How to Make Small Talk

How do we overcome the awkwardness that keeps us from starting a conversation?

The outline of a blue speech bubble fills the top half of the screen. A yellow, filled-in speech bubble is on the bottom of the screen. In the middle is a black-and-white photo of two women from the 1950s talking to each other under hair dryers.
Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Debrocke / ClassicStock / Getty.
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Making small talk can be hard—especially when you’re not sure whether you’re doing it well. But conversations are a central part of relationship-building.

In this first episode of How to Talk to People, we explore the psychological barriers to making good small talk and unravel the complexities of the mutual discomfort that comes with talking to people we don’t know well.

The social scientist Ty Tashiro and the hairstylists Erin Derosa and Mimi Craft help us understand what it means to integrate awkwardness into our pursuit of relationships.

This episode is hosted by Julie Beck, produced by Rebecca Rashid, and edited by Jocelyn Frank and Claudine Ebeid. Fact-check by Ena Alvarado. Engineering by Rob Smierciak.

Music by Tellsonic (“The Whistle Funk”), Ryan James Carr (“Botanist Boogie Breakdown”), and Arthur Benson (“Organized Chaos,” “She Is Whimsical”).

Talk to How to Talk to People—by “talk,” we mean write to us—at To support this podcast, and get unlimited access to all of The Atlantic’s journalism, become a subscriber.

Mimi Craft: Okay, so we’ll sit here; we’ll start like usual and talk about what you want to do with your hair … because you need a haircut. (Laughter.)

Julie Beck: Does this moment feel awkward to you?

Ty Tashiro: It doesn’t. So I don’t know if it should.

Beck: Great news, great news.

Erin Derosa: If I’m in a five-minute conversation, I’m like, What am I gonna say next? What’s the next thing that I should ... did I already talk about the weather? I get real panicked.

Beck: I feel like I can chat with anybody for, like, five minutes. Right? And then if I run out of things to say in the middle, that’s my fear—because we are trapped here for the duration of this haircut.

Craft: We could stop talking, and I will try to put out a comfortable, chill vibe.

Tashiro: It’s, you know, pretty common. Someone might say something like: “Oh, there’s a really good vibe here.” And to me that is totally bewildering, how they discern that vibe within a few seconds.

Beck: Hi. I’m Julie Beck, a senior editor at The Atlantic.

Rebecca Rashid: And I’m Rebecca Rashid, producer of the How To series.

Beck: This is How to Talk to People.

Beck: Here at The Atlantic, I oversee the Family section, and I’ve also been reporting on friendship for many years now. So I think a lot about relationships and community.

And I do see often that people struggle to find and form the close relationships that they really want. And I think one of the barriers to that is the dreaded small talk.

Rashid: So I think in this first episode, we have to figure out: How does one even make small talk? And what explains that tendency so many of us have to look down at our phones and avoid conversation, or hide in the corner at a party and only talk to the people we know? So where better to do some research on this than to talk to the ultimate small-talk experts: at the hair salon.

Beck: I feel like, okay, the main thing that I need to ask you is: When I’m sitting in this chair, do you even want to talk to me?

Craft: Oh, yeah.

Beck: You can be honest. It wouldn’t hurt my feelings if you didn’t want to.

Craft: I have to be here all day, so I do need some entertainment.

Beck: I’ve also wondered: Would you actually be relieved if I was just on my phone the whole time, and then you could have a break from being “on” all the time?

Derosa: I feel like if you want to talk, that’s amazing. It is really entertaining and fun to have a conversation and to have good conversation. But if you don’t want to talk, don’t try to talk. [Julie laughs.] Because then it’s really hard to have a conversation, and then it’s even more work to, like, keep it going and try to, like, fill the silence or whatever.

Rashid: I’m curious; what is it about small talk that makes you so nervous?

Beck: Okay—to clarify, I don’t know that it makes me nervous all the time. I think what’s interesting about it is, it’s like you can’t really get around it. Like, any relationship that you’re going to have has to start with a conversation.

So it’s more a situation where I am trapped on the train with an acquaintance I don’t know that well, and we have 20 minutes to fill, and I’ve got five minutes of material …

And you have to kind of navigate: How much are we going to talk to each other? What are we going to talk about? Would they rather I just left them alone, but we’re both too polite to say so?

I do get in my head a lot about that, and I find it very hard to relax sometimes if I am receiving a service. And probably if I was just normal and relaxed and enjoyed the situation, it would make them more comfortable.

Rashid: It can be extra challenging when the terms of that relationship are not really established in any way; like, just having a conversation with that person doesn’t necessarily mean you’re moving toward friendship.

Beck: Do you both consider yourself extroverts?

