Small talk is an appetizer to any relationship. People like to do business with their friends. For example, when you see someone at a trade show, and you have forgotten their name, you could just avoid them, and then they’ll think you’re aloof. Or you could approach them with, “You look so familiar, but I forgot your name.” This might be gutsy for a shy person, but it’s a great way to open a conversation and put the other person at ease. You are assuming the burden of their comfort. Remember what a low risk it is to engage in conversation.
When two people are talking and a third person walks up, a good conversationalist will make sure that all the people know each other. Look for approachable. Often enough the person who is alone will engage in conversation, and will think you’re a savior since they’re by themselves.
Often at meetings, there are clusters of people who know each other, hang out together. The lonely person, the outsider, feels like the spotlight is on them since they are alone with no one to talk to. Debra says, “Get over this.” The people in these clusters are not paying attention to you. It’s up to you to expand your network by meeting some of these people.
People decide if they have time to talk with you that often has nothing to do with your opening line. It’s about them: not you.
Here are some common questions, often enough icebreakers that Debra recommends we discontinue:
- What do you do? It makes people feel they’re being interrogated.
- Are you married? This is a bit too personal.
- Do you have kids? This is almost presumptuous. Not everyone wants kids or can have them.
Realize that “How have you been?” “How was your day?” “How are you?” and “What’s been going on?” are equivalent communication for “Hello.”
Rather break the ice with:
- “What keeps you busy outside of work?”
- “Describe your most important work experience?”
- “What significant changes have you seen take people in your work since you started?”
- “Bring me up to date…”
Why people don’t answer and build relationships:
- Don’t think you care
- Are lazy
- Are too busy
Debra also shared a couple of exit strategies that are graceful:
- “I have a couple more minutes before I need to wrap this up.”
- “Would you like to join me and see the exhibits?”
The psychology of assuming the burden of someone else’s comfort is similar when you are on the telephone doing research or competitive intelligence. Make the other person feel you care, but also keep in mind that you might be catching them at a busy time.
Debra ended her talk with a poem, “Thoughts from a New Member,” to remind us to reach out to newbies.
- I see you at the meetings,
- but you never say hello.
- You’re busy all the time you’re there
- with those you really know.
- I sit among the members,
- yet I’m a lonely gal.
- The new ones feel as strange as I;
- the old ones pass us by.
- Darn it, you folks urged us to join
- and talked of fellowship,
- You could just cross the room, you know,
- but you never make the trip.
- Can’t you just nod your head and smile
- or stop and shake a hand,
- Then go sit among your friends?
- Now that I’d understand.
- I’ll be at your next meeting
- And hope that you will spend
- The time to introduce yourself,
- I joined to be your friend.
Anonymous, pp 15 -16 The Fine Art of Small Talk by Debra Fine