Stop looking at your phone. Right now. We mean it.
The Amnesiac: "Oh my god I don't know this person's name," the Amnesiac is thinking. Don't worry, this happens to everyone. Don't let it faze you. Be polite, listen, and be engaged—as tempting as it may be, don't drift off trying to remember the person's name because it'll make you seem uninterested.
The Name-Dropper: Unless you have a great story about Angelina complaining about Brad Pitt's flatulence, try and refrain from name-dropping. "It's really cool that you went to school with the daughter of some famous celebrity and that tells me so much about you and how interesting you are," said no one ever. It's not your fault, are probably friends with a One-Upper.
The One-Upper: Everything anyone can do, you can do better. We trust you, and sometimes believe you. That doesn't mean people like you, though. One-upping is a bad habit, and you run the risk, like the Name-Dropper, of dominating a conversation. There's a fine line between being engaged in a conversation and completely hijacking it. Trust us, the people around you have some fun and interesting things to say, stop and listen before it's too late.
The Mean Girl/Boy: Your style is high-risk, high reward. "Oh my gosh, this party is terrible," a mean boy may say. "She is inhaling that slider," a mean girl might muse. While you're a hit at weddings, you also run the risk of alienating people who may be friends with the girl wolfing down that slider and chewing with her mouth open or the couple throwing this godawful party. Snark just isn't a good way to make friends right off the bat when someone doesn't know you. Starting off with a compliment and leaving it there is a lot easier, and more successful way to start conversations with people you can eventually call and complain to when you're at your next awful party.
The Fear Monger: You are afraid of awkward pauses. There are bigger things to worry about, say scientists and don't feel the need to fill the pause with useless noise. What's worse is that your anxious look puts a lot of pressure on the other person. "Experts say don't worry when it gets quiet. The other person is probably just thinking of something to say," The Journal explains.
The Wrecking Ball: Conversations are like buildings that are made up of teeny, tiny topics. For example, you could start with the weather, then talk about the place you'd rather be, then move on to the last great trip you took, and go wherever the conversation takes you. Responding to, "Nice day outside." with "Sorry, I'm married." might make you a wrecking ball.
The Jokester: You are sort of like the storyteller but you think you're funnier. Like the storyteller, moderation is key.
The Weatherman/woman: "We really needed this rain," the weatherman says. "The weather report says it should be nice this weekend," the weatherwoman will say. As people have pointed out, talking about weather is a huge cliché, and job interview guides tell you to try and shy away from it only because everyone does it. It's easy to see why though: weather is safe. Everyone experiences weather and probably can weigh in. But safe gets boring, and small talk is all about keeping interest.
The Storyteller: We all really love stories. But we don't really love hearing those stories over and over. At the heart of it, you're a secret dominator that takes over conversations with this really great story about what happened to you that one time. There's a time and place for that story, no doubt, but opening with that same story in every conversation you start spells trouble. Moderation is key and keep your audience wanting more.
The Tipsy Parson: Alcohol has a magical way of turning you into an eloquent speaker, you may think. Sorry to break it to you, but that's not true. "Alcohol doesn't make you a better conversationalist. It only makes you feel that way," Bernstein explains. Pace yourself, friend.
The Vapor Trail: Whether you do it consciously or not, you are are really terrible at ending conversations, and this is not a good thing. Maybe you're too polite, or maybe you just really don't care all that much about Broadway, but a graceful exit is a crucial component of a conversation, and much preferred over an awkward silence or you gazing into your cell phone. The simple act of sharing business card or giving out your Facebook info will signal to someone that the conversation is over and that you want to stop talking without burning bridges, Bernstein writes.
Photos by: bluefox via Shutterstock, Mean Girls, SNL, Harry Potter
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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