Illustration by Ben Thomson

We Asked a Couple of Experts How to Nail Awkward Small Talk

Beatrice Hazlehurst

Beatrice Hazlehurst

The science of getting deep or getting the hell out of there.

Illustration by Ben Thomson

You're walking around the supermarket, looking like roadkill, when suddenly you run into that person you added on Snapchat when you were next-level turnt at some party. You don't remember their name, but they recognise you—and they're heading over. You must now prepare for the smallest type of small talk in the world. It's going to be awful.

Despite the constant evolution of our social expectations, one thing that hasn't changed is awkwardness of small talk. Social media may have broken down barriers between each individual, but with increasing online confidence comes increasing anxiety about engaging in real life. You could be quite comfortable sliding into someone's DMs, but if you were introduced in person? No way in hell you're the kind of schmuck that would bring that up.

Faced with a lifetime of making idiots of ourselves, we decided to ask a couple of serious experts—Miriam Meyerhoff, a sociolinguist at Victoria University, and Talk Your Way to Happiness author Barri Leslie—how to best navigate awkward small talk. Even if that might mean being sucked into the obligatory vortex of We just have to catch up. Here are their top tips:

Small Talk Is So Damn Small Because We Need it to Be

Small talk is small because it's the first stepping stone to getting into... "heavy talk." Asking questions you don't really care about the answers to ("How are you?) eases both parties into the interaction and forms the base for developing real connection. "Psychologists have likened it to animals picking fleas off each other," Meyerhoff explains. "It's trust-forming."

Both Leslie and Meyerhoff say the whole purpose of talking with others is to get what we want from them, so if your goal is to get to a more meaningful conversation you'll unfortunately just have a sweat the small stuff first. But it's not easy to switch from one to the other. We can instantly identify when something feels "heavy" or "deep" because that's outside our expectancy realm, it's not an everyday experience to have a truly meaningful conversation with someone.

Leslie describes small talk as driving in first gear. It will get you rolling but won't drive you from Auckland to Wellington.

Context Is Key

Depending on your environment, the awkwardness of small talk can be very different. It can be easier to handle at parties because you go in with the expectation of making social connections. You don't really wander out of a gym class—sweating, half dead—with the expectation that you'll run into some hot guy you used to go to school with. In these contexts there's a pressure to leave the interaction because it's not naturally social. However, this is when you'll get an added sense of satisfaction if you actually go beyond surface chat.

What Do You Actually Want From This Conversation?

As Leslie explains there's no surefire way to open a conversation. A good opener completely depends on your goal—what you want from this particular person. Do you want a closer relationship? Use more direct eye contact and say their name a lot. According to Leslie, most people will become more engaged almost immediately if you weave their name into a sentence. "Mirroring" your body language to theirs is also helpful.

But maybe the shit has hit the fan, and you've run into someone you once saw a lot of (an ex-lover/best friend) but hoped to never see again. In this situation you can close down the relationship by using less eye contact, a cooler tone of voice, and closed body gestures with arms coming across the chest area—if not actually folded.

Leslie also advises to keep to safe topics that won't be mutually upsetting. Most importantly: KEEP IT BRIEF. "Research indicates men are more likely to present themselves successfully and hide their vulnerabilities, while women are more likely to do the opposite," she says. So guys, don't talk about your threesome last weekend, girls avoid describing your recent failed relationship with that dick from your gym.

The Awkward, and Inevitable, Lull

Both experts acknowledge how tempting it can be to fill silences with chattering monologue. If you're trying to get a little deeper with someone, try asking an open-ended question, one that can't be answered with a simple yes or no. What did you think of the show? How do you know the party hosts? What are your thoughts on the geopolitical implications of falling oil prices? Or, whatever.

While, according to Leslie, women tend to do the communication work of questioning and laughing at jokes, contemporary women are likely to be looking for equality, which informs important criteria. In Leslie's experience many women believe if a man hasn't asked questions or laughed at her jokes he's disinterested. Alternatively if there's an awkward pause and you want out, see below.

Getting Out Alive

Here's where Leslie and Meyerhoff disagree. Both suggest shifting your tone of voice to excuse yourself, while referencing what you have to do (wash hair, get back to work, early night). Meyerhoff believes suggesting further interaction (to "catch up" at a later date) is less formal than darting off, while leaving the other person feeling valued. "If you ask someone to further your interaction at a later date, whether you actually want to or not, it's obvious you're thinking of their feelings," she says. Leslie disagrees, believing getting out is avoiding the inevitable. You're just skirting present awkwardness for future awkwardness.

When They Say "We Have to Get Drinks!" But You Definitely, Absolutely Never Want to See Them Again

If the thought of getting a drink to catch-up on "what's new" with your conversation partner makes you want to gouge your eyes out Leslie says pause, a lot. Break eye contact. Even the most persistent "catch-up" suggester should, at this point, realise other person already knows we are not going to accept the invitation.

The pause while you "consider" will warn the inviter they are going to be let down. Then follow up quickly by (keyword) gently saying you are too busy.

Embrace the Weirdness, You Might Learn Something

If you choose to slow your day down long enough to engage with people throughout it, both experts agree it can be really refreshing. Meyerhoff says engaging in small talk is not something to avoid but something to learn from. That connection, however superficial, can make you feel as if you've achieved something. Connection is what humans are here for anyway, right?

So the next time you see that girl you did one assignment with during first year uni your impulse may be to duck behind the nearest cardboard cutout of the Jamie Oliver, but consider taking the time to chat. It could just be worth it.

Awkwardly run in to Beatrice on Twitter