How to Small Talk: What No One Ever Taught You

12/15/2016 06:14 pm ET Updated Sep 20, 2017
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Do parties—or other gatherings that require you to interact with strangers or acquaintances—strike panic in your soul?

You’re not alone.

As I conduct research for my upcoming book on friendship, I’ve found that most people have experienced discomfort when attempting to strike up and maintain a conversation with someone they don’t know well.

But here’s an important observation. If we tried to avoid small talk, because of the tensions involved, it would likely prevent us from making friendships over time.

While small talk may sometimes be dismissed as the meaningless “fluff” of communication, it’s actually an essential building block for connecting with others.

To help take the mystery out of the daunting task of small talking, I’ve engaged another round of experts who’ve devoted themselves to studying human interaction. And soon, we’ll be adding audio interviews in addition to written ones. (If you missed the first round of interviews on friendship, you can check out that series here.)

Introducing the Experts

This week, I'm pleased to launch a new social health series with a conversation with Dr.Bernardo Carducci. Dr.Carducci is a full professor of psychology and Director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast (www.ius.edu/shyness) and Fellow of the American Psychological Association. He is the author of numerous books on shyness, including:

Sarah: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed, Dr.Carducci. You've written 5 books about shyness. Five! Clearly, you've become convinced this is an important topic. What inspired you to dig deep into this area of life?

Dr.Carducci: I am so pleased you asked this question. Anytime people find out I know something about shyness, that’s typically the very first question they ask me. My interest in the study of shyness began when I was in high school as a very shy teenager who had virtually no dates. This was not because of a lack of friends or a social network. I had lots of friends in the neighborhood and at school. My big problem at that time was that I just could not talk to teenage girls. One day, after coming across and reading an article on shyness, I said, “My gosh. That’s me.” In addition to helping me to understand my shyness, the article provided some recommendations for things to do to deal with shyness. And I started doing some of those things.

As a psychology major at college, if I had a chance to write a paper for a psychology class, I would try to do it shyness. As an advanced student, I started doing some research on shyness for class projects. As I like to tell people, I have been working on my own shyness constantly since college. And, even now as I study shyness as the academic focus of my research as a full professor of psychology and director of the Indiana University Southeast Shyness Research Institute, I try to work on my own shyness every day. In this regard, I refer to myself as being a “successfully shy person.” A successfully shy person is someone who tries to understand the nature and the dynamics of their shyness in an effort use this understanding to control their shyness instead of their shyness controlling them.

Sarah: Let's start with the basics. Many people I talk to describe themselves as shy and some of them feel like this is an irreversible or unchangeable trait. Is it? In your experience, can a shy person develop habits that helps reduce shyness or grow beyond it? If so, how?

Dr.Carducci: Again, when people find out I study shyness, another frequently asked question is “Are we born shy?” Unfortunately, as with many of life’s most interesting questions, the answer to this question is not a simple “yes-or-no answer.” Yes, shyness does include a biological component. But as the saying goes, “biology is not destiny.”

The Role of Inhibited Temperament: All Shook Up!

In terms of the biological component of shyness, there is evidence that approximately 15 to 20 percent of infants are born with what Dr. Jerome Kagan of Harvard University refers to as an inhibited temperament. “Temperament” refers to certain biological characteristics that people are born with that serve to influence their behavior very early in life, such as during the first few months or years of life. Inhibited temperament is characterized by excessive physiological and behavioral reactions to environmental stimulation. For example, infants born with an inhibited temperament will kick their legs and feet more, display a higher heart rate, and cry longer and louder when exposed to an unpleasant noise, such a balloon popping, than infants not born with an inhibited temperament. And inhibited children at two years of age might be more likely to hide behind the legs of their parents when a stranger enters their play area and engage in more isolated play at seven years of age than uninhibited children. Thus, what can start happening is that such inhibited behavior begins to be labeled as “shyness” by parents, teachers, and acquaintances.

Biology is Not Destiny-Redux and Beyond: Becoming Successfully Shy

Even if you are born with inhibited temperament, as a successfully shy person, there are many things you can do to control your shyness instead of your shyness controlling you. More specifically, I have made it a point to say regardless of what you think caused your shyness—if you think you’re shy due to being born shy or due to a patenting style or family circumstances or whatever, there are still things you can do to work with your shyness instead of working against it. Here are a few helpful suggestions.

