Confession: I’m shy.
My friends and family who just read that sentence are probably laughing uncontrollably right now. And if you’ve ever seen me on stage, you might question the validity of that statement too.
(Yes – that’s actually me. I look horribly shy, don’t I?)
It seems odd that someone who’s chosen a life in the spotlight is painfully shy. But it’s true. Around friends and family, or on stage, or in front of a camera, I’m fine. Put me in a room with a bunch of strangers and ask me to mingle and I will metaphorically curl up in the fetal position and wish I were wearing a dress the same pattern as the wallpaper.
The problem is small talk. I’m terrible at it, and the thought of having to do it scares at least 20 IQ points right out of me, which makes the activity even more daunting. When I’m in a relationship, I don’t mind social events with strangers because I can hide behind my guy. I can talk to him, or just hang out with him, and not feel so deeply pathetic. But when I’m going it solo, it’s another story. All I want to do is disappear and avoid the terrifying “mingle with strangers” scenario altogether.
Then I traveled solo on a transatlantic cruise. 15 days in the middle of the Atlantic on a ship filled with strangers and I had no choice but to work on my atrophied social muscles. Those two weeks taught me ways to converse with strangers and avoid those awkward “I don’t know what to say” moments.
And here I share them with you. You’re welcome.
Smile. As simple as it sounds, smiling can be just the thing to break the ice. Smiling makes you appear warm, friendly, and welcoming, and puts people at ease. So why should you worry about putting others at ease when you’re the one with the mingling phobia? Because it’s very likely that all those other folks at the party/dinner/professional event also fear the dreaded small talk. Smiling is non-threatening, makes you appear interested in them, and will likely solicit a hello. And hello could the beginning of a great conversation.
Ask questions related to the event you’re attending. If you’re in a room full of strangers, it’s likely you’re all there for the same reason. It could be a party hosted by a mutual friend, a professional event, or a transatlantic cruise. Viola! You already have something in common, and that’s a great jumping-off point! Ask questions about the event. “How do you know [insert name of party host]?” “How did you get into [insert profession]?” “How are you enjoying the cruise so far?” Chances are their answer will give you a lot of material to continue the conversation. Have something in common? Share that fact and continue with another question about the commonality. Did the person disclose an interesting fact about themselves? Explore that avenue. But remember – this is not a job interview, it’s a conversation. Interact accordingly.
Ask open-ended questions. Avoid yes/no questions, or questions that can be answered with a single word. Those are what I call dead-end conversational questions. Instead, ask questions that lead to stories. “What’s been the best part of the cruise so far?” Listen for commonalities or interesting facts to take the conversation further.
Listen. This is another simple act that seems like a no-brainer. But for small-talk-phobics like me, it can be a problem. I’m sometimes too busy thinking about the next thing I’m going to say, or the next question I’m going to ask, that I miss golden nuggets of information that my conversational partner is revealing. Those golden nuggets could lead to a very interesting conversation. But if you’re not listening, you’ll miss them.
Answer questions with interesting anecdotes. If someone asks you a question, do them a favor and give them material to work with. Don’t just offer a one-word conversation-killing answer. Give them an answer with a couple anecdotes they can use to continue the conversation. If someone asks how you know the party host, include a few details of your life that are relevant to how you know the host. Not too personal, but enough to give them the chance to take the conversational ball and run with it.
Getting away gracefully. Even with all these small-talk tactics, you may find yourself talking to a brick wall; someone whose small talk skills are, as difficult as it is to believe, even more pitiable than your own. In such cases, getting away gracefully is the least painful thing you can do. But you don’t want to insult the person or make them feel bad, so tact is in order here. Use the old, “it’s not you, it’s me” technique to making a clean break. “My apologies – I need to speak to so-and-so…” “I just realized I promised so-and-so I’d…” These types of get-away sentences imply that the reason you’re leaving has nothing to do with them, and prevents them from feeling snubbed.
The bottom line is that you don’t have to be a brilliant conversationalist or the life of the party to hold a fun and interesting conversation with a stranger. The key is to remember four easy tips: smile, ask relevant open-ended questions, listen, and answer questions with additional details. Small talk may never become my favorite thing to do. And I know I’ll still be tempted to skip events that include mingling with strangers. But with these easy-to-remember tips, I feel better equipped; armed with the tools necessary to turn any mingling mountain into a conversational mole hill.