Disliking small talk is probably the no. 1 complaint we hear from our readers. It’s not surprising. No-one really wants to talk about the weather or the traffic over and over. Small talk can serve an important purpose, but there are strategies you can use that will let you skip it.
Whether you’re at a networking event or happy hour at a local bar, here are some of the most effective ways to get past the small talk and have meaningful conversations with friends, acquaintances, or people you’ve only just met.
This isn’t an excuse to be mean, but being completely honest can help to refresh your conversation and move on from small talk.
Something that keeps us stuck in small talk is when we try too hard to be polite. We’re so worried about coming across badly that we end up seeming bland and having shallow chit-chat rather than an interesting discussion.
Try skipping this stage by being honest about who you are and your thoughts and feelings. This can take confidence, but as long as you’re respectful, others will usually respond better than you might expect.
When someone asks, “How are you?” we’ll almost always reply with some variation on “Fine” or “Busy” before returning the question. Instead, try being honest in your response and offering a little information.
You don’t want to unload or trauma dump, but try giving just a little more information. You could say, “I’m good. I’m on vacation next week, so that’s keeping me in a good mood,” or “I’m a bit stressed this week. Work’s been intense, but at least it’s nearly the weekend.”
This shows the other person that you’re willing to trust them with a real conversation and makes it easier for them to respond honestly as well.
Trying to come up with meaningful and interesting topics instantly can be tough. Make life easier for yourself by having some thoughts or topics that you’d like to talk about.
TED talks can give you plenty of food for thought to bring to a conversation. You don’t have to agree with what was said. Try saying, “I saw a TED talk about x the other day. It said that …, but I’m not sure about that. I always thought… What do you think?”
This won’t always work. The other person might not be interested in the topic. That’s OK. You’ve made it clear that you’re open to having more in-depth conversations. Often, this is enough to encourage them to offer conversation topics themselves.
Even topics that are typically “small talk” can become meaningful if you can relate them to society in general. This can be a great way to make a conversation deeper without having to change the subject.
For example, conversations about the weather can move into climate change. Talking about celebrities could become a conversation about privacy laws. Discussing vacations could lead you to talk about the impact of tourism on local communities.
If you want others to work with you to move the conversation onto deeper topics, it’s important to recognize the subtle signs that they don’t want to talk about something. Knowing that you’ll drop an uncomfortable topic lets other people feel safe enough to move away from small talk.
If someone starts looking away from you, giving one-word answers, or looking uncomfortable, they might be hoping you change the subject. Allow the conversation to move on, even if it’s back to a small talk topic to let them feel safe. Once they relax, you can try to move to a different, more interesting topic.
One of the reasons small talk can feel so soul-sucking is that we’re left with a sense that no one’s really listening or caring. Avoid small talk by actually trying to care about what the other person has to say.
This won’t always work, as there will be some things that you really can’t make yourself care about. In most cases, though, you can try to find something interesting to be curious about.
For example, if someone starts telling you how much they like the opera (and you don’t), you don’t have to ask about their favorite opera. Even if they told you, you probably wouldn’t know them any better as a result. Instead, try asking something you are interested in.
If you like understanding people, you could ask how they got interested in opera or what kinds of people they meet there. If you’re more interested in architecture, try asking about the buildings. If you care about social issues, try asking about the kinds of outreach programs opera companies are using to increase their appeal to a diverse audience.
All of those questions could lead you to deeper and more interesting conversations because you’ve made sure that you’ll actually care about the answers.
We sometimes stay in small talk because it’s safe. Moving into talking about deeper subjects increases the chances of making a mistake, finding out that the other person disagrees with us, or the conversation just becoming a bit awkward. Avoiding small talk means you have to be brave.
Being OK with messing up might sound easy, but it can be really difficult, especially if you already feel awkward or uncomfortable in conversations.
Try to focus on being kind and respectful, rather than aiming for suave. That way, messing up might be slightly uncomfortable, but it won’t give you that excruciating feeling of having hurt someone else’s feelings.
If you feel that you’ve messed up while trying to avoid small talk, try not to beat yourself up about it. Remind yourself that you took a risk, and it won’t always work out exactly as you’d like. Try to recognize your achievements in doing something difficult and scary. Even though it’s hard, try not to let it stop you from trying again.
One of the problems with making small talk is that neither party tends to be really invested in the conversation. Asking for advice can help.
Asking for advice is also a sign that you respect the other person’s opinion. Ideally, ask about something they’ve already shown they know a lot about. For example, if they work in construction, you could ask them about your home renovation. If they’re talking about the great coffee, ask them for recommendations for the best cafes nearby.
The more you know about common conversational topics, the easier it is to find meaningful conversation. Understanding the context of current affairs means you recognize the deeper impact behind what’s being said. In turn, this lets you move a conversation away from the facts of what’s going on and towards what it means. This can be much more interesting.
It can be helpful to look for information from outside of your normal media “bubble.” Understanding what people we disagree with are thinking and saying can help us to understand them and make it easier to find things we agree on.
Keeping up with current affairs can also make you more interesting and engaged and let you have more intellectual conversations. Just try not to get sucked into “doom scrolling” and a never-ending tide of bad news.