Derosa/Craft: No. Oh, no, no, no. Hard no. Extreme no.

Beck: Well, then, how do you sit here and make small talk all day, every day? Does it exhaust you?

Craft: I am not interested in small talk. I want to get right into the real talk immediately.

Beck: Well, how do you define small talk, then?

Craft: For me, small talk is like: “Oh, it’s cold out.” “Yeah, it’s cold out.” “Oh, do you like cold?” “No?” “Oh, yeah; me too.” And that’s really boring.

Beck: Well, are you coming in hot with your clients? Like, “Do you believe in God?”

Craft: I mean, sometimes I’m coming in hot. Sometimes if I’m like, “Oh, how was your weekend?” “Great.” I will be like, “Did anything crazy happen? Did anybody go to the hospital?” Like, I want to get straight into it.

Derosa: I don’t come in: “Hey, how’s your hair? Do you believe in God?” It’s more like, somehow it’ll come up somewhere in the conversation. You know, you’ll be talking about their family or like their parents or whatever. And then it’s like, “Oh, how were you raised? Were you raised religiously?” It sort of evolves. And then I will say: “Well, do you believe in God?” (Laughter.)

Beck: So that’s a real example that has happened?

Derosa: Oh, yeah; for sure. For sure. But I like to have conversations like that with people.

Craft: She is so genuinely curious that even if somebody maybe was not going into a conversation thinking they were going to reveal a detail, she will get it out of them because of her genuine curiosity.

Derosa: Yeah, ’cause a lot of people are sort of in denial about what is happening in their situation. And because we’ve heard so many stories that are similar, and we are like: “No, like, this is what’s really happening.”

Craft: Because that is the value in good small talk and conversation; it’s that you learn from other people’s experiences. Everything repeats itself. Like, nothing’s really a new thing. So somebody comes in, and you’re like: I know what’s happening there.

Beck: I think small talk gets a lot of hate, but even if it’s a little boring, it serves a purpose. So those basic, neutral topics that people love to hate on, like “How’s the weather?”—those serve a purpose of being something neutral that can smooth the path of our interactions.

Rashid: I’m not always as delicate in the way I phrase my questions. And my intent is not to be offensive, but maybe just to connect with the person in the way I know best, or maybe be respectfully personal and try to bridge that gap.

Beck: So your approach to small talk is to try to get personal as quickly as possible.

Rashid: Not uncomfortably so. But I struggle with the repeated “How’s the weather?” with someone I see every day.

Beck: I feel like I thrive on that surface level. Once we transition to something that is a little more personal, that is where I feel like a little bumpy. In our conversation with Erin and Mimi, it really wasn’t that awkward, surface-level kind of small talk that I think people fear.

Rashid: They were really naturally cognizant of people’s different comfort levels and what would be an appropriate story to share, and they were sort of able to read the room and read the space of the conversation.

Beck: I think for those of us who aren’t quite so practiced as they are, I want to understand more so what can cause a seemingly innocuous conversation to take a turn for the awkward, and how we navigate it when that happens.

Rashid: Ty Tashiro is a social scientist who writes about awkwardness, and his book called Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome explores a lot of these social and behavioral trends specific to adults in the United States. And he helps people think through how to be in social spaces and feel just a bit more confident.

Tashiro: One of the great things about studying awkwardness is that everybody has had an awkward moment. For example, you’re giving a presentation, and you have an undone zipper. That’s super awkward, super embarrassing, but it’s actually not that big of a deal. It’s just an uncomfortable deviation from actually a small social expectation. But we have this really powerful emotional reaction to it.

Some of my close friends had moved to new cities and I would go visit them, and we’d go out to parties or go to a bar or something. And some of these friends were awkward. And, you know, I’d watch them in these social interactions meeting new people, and it was just heartbreaking. Because they would be their regular awkward self. And you could see the other folks losing interest and saying “I gotta go get another drink” or something.

They ruled out any chance of future social interaction based on three or four minutes of chitchat. And so I had this thought, like, If the awkward person could skip the first five minutes of a social interaction, I actually think they’d be all right.

So I wanted to see—are there ways that the awkward person can navigate those awkward moments a little bit more smoothly? On the other hand, for people who aren’t awkward, can they have a little more empathy for the awkward person’s situation?

Beck: So in your book you write that some people are more prone to awkwardness than others. Where do you think you fall?

Tashiro: Oh, boy. I’m pretty awkward. When I was a kid, I was very awkward. And I think in adulthood, I can pass for socially fluent in most situations. But I certainly still have my moments.

Beck: You’re doing great. I’m curious, can you just walk me through what goes through your mind when you, say, enter a party where you only know one or two people?

