Author: By Julia Hunt

Post Date: 2018-01-03

I have a friend who refuses to leave the office at lunchtime. Witching Hour, he calls it. That time of day when almost everyone who works in town leaves their desks and heads out to grab food and run errands. 

The streets get busy, snack shops heave, and hell is the queue at Social Security or the Tax Office.

“You just keep bumping into people you don’t want to see.” Mr No Lunch explains. "It takes ages to get anywhere. But do you know the worst thing? It’s the small talk.”

My friend is clearly not the only person who doesn’t enjoy making conversation with acquaintances in the street, or with people at events.

It can be easier to strike up an in-depth conversation with a complete stranger than to move beyond pleasantries with someone you vaguely know. Indeed, some of my most memorable conversations have been in bars in cities thousands of miles away with people whose names I can’t remember, who I’ve never seen since. 

Sometimes considered a social lubricant, small talk is the standard way most of us start to communicate with others in civilized situations. The weather, where you’re from, how you know the host, and what you do are all standard fodder.

Safe, neutral, and inoffensive. Three words that summarise small talk. And if it stays like that, it’s easy to write it off as a bit dull. The key is deciding if it’s worth taking a risk, plunging the conversation off-piste into more dangerous territory. Do you think the speaker is a loon or a genius? Are you here because you hate your job, or because you love it? How many people in this room have you dated? These are the sorts of questions that are bound to get more interesting responses … or make the person you’re chatting to run away to the bar wondering if you’re a psycho.

Alcohol is one solution for people who drink. If you’ve both had one or two glasses of vino the boundary between small talk and good chat is easier to breach. A mild joke is suddenly funnier, a comment becomes a confidence, and before you know it, you’re enjoying the conversation and not really caring if you’re about to exchange business cards or not.

If alcohol isn’t an option, then ‘conversational bombs’ could be. These are big impersonal topics lobbed at people who look like they might be able to handle them. Quantum entanglement? How should the UK sort out its economy? If you were a cybercriminal which company would you hack? You might not get a straight answer, but you might get one that opens up your thoughts on a subject.

Essentially social conversation is about connection. It’s about being able to relate better to those around us, getting to know other people, as they get to know us. Small talk, and big ideas are the heads and tails of the same situation – sometimes you get one, sometimes you get the other but they’re both important tools in our social repertoire.

Perhaps the best way to get over a dislike of small talk is to remember a conversation is a two-way process which is as much about the other person and how they want to communicate as it is about you. Not every conversation will lead to great things, but who knows, a great conversation could lead to lunch. Witches not invited.

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