Trying to avoid small talk can leave you at risk of the conversation moving on to potentially difficult and contentious issues. Learning to handle those conversations well can give you the confidence to skip small talk more often.
You can actually have some great conversations, even if you disagree with the other person about major ethical or political questions. The trick is that you need to want to understand their opinion and how they came to it.
Remind yourself that a conversation isn’t a battle, and you’re not trying to convince them that you’re right. Instead, you’re on a fact-finding mission. Sometimes, you’ll find yourself creating counter-arguments in your head while they’re talking. The next time you realize you’re doing this, try to put those to the back of your mind. Re-focus on listening by saying to yourself, “Right now, my job is listening and understanding. That’s all.”
Show that you’re interested in the other person by noticing things about them or their environment and asking about it.
Be careful with this, as people can sometimes feel uncomfortable if you’ve noticed something too personal. For example, pointing out that you’ve noticed someone has been crying recently might seem intrusive or rude.
People can also sometimes be unsettled if they’re not sure how you know something. Make them feel comfortable by explaining what you’ve noticed as part of the conversation. If you want to talk during a haircut, you could say, “You look like you’ve got a great tan. Have you been traveling?” If you’re at a dinner party, you might say, “I saw you looking at the bookshelves earlier. Are you a big reader?”
Asking questions is important for moving beyond small talk, but you need to focus your questions in the right place. Rather than asking questions aimed at finding a particular answer, try to look for the other person’s stories.
Open questions are a great way to find these stories. Rather than asking, “Do you like living here?” encourage a more detailed answer by asking, “I’m always fascinated by where people live and how they decide to live there. What first attracted you to living here?”
This tells the other person that you’re genuinely hoping for a long and detailed answer and gives them permission to tell their personal story. Although that example was asking about their location, the underlying question was about what’s important to them and what their priorities in life are.
Here are some questions you can use when asking people their stories:
- “How did it feel when you…?”
- “What made you start …?”
- “What is it about … that you enjoy most?”
Be prepared to share your personal story too. Moving away from small talk is a risk. When we talk about things that actually matter to us, we have to trust that the other person will engage honestly and respectfully with us. If you want to skip the small talk, you will need to be willing to take that risk yourself, rather than hoping that the other person will take it for you.
Small talk is typically quite general. Break that pattern (and encourage the other person to break it too) by being specific when you talk about your life. Obviously, there are some times when it’s helpful to be a little vague. We all have things we’d prefer to keep personal.
Try to move away from topics that make you uncomfortable and towards areas where you’re happy sharing. That lets you talk about specifics.
Imagine you’d just asked someone if they had any plans for the weekend. What would you say to someone making each of these replies?
- “Not much.”
- “Just some DIY.”
- “I’ve got a new woodworking project on. I’m trying to build a cabinet from scratch. It’s a bigger project than I’ve worked on before, so it’s a really big challenge.”
The last one gives you the most to talk about, right? Even better, they’ve told you that this is a really big challenge. That lets you ask about how they feel about it. Are they worried? What makes them try such a big project?
Being specific creates deeper and more interesting conversations and lets you cut through the small talk.
If you can find out what the other person is passionate about, you’ll usually find that small talk just melts away.
It might sound strange, but asking someone what they’re passionate about can be a welcome way of moving the conversation away from small talk.
Using the word “passion” can feel awkward, but there are other ways to say it:
- “What made you want to start doing that?”
- “What drives you?”
- “What part of your life makes you happiest?”
When we talk about something we’re passionate about, our body language changes. Our faces light up, we smile more, we often speak more quickly, and we make more gestures with our hands.
If you notice the person you’re talking to starting to show signs of enthusiasm, you might be getting close to something they’re passionate about. Try exploring the topic, and see when they seem the most animated. Use this to guide you towards great conversation topics.
Most of us have tried to get to know someone over text, but it’s really easy for the conversation to fall into small talk when you can’t read the other person’s facial expressions. Try to overcome this by using prompts such as pictures to get a really engaging conversation going.
Try sending the other person a link to a news article they might be interested in, a picture of something relevant, or an insightful comic strip you saw. This is a great conversation starter that can skip the small talk.
Remember that these kinds of prompts are only conversation “starters.” You’ll still need to do some of the hard work. If you only send the link, you’ll often only get “lol” in reply.
Make sure you ask a question as well. For example, you could say, “I saw this article about how conservation efforts are affecting local communities in South America. Didn’t you say you spent a lot of time traveling around there? Did you see anything like this when you were there?”
This can be especially important in keeping meaningful conversations going when you can’t spend physical time with the other person, for example, in long-distance relationships.
Small talk is almost inevitable when you’re out in public. Avoid pointless chatter by asking deeper questions and relating small talk topics to wider social issues. Asking people for their personal stories can also help you to talk about more meaningful subjects.
Extroverts might not dread small talk in the way many introverts do, but they can still find it annoying and boring. Extroverts can feel under more social pressure to make small talk to appear friendly with new people, such as in an interview or during a Lyft ride.
Many introverts dislike small talk because they find it emotionally draining. They prefer to save their energy for deeper conversations which are more rewarding. Small talk builds trust, though, and some introverts can embrace surface conversations as a starting point for a friendship.