“I hate feeling forced to make small talk. It’s always so pointless and fake”
Small talk can seem like the default type of conversation in a huge variety of social situations. Whether you are at the store, at work, or anywhere else with people you don’t know well, you are likely to be expected to make small talk.
Despite how often we find ourselves doing it, lots of us hate small talk. I never liked it, but over time understood its purpose and even learned how to become good at it.
Small talk helps people warm up to each other. Since you can’t go straight to “deep talk”, all relationships start with small talk. You’ll enjoy it more by learning how to transition to meaningful topics quicker. You can do so by asking a personal question related to the small talk topic.
In this article, I’m going to look at why you might dislike making small talk and changes you can make to, hopefully, make it more bearable. It’s even possible that you might end up enjoying it and use it to form new friendships more effortlessly.
“Why do I hate small talk?”
A huge amount of how we feel about any form of socializing comes from how we think about social interactions.
It makes sense to not like doing something we 1) can’t see the purpose of and 2) don’t feel good at.
Sometimes, changing the way you think about making small talk can take it from being a nuisance to being something you feel neutral or even positive about.
“I don’t understand small talk. It’s just saying things for the sake of it”
Making small talk can feel meaningless, but that doesn’t mean that it is. Small talk is a way of testing each other out and finding out whether you want to talk to this person more.
Small talk isn’t actually about the topic you’re discussing. Instead, it’s about the subtext.
Try to pay attention to how what you’re saying is going to make the other person feel. If they feel safe, respected, and interesting, they are going to want to talk to you for longer.
Thinking about small talk as a way to check out whether you’d like to talk to the other person more, rather than as a conversation in its own right, can make it more bearable.
Here’s our guide to how to start a conversation.
One of the reasons I used to dislike small talk was that it felt like it was taking time away from things I would rather be doing. Time spent making small talk was time I wasn’t spending discussing interesting topics, making plans for fun events, or connecting with close friends. It felt like wasted time.
Approaching small talk from a different perspective made it easier to enjoy it. Try to instigate small talk in situations where you can’t really do much else anyway. If you are chronically short of time, try making small talk when queueing in a store or while making a drink at work. This allowed me to practice my small talk skills without feeling that I was missing out on something else.
It can also be helpful to re-evaluate the opportunities you see in making small talk. Realizing that almost all friendships start out with small talk can make it easier to see the value in it, but you can also find other benefits. This could be the chance to practice your social skills, to make social situations smoother, or even to brighten someone else’s day.
For many people, especially those with social anxiety, being in a situation where small talk is expected can be deeply stressful. You might have all kinds of thoughts going through your mind. These could include
“Everyone will think I’m boring”
“What if I make a fool of myself?”
“What if I make a mistake?”
This kind of self-criticism can increase your anxiety levels. Rather than trying to suppress the thoughts, try to drown them out by paying close attention to the conversation.
Try not to berate yourself for being anxious. Rather than telling yourself that you “shouldn’t” feel anxious, try saying “small talk gives me anxiety, but that’s ok. I’m working on it and it will get better”.
You can also try to find other things to help reduce your anxiety. Although it might be tempting, avoid drinking alcohol to make you feel more confident. Find other ways to increase your comfort. These could include wearing something that you feel comfortable in or going with a friend.
Small talk can be especially difficult when you’re already feeling lonely. This kind of surface-level interaction can contrast badly against the kinds of deep, meaningful conversations you’re craving.
Try not to let this stop you from making small talk altogether. Moving from small talk into a meaningful discussion is a skill you can learn. See our article on how to make interesting conversation.
Rather than silently hating small talk, try setting yourself some challenges. Pay attention to what the other person is saying and try to notice when they are giving you some personal information. When they do offer something personal (for example, that they enjoy reading or whiskey tasting), try to offer one piece of information about yourself and ask one question.
“I love reading too. What kinds of books do you like most?” or “I’ve never really enjoyed drinking whiskey, but I did once go on a tour of a distillery. Do you prefer Scotch or bourbon?”
Most people who hate small talk have probably heard a variation on “If you go in with an open mind, you might find out that you like it” more times than they can count. I don’t want to be That Person, but there is scientific evidence that people overestimate how much they will dislike small talk.
