Chatting with a Purpose: Introverts and Small Talk

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“I try never to speak until people have finished with the weather reports.” – Ashley Warlick, The Arrangement

The Introvert’s Small Talk Problem

Words are an important currency in the minds of Introverts. They prefer to mull over their words before they present them to the world – if they ever do. They relish taking the time to coax out all the implications of a thought and to arrange their thinking neatly, making sure their words are worthy of being uttered. Unlike the social phobic, they aren’t necessarily afraid to speak – although some may be shy in addition to their Introversion. They just like having more control, and they find more comfort in showing only the cards they want to in a thoughtful manner.

Small talk is the opposite. It’s trivial. It’s brisk. The subjects arise spontaneously. Much of it is forgettable, throwaway material. And such conversations won’t pause themselves until cautious, Introverted personalities feel more comfortable with the topics in play. Chat-fests also invite people to frolic in an unguarded way in a social playground, and that alone can intimidate those who prefer solitude and deliberation.

Not all Introverted personalities avoid small talk or never indulge in it. Talkative Introverts are a thing. But if all of this is viewed from the perspective of spending personal, psychological energy, Introverts typically become exhausted during social interactions. They lose energy and feel emotionally and even physically spent. They react strongly to the simple presence of others. Add to this that small talk often happens in environments filled with noise and busyness – environments that drain the typical Introvert.

So it’s no wonder that so many Introverts decide that hunkering down at home with a book or a familiar friend is the preferred choice. What’s the point of spending all that energy if it just leads to an exchange of seemingly inane information? While avoiding small talk is not universal among them, Introverts are far less likely to engage in it than Extraverts. This can leave them at a disadvantage.

Why Introverts May Want to Master Small Talk Anyway

To the horror of working Introverts everywhere, some work-related social events are nothing but a cascade of seemingly endless trivial conversation. It’s usually not advisable to go any deeper at functions designed only for dipping one’s toe in the social waters.

For example, a holiday cocktail party: nobody attends to engage in heavy discussions. Introducing deep topics during an alcohol-laced party can even be viewed as boorish. That martini in one hand and the tiny frank impaled on a toothpick in the other are signals to leave any difficult or complex subjects at the door.

But despite Introverts’ aversion to them, cocktail parties and other chat-packed social events aren’t always a waste of time. Such gatherings can potentially bring people together and launch relationships strong enough to soar far beyond that one party. Potentially, the road to career advancement might start in that room.

Chatting can also be the gateway to close friendships and even love. Who knows, Mr. or Ms. Right could be just a few pleasantries away. It’s safe to say that many profound relationships throughout human history started with a one-liner about something superficial.

Before climbing up a career or social ladder or finding a romance for the ages, there is usually small talk. Small talk gives participants a chance to ease into the personality of other people without committing too much. One typically exchanges a bit about one’s own personality in the process. It’s the social equivalent of those employees at grocery stores who offer free samples on a cracker. The customer gets a quick taste and can decide from there whether to purchase the cheese in a spray can or not.

Or, to try another analogy, great treasures may or may not await you inside a house. To find out, you must first open the door, and that takes a key. Small talk is sometimes the key to discovering someone who you may treasure for a lifetime.

So, who’s ready to open some doors?

Becoming a Small Talk Ninja

The strategies below can be used in business, adapted for purely social settings, or even used for one-to-one encounters. Some are simply shifts in attitude, while others require specific actions. Some provide “first aid” when all the small talk gets to be too tedious.

Not all suggestions will work for all Introverts, but maybe some will work for you. Growth comes from abandoning the status quo and stepping outside of one’s comfort zone, even if just a little. The overarching challenge: make yourself mildly uncomfortable today by engaging in small talk a little more.

Strategy One: Keep Small Talk in Perspective

Are we asking Introverts to love small talk? No. Some may never actively seek out banter for either fun or profit. But this is not about extremes. Not loving something doesn’t necessarily mean that the only alternative is dreading it. People tend to “awfulize” things that they’re uncomfortable with – creating more discomfort than a situation might warrant. Consider this: Would you rather engage in small talk or lie on a rack and be tortured, like in an old New Yorker cartoon? If that’s a difficult choice, you’re probably “awfulizing.”

