The Art of Small Talk

Conversation is something we all do every day, but how many of us have had proper lessons? Figuring out how to talk to people is the ultimate case of learning on the job; people just talk at you when you’re a baby and eventually you start responding. The total lack of a syllabus or recognised standards means that most people just grow up talking like their parents, and it never occurs to them to sit down and have a think about how they converse. If we used the same system to teach people how to drive or practise medicine, there’d be chaos. Luckily, some very bright people have done the thinking over the years and come up with some great guidance.

In this week’s blog I’m going to pull out the pieces of wisdom from Milton Wright’s 1936 masterpiece The Art of Conversation that can be applied specifically to small talk, and see how you can put them into practice next time you’re at a drinks reception, waiting for a meeting to start or are stuck in a lift with someone you don’t know.

In his 1936 masterpiece The Art of Conversation, Milton Wright divides conversations into two types; conversations for their own sake and conversations for some other purpose. In a business environment with strangers, it is never quite possible to converse purely for its own sake, since that would actually be subversive, given the environment. Not many people go to networking events for the bonhomie, pleasant though it is. With genuine small talk, the only ulterior motive should be to produce good feeling between you and your interlocutor and there are times when this is a far better move than trying to crowbar in an elevator pitch. Milton lists six principles to help achieve a positive effect in what he calls “general conversation”:

  1. The topic must be of general interest

All of us have at various times been the perpetrator and victims of conversations that are infinitely more interesting to one party than the other. When we are on the receiving end, we feel the unpleasance of it acutely. Extended for any length of time, it can be genuinely painful. Being able to consistently choose mutually gratifying interesting topics is a great gift. Go-to subjects like the weather, sport and observations about the immediate surroundings are safe enough but each have their drawbacks, and can easily descend into griping. Instead, why not ask where the person is from and then compliment it. This way you demonstrate polite interest in them, show yourself to be positive and engaged and you can enjoy learning from them about something they find easy to talk about.

  1. Each person must do his/her share and no more

Everybody has a little egg-timer in their subconscious that keeps track of the proportion of time spent talking and time spent listening. A small talk situation is one of the times when it is most important to get the balance as close to 50-50 as possible. The only reason to be doing more than 50% of the talking is if you’ve got something to impart that you know the people listening are interested in, and small talk isn’t the forum for that. By definition small talk happens between people who don’t know each other very well, so be careful not to mistake their polite nodding for genuine interest.

  1. There should be no periods of silence

Silence may be golden at the library, but it doesn’t do small talk any favours. It is perfectly acceptable for the conversation to jump around or for you to say things for the sake of it, since everybody knows they’re just trying to kill time pleasantly. Nobody begrudges musicians when their lyrics are figurative or aren’t grounded in concrete reality, as long as they’re producing an agreeable feeling in their audience. If somebody tells you that they love visiting Christmas markets, virtually any response is better than stony silence. Even if you end up saying something completely bonkers. In this game, you get points for effort.

  1. No topic should be dragged out

Small talking on just one subject is a bit like playing catch with a water balloon: you can only go back and forth a few times before the fun comes to an abrupt halt. Sensing the right time to move on before it happens is a useful skill, but if you get caught napping then don’t be afraid to move straight on to something else. Your interlocutor will thank you for it, no matter how clumsy the execution.

  1. The tone should be kept good-natured

This is the most frequently violated principle in this list. Positivity is called positivity for a reason: it’s good. And demand for genuine positivity always outstrips supply – how many times have you had a quick chat with someone and come away feeling like you’ve had a near miss with a swirling vortex? A brief bit of time-filling talk with a stranger can be as enjoyable as you make it, so keeping it good-natured will always see you well and they really will thank you for it.

  1. No one should be offended by anything said

A strong opinion, baldly stated, can be the impetus for a wonderful conversation – in the right context. It is however incredibly poor form to try and pull this off in a situation where people will be reluctant to directly contradict you, and small talk is one such situation. Small talk is a gentle game and should be played accordingly. Done properly, both parties will exit the situation feeling relaxed, happy and listened to.

Milton’s book contains countless other excellent observations and words of advice for people who want to know more about conversation, and there is a superb précis of its contents here (alongside other summaries of great works). I will conclude this entry with the same phrase Milton uses to conclude The Art of Conversation:

“Desire only to please the people with whom you are talking and you will infallibly do so”

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