Researchers asked people to either make the effort to engage with other people on their commute, make an effort not to engage with others, or to commute as normal.
Most people believed that making conversation with a stranger would lead to the least enjoyable commute, but the opposite turned out to be true. People enjoyed their commute more if they were making small talk with others. Although you might feel that small talk is ‘bothering’ others, people enjoyed being approached for conversation as much as they did approaching others. Not one single person in this study reported being rebuffed when starting a conversation.
If you find yourself becoming anxious before events where small talk is expected, try to remember the important points of this study; that most other people are also dreading it and that it will probably be less awful than you think.
“I hate having to make small talk at work. I’m only doing it to be polite”
Feeling that you have to do something you don’t enjoy just to be polite can be uncomfortable. Thinking of small talk in terms of obeying social rules can make it feel dishonest and meaningless. I felt like that until I asked myself one simple question. What’s the alternative?
I assumed that the alternative to making small talk was to be quiet and left alone, but this didn’t take other people into account. Not making small talk when it’s expected can come across as a personal snub. The alternative to being polite is, unfortunately, being rude. This makes other people feel uncomfortable and even upset.
Many of us have to make small talk at work. In customer service especially, you might find yourself having the same small talk conversations over and over. If you become (understandably) frustrated by this, consider trying to make the other person smile during the conversation. It is additional work, but I found that many customers really responded.
Having old ladies telling me that I’d brightened their day or having stressed parents thank me for chatting with their noisy child changed small talk from feeling ‘meaningless’ to being a service I provided. It probably won’t be fun a lot of the time, but it can be meaningful.
One of the worst parts of small talk can be the worry that you might be trapped in a conversation with no polite way to leave. Knowing that you have an escape plan might allow you to relax more during your conversation.
Here are a few phrases that might allow you to exit a conversation gracefully
“It’s been lovely chatting with you. Maybe I’ll see you here next week”
“I hate to have to rush off. I hadn’t realized how late it’s become”
“It was lovely to meet you. I hope that rest of your day goes well”
If you find small talk physically or emotionally draining, acknowledge this and find ways to adjust. This is especially likely for introverts, but extroverts who hate small talk can find it exhausting too. Think about what you find rewarding and energizing, and ensure that you plan an opportunity to recharge. This might be by planning an evening at home alone after a day of networking, having a hot bath, or buying a new book to read.
Activities that de-stress or energize you during your journey are particularly valuable, as you can start to recover from your socializing straight away, for example by listening to a favorite song or reading a magazine. The sooner you begin your recovery, the less stressed you are likely to be by your exhaustion.
Knowing that you’ve set aside time to recover from the emotional and mental energy you spend in small talk can help to reduce the stress you feel when socializing.
It can be easy to assume that people who make small talk are those who are not able to talk about deeper or more interesting topics. Try to consider other reasons people might have for avoiding controversial topics or deep conversations. For example
- They don’t have time for a long conversation
- They don’t know whether you are interested in deeper conversations
- They are interested in meaningful topics but don’t want to offend you
- They hold unpopular views and need to trust you before sharing them
- They have felt attacked for their beliefs and opinions and struggle to trust people
- They know that they might not meet you again and don’t want to invest the emotional energy in deep discussions
- They don’t feel they know enough about important topics to be taken seriously
- They worry that they lack social skills and may make a mistake
I’m sure you can think of a few other explanations as well.
Assuming that others aren’t able to discuss serious topics can lead you to assume that you won’t ever be able to have enjoyable conversations with them. This makes your conversations feel particularly meaningless. Recognizing alternative explanations can help you to feel hopeful about your future conversations.
Very few of us enjoy doing things that we think we’re bad at. If you think you’re bad at making small talk, you’re unlikely to enjoy it. Improving your small talk skills can be key to enjoying making small talk, and can help you move on to more interesting topics more quickly
One of the reasons many of us hate small talk is that the topics themselves feel meaningless. Try to approach small talk conversations as an opportunity to learn more about the person you’re talking to, rather than trying to find something meaningful in the topic.
As an example, I have absolutely no interest in watching reality TV. I just don’t get it. I am endlessly fascinated by what people get out of watching it, however. I use small talk as an opportunity to indulge my curiosity about this topic. If someone starts talking about a recent episode, I will usually say something along the lines of
“Do you know, I’ve never watched a single episode of that, so I don’t know anything about it. What makes it such compelling viewing?”