Tashiro: So, you know, before the social event occurs, I do get some social anxiety. I think maybe the difference for someone who’s awkward is that these feelings of anxiety aren’t irrational. So I’ll give more thought to small details, like, What am I going to wear? What would be an appropriate thing to bring? What time am I gonna get there?

And so I just have a little self-talk before I go into these situations. I call it my mental preparation, and I’ll just say, Hey, you don’t know anybody; you’re nervous about that. And that’s okay. You’ve been in these situations before, and you can do it. But I need to have a more assertive attitude than would be natural for me.

So let’s say we walk into the party, and it’s in full swing. It’s pretty common; someone might say something like, “Oh, there’s a really good vibe here.” And to me, that is totally bewildering how they discern that vibe within a few seconds.

So awkward people, when they enter a social situation, they’re not all at once kind of evaluating what’s going on. Instead, what they’re doing is looking at individual pieces of information and then kind of putting it together, almost like a puzzle, to figure out what the situation is like, and how they should behave.

So it takes longer for me to read the room, I guess, and then feel comfortable enough to get in there and interact smoothly with other people. And then when I get into it, I just try to be honest, actually. And so I would approach people—if you had the uncomfortable situation where you’ve talked to somebody and they’ve moved on to something else, and you’re standing there by yourself—I’ll just approach a group, and I’ll say, “Hey, I’m Ty. I’m new here. Do you mind if I join you?” And that might sound a little daunting to some folks, but I always find that people are really receptive to that. It took a little bit of boldness, maybe, to say something like that, and I think people appreciate that.

Beck: So why do people feel awkward in that awkward moment where they’ve broken one minor expectation? Is it the same thing as social anxiety, or is it a unique feeling?

Tashiro: So, social anxiety is more of a forward-looking kind of emotion. So when we feel social anxiety, the core of that is we have some irrational fear that we’re going to mess up, or we’re going to make a fool of ourselves in a social situation.

With awkwardness, it’s more of this just in-the-moment, very present kind of feeling. And it even comes along with things like a racing heart, or your muscles might tense. Of course, one of the hallmarks is that you might blush, right? And people usually feel horrible about that. They think, I’ve just made this awkward moment worse by blushing.

So blushing actually sends a signal: Hey, I just did something awkward. I feel bad about that, and I’m blushing. I’m sending you this social signal. And people actually really appreciate that. And actually just being honest about the awkward moment that just took place can actually be beneficial for building some trust with another person.

Beck: So do you think that you’ve gotten more comfortable with socializing over time, or do you just feel like you’ve learned strategies?

Tashiro: I think it’s that I’ve learned strategies first, and then the social comfort came after that. So let me give you a quick example, maybe from childhood, about some of these strategies I had to learn.

So when we would go to Wendy’s to get a hamburger, my parents would park the car. And they would turn around, and they’d say, “Ty, it’s time to mentally prepare.” And I would shake my head: Yes. I knew exactly what this meant.

And what it was was this kind of Socratic dialogue where they would ask me a series of questions. And it would help me prepare for what the expectations would be in the social situation, and also help me think about what I needed to do with my social behaviors to handle it well and appropriately.

So they’d say things like, “Well, where are we?” And I’d say, “Well, we’re at Wendy’s!” And “What’s the first thing you need to look for when you step inside the door?”

And I would say, “Well, I need to look and see if there’s a line.” And that’s because sometimes I would go in and just shoot straight to the front, and not because I was trying to cut or cheat.

And this is hard for some non-awkward people to believe, but because I didn’t see the line, or it didn’t register with me. I was so narrowly focused on the hamburger and the fries that I would just not see all of the social information off to the side.

So this would happen not just once. This would happen dozens of times for various kinds of social situations. And my folks would need me to get into the habit of thinking about, Hey, what’s the goal in this situation? What are the small expectations you’re going to encounter? And then, what are the behaviors that you need to execute to be socially fluent in the situation?

For the awkward kid, that’s not intuitive. And so you just need to break it down into component parts. I mean, if you walked with me into a Wendy’s now, I’m pretty smooth. (Julie laughs.)

Craft: Like, I didn’t always know how to get into a conversation and connect with somebody. I just learned it when I started doing hair.

Beck: So do you actually want to or feel comfortable talking about yourself with clients? Or do you actively, like, keep the focus on them in their stories, because you maybe don’t want to share?

Craft: I feel comfortable. I will share anything. Sometimes I feel like I don’t have anything that interesting to share, and so then I don’t want to talk about myself, because, like, “Oh, are you taking vacations?” “No.” “Okay, cool.” A lot of people, really—that is their No. 1 personal question: “Do you have any trips planned?”