But seriously – when we dread something, we sometimes magnify its dreadfulness. Then, such magnifications can become self-fulfilling prophecies, and we manifest awfulness. A person can become all knotted up inside thinking about what a horrible waste of time small talk is. This may be especially true for Introverted personalities who also have Turbulent Identities. Bad feelings and resentment can make it harder to talk as breezily as one might want to during a chat session.

Remind yourself that even though your instinct isn’t to like it, small talk is relatively harmless. It’s something people do, and, in most cases, all parties emerge alive and unscathed. In fact, it may even turn out to be fun. Maintain a positive perspective.

Strategy Two: Make Small Talk a Goal

Introverts tend to embrace topics that tilt more toward the serious. While many Introverts can be as caught up in trivialities like TV shows, sports, or popular trends as anyone, small talk can still feel inconsequential and like a waste of time for many of them, depending on other personality traits and factors. If you’re an Introvert reading this, you’re probably doing so because you realize there are important reasons for chatting – or at least enough good reasons to warrant reading an article about it.

It might help to shift the paradigm and to give small talk a purpose – but not necessarily a hard, goal-oriented purpose. Do you want to meet new friends, get to know coworkers better, or make new business connections? That might work for you. However, such specific goals may also heighten expectations too much.

If you make no new friends or connections, have you failed at small talk? You might continue to think of chatting as a dreary chore, with the good stuff always potentially coming later. Let’s not set you up for an unnecessary sense of failure. Make small talk, which you can control, the good stuff, and let the future respond as it will.

The full title of Oscar Wilde’s drawing room comedy The Importance of Being Earnest includes a subtitle: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. When asked about the theme of the play, Wilde said, “That we should treat all trivial things in life very seriously, and all serious things of life with a sincere and studied triviality.” Maybe or maybe not. But it might be interesting to give casual conversation a more revered place in your life.

Since small talk does play such a subtly important role in society, try engaging others in it for no other purpose than mastering the art. Can you make small talk interesting or clever? Small talk may be an acquired taste for many Introverted personalities, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t learn to appreciate it and even savor it. Make that your goal.

Strategy Three: Have Something Ready

Earlier, we described small talk as a spontaneous act. Now we suggest something else – cheating when it comes to spontaneity. Adopt the Scouts’ motto and be prepared.

If you’re headed to an event centered on small talk, have something in your arsenal, just in case you need it. Think of that old advice about having an elevator speech where you can pitch a canned résumé to someone in under 30 seconds. (That’s apparently the time it takes to get from the lobby to the fifth floor in an elevator.) Why not apply the same concept to small talk?

Some people benefit from coming up with topics before they go to an event. That way, if that dreaded lull in the conversation happens, they have something up their sleeve. This is especially good if anxiety plays a role in your dislike of small talk. It’s hard to come up with fresh material when you’re anxious.

Before you go to that meet-up, dinner, party, bar, or conference, pay attention to the news. Find something uncontroversial, so you can say, “Did you see where…” And off you go with a story about an interesting thing that happened. Look at you start that small talk!

Of course, the topic should be universally interesting. If it’s either too controversial or too specialized, it may not be appropriate for the event or interesting to others. If it’s too deep, it’s not chatting. Find something about the latest trends, the weather, celebrity sightings… What was that funny thing Jimmy Fallon said on The Tonight Show last night? What about the rude lady in front of you at Starbucks? There’s a story there. Yes, it’s fluff. It’s all about the fluff. Have fluff ready.

And if you run out of fluff, have a few standard questions ready. As long as it doesn’t feel like an interrogation, questions that show interest in others can be both flattering and keep the conversation flowing. “What is it you like to do when you’re not at a cocktail party?” “Can you recommend any of the cocktails here?” “My weekends are all beginning to look the same. What do you do that’s interesting on a weekend?” And if all else fails, and as a last resort, ask the overworked question: “What do you do for a living?” (Just be careful not to make it sound like you’re trying to size up your conversation partner.)