Arrive on Time, Not Late: Use the “Slow-to-Warm-up Tendency” to Your Advantage

An important characteristic feature of shyness is what I call the “slow-to warm-up” effect. Due to feelings of heightened anxiety about attending a social function, it takes shy people a little bit longer to warm up to the situation—to reduce these feelings of anxiety. And as a result of that, a big mistake that shy people make is to arrive late to the social event. Their reasoning seems to go something like this: If the party starts at 9:00 p.m., I’ll get there at 10:30 p.m. At that time, there will be lots of people around, which will make it possible for me to move around the room and blend in without being noticed by others. Showing up late is a big mistake that is based on a major failure to understand and appreciate the “slow-to-warm-up tendency” of shyness. Rather than showing up late, what you should do is you show up early. When you show up late, the noise level is already high. If you’re anxious, that’s going to make you even more anxious. Plus, if you already have difficulty talking to people, when you show up late people will already be mingling together and forming conversational groups, which makes it much harder to enter an on-going conversation in a preexisting group. So my suggestion is instead of showing up late, you show up on time. When doing this, the noise level is low so you can adapt to that noise level as it gets louder. In this situation, it is less stressful for you to meet people one-on-one as they as they arrive than trying to enter into an on-going group conversation. In addition, as other people arrive, you can introduce these people to those with whom you were already conversing. In this case, as somebody new comes in, what you do is you bring that new person into the conversation by introducing this person to the others and summarizing the conversation up to this point to make it easier for this new person to enter the conversation. In this scenario, you become the social facilitator—you are focusing on helping others to have a good time instead of focusing on your own shyness.

Engage in Quick Talk: Work the Room

Another big mistake that shy people make is that they think that when they get into a conversation, they have to be brilliant or incredibly witty. They feel that they only get one shot at engaging others in a conversation. And if they don’t have that dynamic opening line, it’s over for them. In response to such reasoning, another tip I recommend to help shy individuals become a social facilitator is to engage in “quick talk.” Quick talk is when you talk to lots of different kinds of people for very brief periods of time. Instead of focusing on just one conversation, make it a point to talk to lots of different kinds of people for very brief periods of time. If you find there is a particular person with whom you wish to talk more, you can always come back to that person. An advantage to quick talk is when you talk to lots of different people for very brief periods of time, you take the pressure off of yourself. Plus, when you talk to lots of different people for very brief periods of time, you will start to be perceived by others as the kind of person who can talk to lots of different kinds of people and, more importantly, that lots of different types of people can talk to you, as well. So when others start to notice this, they will begin to approach you. And as before, as this starts to happen, remember to be the social facilitator by making it easier for others to become part of the conversation.

Sarah: Wow. That is a lot of great information. Talk to me about small talk. In society, it's often seen as "the least significant" type of talking, but does it play an important role culturally in your opinion? What are the benefits of making the effort?

Dr.Carducci: In all of my presentations on the subject of small talk, I always start with this quote to let people know just how important I think small talk really is.

“Every great relationship, be it romantic, professional, or personal, or big business deal begins with a simple conversation. The key to making successful conversation is learning how to connect with others, not just communicate with them.” Bernardo J. Carducci, The Pocket Guide to Making Successful Small Talk

As this quote indicates, successful conversation is the starting point of all relationships. Although by calling such conversation “small talk,” we actually perpetuate the notion that it is trivial and unimportant. In terms of playing an important social role, in my view, small talk is the “cornerstone of civility,” as it facilitates contact with others and fosters a sense of community connectedness, which discourages the mistreatment of others. More specifically, when we begin to establish personal relationships with others initiated through successfully small talk, it makes it more difficult to treat these individuals in an uncivil manner—it becomes harder to hurt others when you have a social connection with them.

The Benefits of Expanding Your Social Network: Variety is the Spice of Life

Being able to engage in successful small talk makes it possible for you to talk with a wide range of individuals, which can help you establish a larger social network. Having a larger social network can be of benefit to you in both your professional and personal life. In your professional life, your expanded social network can help you make connections with others to find out about job openings before they are posted and/or put you in contact with those individuals who might be in a position to make a hiring decision. In your personal life, fostering an extended social network of friends is probably the best strategy for anyone seeking to find a soulmate. In my seminars on “Dating Strategies for Shy Singles,” one of the most important pieces of advice I offer is this—“If you want to have more dates, get more friends.” Showing up with a group of friends is a great way to demonstrate to an individual you might be attracted to that you are someone who knows how to treat people. And, as note previously, one of the best ways to demonstrate your kindness to others is to engage in quick talk and serve as the social facilitator. In this case, you bring that person you are attracted into your social network of friends. With this strategy, if all goes well, you go from starting out as friends to becoming soulmates.

Sarah: If someone feels awkward during small talk, what are the first and most helpful tips you might give them?

Dr.Carducci: The first tip I would give is to help folks who feel awkward about making small talk would be to dispel the myth that being able to make successful small is an innate talent.

Making Small Talk is an Acquired Skill

The ability to make successful small talk is, in fact, an acquired skill. And just like any other acquired skill, from learning to play tennis or a musical instrument to driving a car, there is a structured set of appropriate behaviors to perform and a set of rules of engagement for executing these appropriate behaviors that must be practiced on a continuous basis. Once individuals know the basic structure and rules for making successful conversation, as well as have the opportunity to practice the corresponding appropriate behaviors, connecting with others will become less intimidating.