Beck: Oh, I’m very guilty of that. Because it’s like, it’s not too personal. But maybe it gives us something to talk about.

Derosa: That is my conversation filler when I have pretty much nothing left.

Craft: Like, even the hair salon, it really is, I think, a safe space in the community, because who am I going to tell? I’m not so invested that telling me is going to have, like any major impact in their personal life. So they can get things off their chest and feel safe; that it’s not, like, a risk.

Beck: Yeah. I don’t know how we get to a place where we just accept that feeling awkward won’t kill us. But I’m not there yet.

Rashid: I’m curious if part of the stress, too, is that once you start a conversation with someone—and if you do start to feel awkward, and maybe you’re not comfortable being honest right away about the fact that you’re feeling awkward—and you want to dip out of the conversation, it can be hard to do that.

Beck: I would love to tell you about a man that I once knew, an acquaintance of mine from college, who I truly would not remember at all were it not for this moment.

He was a friend of a friend. And one day we were both on the same train going down to Chicago together. I went to school outside of Chicago, and so this was like a good 40-, 45-minute train ride. And he pulled the most, like, amazing Uno-reverse ninja trick I’ve ever seen in conversation.

And so we did the very classic, like: “Hey, how’s it going? How’s the one thing that I know about you?” “It’s still good. How’s the one thing that I know about you?” “It’s fine.” And then we ran out of material. And he just said: “It’s been so great talking to you. I’m going to go read my book now.” And then we both sat down on opposite sides of the train, and we read our books, and we took that half-hour train ride down to Chicago. And when I got off the train, we did like a friendly wave.

And I actually don’t think we ever saw each other again. But I’ve thought about this man so regularly for the past, like, 10 years, because he just handled that interaction in such a smooth way that you almost never see.

Tashiro: I think we feel kind of more awkward than ever about these kinds of things: meeting new people, or the conversation in the elevator. I think maybe some of it has to do with the fact that we don’t have to interact with people as much as we used to. We can do it through our social media, or we can get absorbed in our phones or stay in the comfort of our home and stream some show.

If you’re texting back and forth with somebody, that’s fine. But it’s obviously not as good, right, as sitting down with them for a long dinner and getting into just a deep conversation. In online dating, for example, you might send messages back and forth or whatever. And that kind of gives you a sense of the person; gets the interaction rolling a little bit before you actually meet up. When all you really want to do is get face to face and figure out if there might be some kind of chemistry here.

Beck: One consequence of this fear of awkwardness is people go to parties, or they go to bars, and they only talk to people they already know. Have you noticed that in your life?

Tashiro: Oh, for sure. You know, it’s another thing, kind of, that makes me just want to go over and say things I have no business saying to other people.

Beck: Like what?

Tashiro: I just want to say, like, “Go meet other people. You know, you’re standing here in your group of three you came in with, and you look semi-sad. Go talk to these other people you want to talk to.”

You know, there’s all this disconnection going on. So the average person could benefit from more friends, and certainly benefit from more friends that they’ve built some quality intimacy with and they feel they can go to in a time of need.

So if we go with that perspective, then we should break out of our shell, and we should cross that junior-high dance floor of sorts and go talk to somebody new—knowing that this person might reject us, or knowing that the interaction might be a little bit awkward. But that’s okay.

Beck: I mean, to some degree it’s a justified fear, right? Like, you probably will feel awkward. Like, you actually aren’t going to make it through this life without being awkward in social situations.

But I think, like, Ty made me realize that part of what makes things so awkward sometimes is trying to pretend that they’re not. Like, all of his advice would boil down to: Just be honest.

Some of what is really challenging about small talk is: It’s so situational. And then there’s also each individual person’s reactions, and whether they want to be left alone, and how open they are to conversation. And how awkward you feel, and how awkward they feel.

But I think there can be a middle path where you read the room a bit. Maybe you have some questions in your back pocket, but you also don’t have to stick to “How’s the weather?” for fear of offending anybody.

Rashid: Yes. And I think that’s exactly what I wonder—if what gets lost is all of us getting used to not trying to start up a conversation with anyone. Out of fear, or out of fear that it won’t lead anywhere, or it doesn’t mean anything.

Beck: Yeah. I remember Mimi and Erin talking a lot about how fueled they actually are by all the conversations that they have at work. And, like, not just purely for entertainment value, but also like feeling like these conversations are meaningful, and they are bringing something unique and special into their lives. They were just interested in people. And just, like, having a genuine curiosity for the person that’s in front of you fuels conversation.

Rashid: As meta as that is, we got to talk about it. (Laughter.)

Beck: On that note, Becca, it’s been so great making a podcast with you. And I’m going to go read my book now.