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The art of smalltalk

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Chances are it is raining again, but what would we actually talk about if it wasn’t for our ever-changing climate? Stylist looks into the (very British) talent for small talk.

Words: Tamara Cohen

It happens in an instant. You walk into the room and clock who you know. The answer is swift and brutal. No one. Not one face is familiar. Nerves balloon into panic. Your tongue sticks to the top of your mouth. A waiter offers you a glass of wine – you gladly accept, gulping the first mouthfuls, and try to engage him in conversation, laughing like a maniac to cover the fact that you’re trying to befriend the only person in the room who’s paid to be nice to you. He awkwardly moves away with an expression of half-pity, half-fear, and by doing so reveals you to be the only person in the room that has no-one to talk to. You stand there solo, infantilised, like the last kid to be picked for sport at school. What do you do? Pretend to check your email? Smile like you enjoy your own company? Or do you turn around to the nearest person and blurt out something about the weather?

We’ve all been there. The ‘party’ that turns out to be five people you’ve never met; the important client meeting where your boss is late and the rest of you have to fill the silence before she arrives. Like it or loathe it, small talk is an art form, and one we desperately need to master.

Luckily for us Brits, we have a not-so-secret weapon in the small talk arsenal – the weather.

“Small talk functions as a simple low-threat way to make connections with other people, a social icebreaker. The subjects we choose need to be uncontroversial but universal which is why the weather is such an excellent subject,” says Dr Gary Wood, social psychologist and author of Unlock Your Confidence.

The great thing about the British weather is there’s such a variety of it – we’re used to rain, sun, wind and hail on the same day. And with the weather currently being so temperamental and, according to the Met Office, set to remain that way for the weeks ahead, we’re not going to run dry of talking points. Oscar Wilde may have maintained, “conversation about the weather is the last refuge of the unimaginative,” but he’d clearly never known the unique pleasure of discussing “the wrong kind of snow”. And this weather-focused babble is nothing new. Way back in 1758, writer and scholar Samuel Johnson wrote: “When two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather.”

But how do other nationalities cope on a continuous diet of sun, sun, sun? The average Brit spends six months of their life on weather-chat. What do strangers talk about in countries where you don’t always find yourself unsuitably dressed?

“The French talk about the weather just as much as we do,” says Clare Griffiths, a customer services manager who has lived in Languedoc for 23 years. “They are also very into sharing their health stories – how sick they are and how many operations they have had. The more gory the better.

But even in countries that enjoy a far more benign climate than us, people will often fall back on the weather. “We discuss it all the time, even when it’s almost always good – that and the traffic,” says Jinsy Rogers, 29, a medical social worker from LA. “The weather impacts people so much, and even small things (like what we call ‘June gloom’ which is a summer morning fog) have a big effect on your mood.”

But, believe it or not, there are some cultures that don’t find weather as endlessly fascinating as us, and there, small talk can be a minefield. Spare a thought for those poor people in southern Spain – they don’t even have the variants of LA; as the sun famously shines 320 days a year. There small talk generally revolves around gossip with much tutting and shaking of heads (in Spain gestures are a huge part of any conversation).

In Germany there isn’t even a word for ‘small talk’. “The Germans like to get straight to the point,” says etiquette guru, William Hanson. “And the Chinese and Russians will talk about money, whereas we don’t tend to like that.” Similarly, there are some Arab countries where a man could cause a scandal by politely enquiring after female family members due to strict rules on women’s rights or where, if you admire an ornament or a picture, the poor host might feel obliged to offer it to you as a present. In some of the more dangerous parts of the world, small talk can be viewed with suspicion, as a preamble to a scam, while in Holland, it can make people feel less comfortable, as they’re not used to it.

Julie goes to extreme measures to avoid the hairdresser's interrogation into her holiday plans

a fine art

But back in that room of strangers small talk doesn’t always come easily, even if it is snowing in June. And as you struggle to find one interesting anecdote to engage a group of associates (you can only comment on the ‘originality’ of the canapés so many times), it’s easy to be envious of your colleagues or friends who can strike up conversation with ease. But just because they have lots to say, it doesn’t mean those people are any more comfortable than you. “If I’m feeling awkward, I will start talking and I won’t stop until I can guarantee I won’t have to deal with a second of awkward silence,” says one Stylist staffer. “It’s a problem in itself, because I’ll end up sharing secrets I’m not supposed to, or putting myself down, all to avoid making someone feel uncomfortable.” Finding the middle ground – not being mute and not being the very opposite of mute – is a talent and just like a musical instrument, it’s a hard thing to learn if you’re not a natural.

It is worth learning though, as having an accomplished grasp of small talk is an advantage if you want to succeed both socially and professionally. Being able to strike up an instant rapport with everyone from the receptionist at your dentist to a potential employer has widereaching benefits. If you’re so crippled by the fear of being stuck for something to say that you spend an entire networking event hovering at the back of the room or will only attend a party accompanied by a friend, you’re missing out on a whole ream of opportunities.

“Being able to make small talk can help you to create connections of all kinds,” says Gill Hasson, author of Brilliant Communication Skills. “It can open doors to all sorts of people and possibilities. Small talk can lead to big talk, which can lead to big people, and big opportunities.”

The Queen of Small Talk is, fittingly, the Queen – a skill she has honed over decades of state functions and library openings. Apparently a favourite line is, “Have you come far?” which has the dual advantage of being universal and giving the other person the impression that she is interested in them. She has become an expert in speaking without expressing an opinion, although even now she occasionally slips up – recently BBC journalist Frank Gardner ran into trouble for reporting a comment she’d made about Abu Hamza.