Strategy Four: Be the Host, Whether You Are or Not

Introversion does not involve specific behaviors as much as it is a motivation. Introverted personalities are intent on turning down the noise (stimulation), collecting thoughts or processing feelings, and thinking before speaking or doing.

So what would happen if you shifted the paradigm and allowed those things to retreat into the background – not permanently, but just for a while? What if, instead, your primary motivation was to help make others at a gathering feel welcome, so that they warm up to a social situation? This may seem like second nature to those personalities with the Feeling trait, but it’s not beyond the grasp of other types at all.

This is another way to imbue small talk with purpose, and it has the added benefit of allowing Introverts to deliberately take the attention off of themselves for a few minutes. It’s harder to be self-conscious when you’re attending to the needs of others.

Become the host – at least in your attitude. Nobody would want you to take over somebody else’s party or cross any inappropriate boundaries. Don’t boss the servers around or anything like that. You probably wouldn’t anyway – you’re an Introvert. But look around and see how you can make others in the room feel more welcome. This can often be done by making small talk and introductions.

You can also adapt this strategy by taking the lead in one-on-one situations, like going on a date or having coffee with a classmate. How can you make the other person feel more comfortable while delicately encouraging them to participate?

You’d be surprised at how the small talk seems to flow when you act as if it’s your job to keep the party going. It not only gives you a focus, but it also gives you a sense of purpose – bringing other people out of their shells. A good host doesn’t hog center stage. Instead, they lay the groundwork for other people to enjoy themselves and participate on their own terms. Being the host doesn’t mean you do all the small talking. You just do enough of it to pull others into the conversation.

Strategy Five: Go Ahead. Screw It Up.

Here’s a secret for both Introverts and shy folks alike: mistakes are allowed in a conversation and everyone makes them. There is no such thing as a perfect performance in something casual enough to be called small talk. Allow yourself to make mistakes. Free yourself from the need to say the perfect thing.

Public speakers often report getting over their stage fright once they’ve made a mistake or two in front of an audience and realized that the universe has not imploded due to their gaffes. Apply this idea to chatting. If you feel any anxiety going into small talk, jump in knowing that everybody makes mistakes, and then actively look for your first two or three blunders. It’s okay. We all do it.

It’s liberating to see that perfection is not required, and most likely nobody will get angry or laugh at you if you make a minor verbal faux pas. Even if they do laugh, it’s more likely that they are laughing with you rather than at you, if you show how at ease you are. Introverts who embrace the idea that not every word out of their mouths needs careful deliberation or perfection will conquer any anxiety they might have over the spontaneous act of chatting.

Strategy Six: Take a Few “Alone Breaks”

If you’re at a party or event and the chatting goes on for a while, take a break. Take a stroll outside or stand by yourself on the balcony and enjoy the view. Retreating to the bathroom can also work if there’s nothing as exciting as a balcony available. Get away from the small talk and socializing for just a moment or two.

Introverts reading this will know what this is about. It’s like catching one’s breath. Knowing your own personality, you need not be told to do this. But you may feel better knowing that it’s okay to take a break and not feel guilty or weird about it. Then you can go back refreshed and ready to schmooze again. Just don’t stay outside for the whole party – no matter how tempting that might be.

Let Us Know

Small talk may not seem like much on the surface, but you never know the things it can lead to. And that can make it exciting. We’d love to hear if you’ve ever had something great happen because you took a moment to indulge in small talk. A new job? A promotion? A spouse? A new cause to live for? All these things can potentially launch from a casual conversation. We’d also like to invite you to leave a comment below about your everyday experiences and feelings when it comes to small talk.

Further Reading

The Mystery of the Talkative Introvert

Mr. Darcy’s Disgrace: Small Talk and Personality Type