Do You Struggle to Make Elevator Talk? A Menu of Options for Small Talk

Small talk can be a big problem.

You want to be friendly and polite, but just can’t think of a thing to say.

Comment on a topic common to both of you at the moment

Venue, the food, the occasion, the weather.
“How do you know our host?”
“What brings you to this event?”

But keep it on the positive side! Unless you can be hilariously funny, the first time you come in contact with a person isn’t a good time to complain.

Comment on a topic of general interest

A friend scans Google News right before he goes anywhere where he needs to make small talk, so he bring up some interesting news item.

Ask a question that people can answer as they please

My favorite question is: What’s keeping you busy these days?
It’s useful because it allows people to choose their focus (work, volunteer, family, or a hobby).
Also, it’s helpful if you ought to remember what the person does for a living, but can’t remember.

Ask open questions that can’t be answered with a single word

If you do ask a question that can be answered in a single word, instead of just supplying your own information in response, ask a follow-up question.
For example, if you ask, “Where are you from?” an interesting follow-up question might be, “What would your life be like if you still lived there?”

Ask getting-to-know-you questions

“What internet sites do you visit regularly?”
“What vacation spot would you recommend?”
These questions often reveal a hidden passion, which can make for great conversation.

Ask people about their good and bad habits, and their answers are inevitably fascinating. Plus people enjoy talking about their habits.

React to what a person says in the spirit in which that that comment was offered.
If she/he makes a joke, even if it’s not very funny, try to laugh.
If she/he offers some surprising information (“Did you know that the Harry Potter series have sold more than 450 million copies?”), react with surprise.

Be slightly inappropriate

You can’t use this strategy, yourself, because you don’t have the necessary gumption, but your spouse is a master. Over and over, you hear her/him ask a question that seems slightly too prying, or too cheeky, and you feel an annoyance, but then you see that the person to whom she/he is talking isn’t offended–if anything, that person seems intrigued and flattered by her/his interest.

Watch out for the Oppositional Conversational Style.

A person with oppositional conversational style is a person who, in conversation, disagrees with and corrects whatever others say. If you practice this style of conversation, beware: other people often find it deeply annoying.

Follow someone’s conversational lead

If someone obviously drops in a reference to a subject, pick up on that thread.
For instance, I remember talking to a guy who was obviously dying to talk about the time that he’d lived in Vietnam, and I just would not cooperate. Why not? I should’ve been thrilled to find a good subject for discussion.

Along the same lines, counter-intuitively, don’t try to talk about your favorite topic

Because you’ll be tempted to talk too much. This is a strategy that often fails to follow, but you should follow it. You’ll get preoccupied with a topic — such as happiness or habits — and want to talk about it all the time, with everyone you meet, and you have a lot to say.

How about you? Have you found any good strategies for making polite chit-chat? Let us know. At Pathfinders, we are interested to share with others on Elevator talk – useful for introductions, during networking sessions, braking the ice, etc.

Suresh Shah, M.D., Pathfinders Enterprise

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