10 Tips for Making Small Talk Less Awkward

If socializing is not your forte, these 10 big rules for small talk and topic ideas will help you in no time.

Anyone caught at a wedding reception or cocktail party discussing recent precipitation averages knows that making small talk isn't as easy as it sounds. Talking with strangers can be awkward, stilted, and mildly painful. But there is an art to it, and it can be mastered.

"A golden rule is that you don't have to be brilliant―just nice," says Bernardo J. Carducci, Ph.D., director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast, in New Albany, Indiana. "If you start with simple, even obvious comments, that makes it easier for others." Learn the secrets of how to make small talk with style and grace to help you more easily navigate your next party.

01 of 10

Arrive With Questions

Having a few questions up your sleeve will give you something interesting to share on the fly.

"As I drive to a party, I try to come up with two or three things to talk about in case the conversation runs dry," says Debra Fine, lecturer and author of The Fine Art of Small Talk ($15, amazon.com). "If I've met the host before, I try to remember things about [them], like [their] passion for skiing or a charity we're both involved in."

Anne-Marie Fowler, San Francisco investment adviser and president of the fundraising group San Francisco Ballet Encore!, attends business and social functions as often as seven nights a week. She says, "I think about the key guests and what I can say to bring them into their element." For instance, when Fowler attended the party of a recently retired CFO, she remembered that he loves modern art and asked about his collection.

02 of 10

Snag Topics From the News

To keep conversations timely and lively, Carducci suggests scanning newspaper headlines and movie and book reviews. "And I listen to a lot of NPR," he adds.

After all, what is small talk but an ability to talk about current events and superficial topics? (P.S. It should go without saying, but try to avoid controversial topics like politics and religion, which could lead to hot water fast.)

03 of 10

Focus on Learning Names

It doesn't matter if you know how to make small talk if you can't remember people's names—especially if you've already been introduced to someone twice before.

Slow down introductions to make it easier for your brain to process information. "I always repeat a name once or twice after I've heard it," says Cathy Filippini, a governing member of the Chicago Symphony and a sustaining fellow at the Art Institute of Chicago. If someone has an unusual name, take time to learn it, advises Fine.

"Don't just move on," she says. "Say, 'I'm sorry. Let me try that. Did I get it right?'" Similarly, if someone mumbles, suggests Fowler, "say, 'Would you kindly repeat your name?' And when you speak your own name, do so clearly."

If you forget a name, discreetly ask a third party for help or listen for it in conversation. If all else fails, come clean. "Don't panic, and don't feel awful," says etiquette guru Peggy Post. "Just say, 'I can't believe it. I've just drawn a blank.' It's such a normal, widespread, human happening that most people will understand."

04 of 10

Don't Hold Back Details

Begin the conversation by giving the other person something to work with—so don't skimp on details. For example, if asked what you do for a living, don't give a short answer, forcing the other person to scramble for more questions. "Embellish your response," says Carducci. "Say, 'I'm an accountant, but I don't cook the books.'" If someone asks what you've been up to, "say, 'We took the kids to Italy this year,'" suggests Fine. "Now they know that you have kids and have been to Italy."

05 of 10

Listen More Than You Talk

"People love to talk about themselves, so be a great listener," says Cawley. That means coming up with good questions, like what their favorite hobbies are or their favorite vacation destination. Filippini says, "I'll ask if they've seen a particular exhibit or play."

The questions don't have to be that specific, adds Fine: "You can simply say, 'Bring me up to date.'" Questions can also be utterly superficial―to begin with. "I always ask about someone's shoes or jewelry," says Fowler. "Both make statements about a person. I often ask what meaning a piece of jewelry has to its wearer, and that opens up a lot of other topics."

06 of 10

Talk About the Setting, if You're Struggling

It sounds like a cop-out, but it works. "It's something you share," says Carducci. "If you comment on the good music or the interesting floral arrangements or how long a food line is, and the other person agrees, that means they're willing to talk to you." Another fail-safe, setting-specific question is "How do you know the host?"

07 of 10

Don't Fear Silence

Don't panic when there's a lull in the conversation. "Silences aren't as long as you think they are," says Carducci. "Remember that if you say something, the other person may need to process it. Think of silence as a transition."

If you sense the other person is dying to get away, allow them to do so. Otherwise, take the conversation in a new direction using one of the above tactics. "Throw something out there and don't worry about making the transition smooth," says Carducci.

08 of 10

Ace Introductions

The true hallmark of a skilled and gracious small talker is the ability to introduce people with ease. In addition to announcing names, offer a piece of information about each person, or a shared interest, thereby facilitating a conversation.

Try something like: "Kate, this is Jane. Jane and her husband just moved here from Cincinnati. Jane is interested in painting and is an artist herself. Jane, this is Kate. Kate is the museum's director of communications."

Things get tricky when you forget one of the names. In that instance, "mention one person's name and gesture to the other one," says Post. "That person will usually sense you're at a loss and volunteer their name." Cawley cleverly passes the buck: "I say the name of the person I do know and then say to [them], 'I'll put you in charge of the introduction.'"

09 of 10

Read Personalities

For every group of lovely people you meet at a party, there's bound to be a lemon. One type is the person who has met you on several occasions but acts as if they've never seen you before in their life. "I don't like to play games, so I acknowledge that we've met right away," says Cawley. "I'll say, 'You may not recall, but I remember meeting you at a fundraiser two years ago.'"

The second type invades your personal space. "I don't say anything; I just move back," says Filippini. "If they get me against a wall, I maneuver around them." Cawley also steps back, and "if they follow me, I extend whichever hand is holding my cocktail, so they're an arm's length away," she says.

The third type won't stop talking about themself and hasn't asked you a single question. "If someone is that self-centered, exit the conversation gracefully," says Carducci.

10 of 10

Remember the Magic Words: "I Need"

"Use the phrase 'I need,'" advises Fine. "I need to get some food; I haven't eaten all day. I need to talk to a client over there. I need to meet the speaker." Freshening your drink, using the restroom, chatting with a friend who has just arrived, and checking in with your spouse are also valid needs.

Don't leave without saying something nice about the conversation—like: "It was so lovely to chat about London. Can't wait to hear about your Hawaii trip after you go!"

For extreme situations, Fowler recommends establishing "rescue me" signals with a partner or a friend to let them know when you need help bailing out of a conversation. Cawley has paged herself to escape a dull party. "My favorite is to ask someone else nearby―a spouse or a good friend―to dance," says Fowler, provided there's music and others are dancing, of course.

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