This minor shift in conversational focus is enough for me to feel like I’m learning something about the person, rather than about the topic itself.
A really good way to show that we are interested in a deeper conversation is to give out a little information about ourselves. I like to think of it as similar to offering someone a drink when they come into your house. You’re happy to give it, but it’s not a personal insult if they say no.
During conversations about the weather, for example, I will often mention that I love gardening. If we are talking about how bad the traffic is, I might drop in a comment about how I miss riding a motorbike.
These are conversational offerings. If the other person wants to move on to more personal conversational topics, you’re giving them permission to do that. If they don’t, you know that they’re only really interested in small talk and can adjust your interest and effort accordingly.
Avoid pausing the conversation to try to remember exact details, such as names or dates. They’re probably not relevant. I regularly forget names, so I often say
“I mentioned this to someone last week. Oh, I forget their name. It doesn’t matter. Let’s call them Fred”
This keeps the conversation moving and shows that I am prioritizing things that the other person might find at least slightly interesting.
Also, avoid trying to force the conversation onto other, more interesting, topics. During small talk, neither of you probably care too much about the topic you’re discussing, but this is about building trust to move on to deeper conversations. Being polite and changing the subject naturally helps to build that trust.
Even if you find the conversation boring, try to avoid showing this. Looking around the room, fidgeting, or not really listening are all signs that you don’t want to talk anymore.
Although you know that it’s the topic that’s boring to you, the other person can easily feel that you think they’re a boring person. That can leave them feeling uncomfortable and encourage them to end the conversation before you have a chance to reach more interesting topics.
It’s easy to be negative when you’re bored, but this might lead others to expect you to be negative in your other conversations. You don’t need to pretend to be super positive, but try to aim for neutral.
A useful phrase for this is “at least”. For example, if someone starts talking to me about the weather on a rainy day, I might say
“It’s pretty awful out there. At least I don’t need to water my plants though”
Including at least one positive statement can help you come across as a generally positive person.
I have a confession to make. I know nothing at all about actors, most musicians, or football. When someone starts to make small talk about those topics, it would obvious pretty quickly if I pretended to know.
Instead, I ask questions. For example, if someone says “Did you see the game last night”, I might reply “No. I don’t watch football. Was it a good one?” This is honest, it tells the other person that this is unlikely to be a topic we can talk about for long but still shows that I’m interested in their opinion.
Some people won’t take the hint that this isn’t a topic that you’re interested in. That’s ok. You know that you’ve done your part and can feel justified in changing the subject relatively quickly.
Here’s our main article on how to make interesting conversation.
When you hate small talk, it’s hard to convince yourself to do the hard work of keeping a conversation going. This includes asking questions, offering your opinion, or finding new topics.
For example, if someone asks “Who do you know here?” avoid answering with a single-word answer. Rather than “Steve”, try saying “I’m a friend of Steve’s. We’re part of the same running club and we try to keep each other motivated on those wet November mornings. How about you?”
Try to remember that a conversation is a team sport. You’re both in it together. Lots of people dislike small talk, but it’s much worse when we have to carry the burden alone.
Carrying your fair share of the conversation allows you to gently steer the conversation towards topics that you find more interesting and away from things you find most boring.
Having a few ‘go-to’ questions ready can help to take the edge off your worry that the conversation will falter. We have loads of ideas for questions to keep a conversation flowing.
If you haven’t prepared any questions, the FORD-method can give you a good starting point. FORD stands for family, occupation, recreation, and dreams. Try to find a question that’s related to one of those topics to allow you to find out more about the other person.
Open questions are ones that have an unlimited range of answers. A closed question might be “Are you a cat person or a dog person?”. An open version of the same question might be “What’s your favorite kind of pet?”.
Open questions encourage people to give you longer answers and will usually lead to a better conversational flow. It also offers the opportunity for you to be pleasantly surprised. When getting to know someone who is now a good friend of mine, I asked that exact open question.
“What’s your favorite kind of pet?”
“Well, I used to say I was a dog person, but a friend of mine just opened a cheetah sanctuary. Honestly, if cheetahs are an option, I’m choosing a cheetah every time”.
As you can probably imagine, that gave us a lot to talk about.