How Can I Get Better at Small Talk?

01/23/2017 01:19 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2018

How can I get better at small talk? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by James Altucher, blogger, author, social media, wall street investor, on Quora:

I want to get better at small talk. Which means, I guess, avoiding the uncomfortable silence when two people are standing close to each other and vaguely know each other.

Bad small talk is this: "the weather is bad today." Or, "busy day today?" Or, "can't wait until this election is over".

Small talk takes an uncomfortable situation and stuffs it back into that tiny area of our brain we often call "the comfort zone".

Here's the reality:

A) People are complex. So it's ok to talk about complex things.

B) It's also ok to be silent.

But both of those things are uncomfortable. To get good at both things you have to be able to be good at improvisation. And you have to be able to get good at slightly stepping outside of your comfort zone.

Note: it's not a big step. There are layers of discomfort outside of the comfort zone. This is maybe the simplest.

Here's what I will practice:

A) Asking people on an elevator what their weight is.

B) Complimenting people on the street about their clothing but be very specific: ("I love the lapel on that dress.") And do it with everyone on the street.

C) Don't be annoying about it but when someone asks me how my day is going, give at least a drop of a real answer. ("Well, this deal I am working on could be better but hopefully today good things will happen.")

D) When holding the door open for someone, ask their name. A name has power. Like Rumplestiltskin. If someone gives you the code to their inner life (their name), then that's not small talk.

E) In a conversation with someone, ask a question and be silent as long as possible. Sometimes we're happily chatting along, and suddenly we realize: Uh-oh, awkward silence.

This is a great moment to practice. See how long you can make the awkward silence last.

F) Go up to people and ask to take their picture. I've been doing this for a bit over the past few months. It's difficult. I am getting better at it, but it never gets easy.

G) People relate to each other not when they share the weather but when they share vulnerabilities. So next time there is a chance for small talk, share the worst thing that has happened to me recently (although not in a complaining way) and then say, "how about you?"

H) Give someone a two dollar bill and ask them if they two ones for it.

I) Watch a lot of standup comedy. Those guys are the best at improvisation. Learn from them.

J) Tell a story of who the person reminds you of. The other day I was in a business meeting. There was small talk. But one of the people reminded me of someone else, and I wanted to say something but never did. It could have opened up a whole new way of relating to the person rather than just small talk.


The idea of all of this not to get better at small talk. But to make more interactions in life meaningful to you.

Life is disorder. Life is chaos. That's what makes it so wonderful. To rebel a little against the order that society tries to clamp down on us.

Small talk is a prison of words. To break free will unleash the mind and the imagination. Will be fun and create laughter. And, if I'm lucky, will make me a friend.

Here is a post I thought would help: How To Win Friends and Influence People

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