Being Nice is More Important than Being Brilliant

The second tip I would give is to know that the key to being a being a successful conversationalist is simple: you don’t have to be brilliant or witty but you do have to be nice and kind--show a willingness to converse and support the efforts by others who do the same.

Know and Follow the Five Steps to Making Successful Small Talk

The third tip I would provide is to let folks know that good conversation does not just happen automatically; it involves knowing its basic structure and being able to follow some simple rules. To help folks understand the basic structure and rules, here is a step-by-step guide to the art of making successful conversation based on my book titled The Pocket Guide to Making Successful Small Talk: How to Talk to Anyone Anytime Anywhere About Anything, an easy-to-use summary of the techniques for mastering the art of conversation.

Sarah: Lastly, some have children who might currently identify as shy. What advice might you give parents to help raise them into socially healthy adults?

Dr.Carducci: This is such an important topic, as parents can do much to help their shy children deal effectively with this shyness. As such, here are a few suggestions.

Love Your Shy Children for Who They Are, Not How Out Going You Want Them to Be

First and foremost, I tell parents of shy children you need to love that child for who that child is, not for how outgoing you want that child to be. Beyond that, for shy children, the effect of such labeling is how parents respond to it. When labeling a child as “shy,” what parents are prone to do is overprotect the child. So, when seeing the child is anxious or distressed, the parent will attempt to rescue the child by intervening in the social situation and taking over control for the child. And when the parent does that, the children do not learn frustration tolerance. The children do not learn how to solve problems for themselves or deal with failure or adversity, which can lead to a lack of self-confidence and a tendency to not trust one’s own abilities.

Focus on Your Shy Child’s Strengths and Past Success

To help shy children learn to deal with frustration tolerance and build self-confidence, parents should go to their shy children’s personal strengths. Remind them of their past successes in social situations. For example, if a shy child is worried about going to a party – a peer’s birthday party for the first time – tell the child, “You know you’ve been to birthday parties before – at Uncle Ralph’s house last summer. There, we played games; we had presents; we had cake. You know, you are going to do these same things at Sally’s party next week. It will just be at a different location. So, you already know what to do. Yes, there will be some new kids there you don’t know, but, if you remember when we were on vacation last year, you didn’t know the other kids at the beach a first, but by the end of the vacation, you were playing with these kids. Well, the same thing is going to happen at this party. Once you start playing with these new kids at the party, they will become your friends. So, you’ve done these kinds of things before.” By building on the past successes of shy children, you create a sense of similarity with their strengths.

Incorporate the Slow-to-Warm-Up Tendency

To help shy children adjust to the anxiety associated being in novel situations, make sure to give them time to warm up. So, if you’re going to drop your child off at a birthday party, make it a point to stay there until he feels comfortable with the situation. Give him a chance to warm up to the novel situation. Let him get used to the noise and the novelty of the environment. Stay around until he can feel comfortable with the group. But then walk away. Don’t stay the whole time. Let him know that you’re going to be back – that he’s going to be fine.

Utilize the Factorial Approach to Expand Your Shy Child’s Comfort Zone

Another thing that parents can do to help their shy child expand its comfort zone is to utilize what I call the “factorial approach.” With this approach, you expand your shy child’s comfort zone by changing only one or two factors of a situation at a time. For example, to help your shy child develop social skills through playing with others, you can invite a classmate over to your house where your child feels comfortable playing with this friend in a familiar environment. When your child feels comfortable with this scenario, you can then change to a new environment. In this case, you might have your shy child and this friend have a playdate at park. Utilizing the slow-to-warm-up tendency, once your child feels comfortable with this friend in the new environment, you could expand your shy child’s comfort zone by inviting another child playing at the park to join them. .

So, these are just a few thing parents can do to help their shy children to build confidence and become successfully shy. Parents of shy children can find many more tips in my book titled The Shyness Breakthrough: A No-Stress Plan to Help Your Shy Child Warm Up, Open Up, and Join the Fun, which is a parent-guided program for helping children of all ages to develop critical social skills.

Special thanks to Dr.Carducci for taking the time to share his insights with Huffington Post readers this week.

Check back soon for another installment in the How to Smalltalk Series. I’ll be sharing Dr.Carducci’s “Formula” for Making Successful Small Talk*: A Step-by-Step Guide on How to Connect, Not Just Converse, with Others. And later, I’ll also be offering readers a chance to take a Shyness Quiz Dr.Carducci finds helpful in his work.

You can read the next post in this series, Dr.Carducci’s Formula for Making Successful Small Talk here. Or check out Truth or Dare: The Podcast That Boosts Your Social Health.

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