Small talk can be the worst. And during the holidays, we find ourselves chatting with people we sort of know and others we’ve never met before. Between co-workers, your S.O.’s college friends, and your second cousin you haven’t seen since you both had braces, ‘tis the season for lots and lots of idle chatter.
Even if we have the gift of gab, most of us live in fear of the dreaded awkward silence. (“So, um, how ‘bout that weather?”) And having an actual face-to-face conversation seems to get more intimidating the more time we spend behind screens, while the pressure to seem as interesting as our social media profiles suggest ups the ante.
Fortunately, chatting your way through your next get-together doesn’t have to be so excruciating. Think of small talk like a tennis match, says Rebecca Hendrix, LMFT, a couples’ therapist in New York. “The goal is to keep the ball going back and forth.”
Before You Go: Put in the Prep Work
Doing a little bit of homework before an event can help ease pre-party anxiety, says Irina Langman, LCSW, a therapist in New York. “Think of subjects you would want to discuss beforehand,” she says. It's also a good idea to do some research about the host or guest of honor—that way you can bring up the trip they just took to Italy or their passion for surfing if you hit a wall in the conversation.
Think about who you’re talking to and what questions make sense for them.
And make sure to keep your audience in mind, Hendrix says. Think about who you’re talking to and what questions make sense for them. A group of girlfriends gathering for a Secret Santa gift exchange may be very interested in your latest dating drama, but your boss’s wife? Not so much.
Likewise, “if you’re at a workshop on discovering your passion, then a question like ‘What is your biggest fear?’ would be great,” Hendrix says. “But if you’re at a more casual setting, it could introduce a level of vulnerability that your co-workers may not be prepared to access at 9 a.m.”
If you’re looking for a more specific script, below are nine questions based on Langman and Hendrix’s advice that’ll help ease the awkwardness. Keep these talking points in your back pocket (figuratively or literally) and get ready to work the party circuit like a pro—or at least, not Irish exit after one drink.
9 Ways to Fill the Silence
1. “How do you know Jason?”
Ask other guests how they got there (not literally, although commute conversations can get pretty lively). Rather, ask how they know the host. “This type of question could lead to a more interesting conversation about how you both are connected to the group,” says Laurie Sloane, LCSW, a therapist in New York. “It's a broader question that allows the conversation to open up.” If you’re lucky, you might even unearth some embarrassing stories about your boss’s college days from a former roomie.
2. “How amazing is this view of the city?"
When you’re short on common ground, ask about your immediate surroundings—the food, the venue, the music, a piece of art. ”These are all potential avenues that don't put anyone on the spot,” Sloane says.
Whatever you do, don't start out with a complaint or negative comment. You might think you’ll be able to bond over how bad the baked brie is, but what if they brought it? Now there’s an awkward silence…
3. “What did you think of the presentation?”
The last thing you want to do when you’re stuck making small talk is to invite one-word answers. Asking someone if they liked the speaker ("yes") and asking someone what they liked most about the speech are two very different questions. And one leads to much more fertile ground.
4. “How’d you get into that line of work?”
Asking what someone does for work is fine, but it tends to elicit a one-word answer too. Follow up (if they’re open to it) to by asking how they became interested in that career or what they did before their current job.
5. “Would you ever wear the new Apple Watch?”
Bring up anything culturally relevant and non-controversial (e.g., not the presidential race). Keeping the conversation timely is easy and a lot more interesting than sharing your thoughts on the crudité platter.
6. “What restaurant around here would you recommend?”
People love to be asked for their suggestions, so that’s a good way into a conversation, says Lee Katz Maxwell, LCSW, a psychotherapist in New York. If they mentioned a trip they took to a winery earlier this year, ask them to recommend a good bottle of red. If you know they’re a theatre buff, ask what show you have to get tickets to this season.
7. “That trip sounds so cool. What's next on your bucket list?"
“People don't care about how much you know until they know how much you care,” Hendrix says. Asking follow-up questions about a comment they’ve made shows that you’re really listening and that you care about what they’re saying. If you ask if they’ve done any interesting travel this year, follow up by asking why they decided to go there, the most interesting thing they did, and what travel target is next.
8. “Do you know Amy? Let me introduce you.”
Chatting up a new acquaintance is always easier with a third party to take some of the conversation burden. Another person means another set of potential perspectives, questions, and common ground. And as Sloane points out, introducing each other to friends may foster new connections within the group. Who knows, you may walk in as strangers and walk out as new brunch buddies.
9. "I can't stop listening to this amazing podcast. Have you heard of it?”
If all else fails, talk about yourself—your job, your latest food blog obsession, the Tim Ferriss podcast you just listened to. Anything goes. “This makes it easier to draw your company into sharing something about themselves which could lead to finding mutual interests,” Langman says.
At the end of the day, remember a little silence is not necessarily a bad thing. “It can be a good conversation segue into a new topic,” says Hendrix. “It can also give you or your conversation partner a minute to gather your thoughts.”
And don’t forget to just relax: “It's not the U.S. Open—it's a friendly game of tennis,” Hendrix says. Meaning you don't need to ace every new acquaintance with the wittiest remark or comeback in history. Plus, the more you practice your small talk game, the easier it gets to figure out which questions work and which are duds. So go ahead and chat up your cute barista—you know, in the name of research.