Gordon Brown, on the other hand, was legendarily hopeless at small talk, as was the late Baroness Thatcher, of whom historian Andrew Roberts wrote in The Telegraph: “She had absolutely no small talk. Her idea of a greeting was: “‘Hello Andrew, what do you think about what the UN is doing in Srebrenica?’ This could be unnerving when one was mentally preparing an anodyne remark about the weather, but it did save time.”

But it’s not only those in high office who need to hone their small-talking skills. “Small talk serves as an appetiser,” says Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk. “If you start with small talk a deeper relationship may develop – business, social or romantic. It’s the beginning of them all.”

One of the oddities of small talk is that it’s not necessarily about being a good talker. “People who are good at small talk have good interpersonal skills. They know how to warm the tone of their voice and use eye contact enough that you show you’re interested,” says social psychologist, Laura Smith.

They also know when to stop. “Good small talkers know how to manage the rhythm of conversation,” says communications coach Mary Hartley. “They don’t ask a lot of yes/ no questions, they ask open-ended questions, and they’re not afraid of silences which often give the other person time to think.”

It might be tempting to loiter in the corner at a work party, but small talk clearly shows friendly intentions – and who doesn’t want to be around people who are pleasant? Secondly, it communicates mood which is enormously useful when meeting people you don’t know. And thirdly, it sets the groundwork should you want to converse on more serious matters.

“Some people complain that small talk is superficial, but it’s more likely that they just don’t know the ground rules, the topics to pick and those to avoid,” says Dr Wood. “Other people are just nervous about any kind of social encounter.”

But is small talk destined to be a painful process for the one in three of us who describe ourselves as introverts? A recent study showed that the naturally introverted feel exhausted after small talk with one in five admitting to not speaking to a stranger for over six months and one in four workers claiming they’d rather get straight down to business than make conversation first. Indeed, it can be all too easy to build the fear of small talk into a phobia of unfamiliar social situations.

The sad fact is that not all of us are born with the smalltalk gene. “Small talk doesn’t come easily to all of us,” says Hasson. “Often, the fear of coming across as fake, dull or stupid makes it difficult to find your courage and initiate contact, let alone maintain a conversation.”

Madonna and Nicky Minaj making every moment count - we imagine

talk the talk

Nowhere is small talk more important than in the work environment, and in particular those often excruciating social functions where business masquerades as pleasure.

“Small talk is the glue that binds people in a team or office together. It helps people to feel they belong to their workplace and that’s important because we spend a lot of hours in it,” explains Ros Toynbee, director of The Career Coach, a service which offers workshops for young professionals. It also helps you move up the ladder. “At an interview, you’re unlikely to be asked ‘How good are you at small talk?’ but it helps to be able to engage in chit chat with the interviewers at the start.”

But if you’re not a natural small talker, there are things you can do to help. “Most interviewers form a strong impression in the first few seconds. If you prepare yourself with a line of small talk said with a smile and a handshake, you’ve already got a head start,” says Smith.

In some cases good chat can mean the difference between whether or not you get a job. “Small talk helps you literally find your voice before a formal interview begins,” explains Hartley. “Some people get so nervous, their voices seize up. Commenting naturally on the weather stops that from happening.”

The good news is that the art of small talk can be learned. “Some people are born with the gift of the gab,” explains Debra Fine, “but the rest of us need to learn the skills if we seek success as good conversationalists. It can be taught either through personal development classes and books or by observing charismatic people interact with others. Model what they say, their body language and other behaviours.”

If you need to make a good first impression, body language helps. “I tell people to focus on relaxing,” says Dr Wood. “If you are relaxed the body language takes care of itself. I also remind them that small talk is a light exchange of views not an opportunity to get on your soap box for long monologues. As a general rule, if you have been speaking for 60 seconds then you have already been speaking too long.”

Many training and coaching companies or adult education colleges throughout the UK offer courses or workshops in communication. Look for a course tailored to your requirements – small talk for business purposes is going to be slightly different to small talk for romance. But as with most things, the best way of learning is by doing. Radio presenter Alice Levine co-hosts the Monday-Thursday, 10pm to midnight new music show on BBC Radio 1 with Phil Taggart. The job involves a lot of small talk and at just 26, she says she’s still learning the ropes: “With some people, making small talk can be like getting blood out of a stone. I used to be terrified of silences and babble about the first thing that came into my head, just to fill them.

A small silence can seem like a lifetime on air, but actually I’ve learned that sometimes people are just thinking about what you’ve said, so now I try to really listen to what they’re saying rather than bombarding them with questions, which can feel like an interrogation. My trick is to try to make myself look stupid, so they see I’m human.”

But it’s not just about putting others at ease, it’s also about being comfortable with what you can achieve. “I used to take it personally if people didn’t respond to me,” Alice explains, “but now I just accept that, just as in normal life, I’ll click with some people more than I will others.”

Because, after all, it is just a way of lubricating everyday interactions so everyone feels comfortable, included and able to navigate the social steeplechase of relationships without falling flat on their face. Because in a social situation where everyone is a stranger, no one will reject your small-talk advances – even if it’s about something as mundane as your love of prawn vol-au-vents. And, remember, when in doubt, there’s always the weather. Anyone reckon it looks like rain again?

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