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How to turn small talk into smart conversation

https://ideas.ted.com/how-to-turn-small-talk-into-smart-conversation/

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How to turn small talk into smart conversation
Tips from a comedian and a journalist on the art of going from small talk to big ideas. Try these out at the next summer wedding reception.

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Awkward conversations with strangers

Awkward conversations with strangers

In a situation where people are gathered together, it always involves people trying to talk to each other. In these moments, we often fall short and can't think of anything to say, or worse; we fumble through with the aim of not crashing.

However, we can soar in conversations and learn to turn small talk into big ideas.

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How to get beyond small talk

Ask open-ended questions that invite people to tell stories, rather than one-word answers.

Instead of "How was your day?" try, "What did you do today?" Other open-ended questions to try:

  • "What's your story?"
  • "What's the strangest thing about where you grew up?"
  • "What's the most interesting thing that happened at work today?"
  • "How'd you end up in your line of work?"
  • "What was the best part of your weekend?"
  • "What are you looking forward to this week?"
  • "Who do you think is the luckiest person in this room?"

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Practice the art of disruption

When small talk dries up, it's often due to "mirroring." In our efforts to be polite, we answer questions directly, repeat their observations, or just agree with whatever they say.

For example, one person would say, "It's a beautiful day," and we might answer, "Yes, it's a beautiful day." Instead, we could practice the art of disruption. To move the dialogue forward, we could reply: "They say that the weather was just like this when ... happened (insert a historical or personal moment)"

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Leapfrog over the expected response

A way to carry on a conversation is to skip over the expected response.
Instead of:
Ron: "How was your flight?"
Carlos: "My flight was good."
Carlos could be bold and say, "I'd be more intrigued by an airline where your ticket price was based on your IQ."

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Anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski noted in 1923 that a great deal of talk "does not serve any purpose of communicating ideas" but "to establish bonds of personal union." He also said that small talk was merely a way to fill the silence.

He was wrong. Small talk is not just for those seeking companionship. It enacts and reinforces social roles in a whole range of social, commercial, and professional settings. 

Speech operates on two levels

  • Speech communicates information or ideas. It is the semantic content of speech.
  • On another level, talking is a social behavior. Every speech does something. It reassures, acknowledges, nurtures, enjoins, rejects, dominates, encourages, or just fill an awkward silence.