Picture the scene: you’re standing next to that friend-of-a-friend in the loo queue, commenting on the weather, her nice jeans, the traffic lately… ummm. *Cue awkward silence while you wait for a free cubicle*
We’ve all been there, right? Racking our brains for that next bit of chit-chat. In fact, 18% of us don’t fancy the pressure of making small talk as we ease back into socialising, according to a new poll, while a quarter feel anxious about diaries filling up again – a phenomenon we’re calling FOGO aka fear of going out (find out how to conquer yours here).
‘One reason small talk is so difficult right now is we haven’t had those moments of it littered throughout our day like we used to – interactions at the bus stop, for example,’ says Dr Sophie Mort, clinical psychologist and author of A Manual for Being Human. ‘I also think a lot of us feel like we don’t have much to say.’
Thankfully, she adds, what you talk about is often less important than how you feel and how you make the other person feel. Plus, stepping up your small-talk game is totally doable. Simply steal this expert intel…
If you’re nervous, why not share that? Your small-talk buddy might feel the same. Try something like, ‘It feels a little weird talking to you, as I haven’t really talked to someone like this in a long time. I wonder what it’s like for you to be out and about chatting again?’
Dr Mort says, ‘When I started doing interviews and podcasts, I’d think that I was meant to come across as confident, which actually made me feel even more stressed. After a while, I just decided to tell people that I felt nervous. It was such a wonderful connector. A presenter told me they used to feel like that, too, and automatically we found common ground. We [became] two humans connecting over shared experience. It almost brings a collective sigh of relief.’
Sounds strange but stay with us! ‘We often tie ourselves into knots with new people because we’re thinking about what they’ll think of us and saying the “right” thing,’ explains Dr Mort. ‘So, imagine your oldest friend or someone you trust and care about, then visualise that you’re talking to them. It will lead to a bit of relief.’
Also, boost your comfort levels by assuming the best in the person you’re chatting with. Quite simply, tell yourself they’re going to be kind. ‘Often the topic of conversation is much less important than how you feel,’ adds Dr Mort.
Our small-talk default tends to be asking about work and, while there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s good to keep in mind that the pandemic has taken a toll on some careers. So, mix it up with Dr Mort’s favourite new convo starters: ‘what’s the one thing you started doing in lockdown that you want to keep doing?’ and ‘what’s something positive you’ve learned about yourself over the last year that’s surprised you?’
Encouraging someone else to speak can also give you a break from any discomfort, since you’re focusing more on their new gardening habit/weekly walks/café discovery than your chatter nerves.
Oh, and don’t feel you have to bring up big topics (or ‘big talk’) at every moment. It’s about having a big/small mix – after all, who doesn’t like to hear ‘I love your jumper’ or have a Love Island debrief?
Visualisation can also be handy if you’re nervous before an event or get-together. ‘A trusty technique is to imagine yourself going there,’ says Dr Mort. ‘Imagine yourself having things to say and moments of quiet where you’re able to cope, breathing your way through it and knowing that some silence is not actually as awkward as it seems.’
Another clever coping strategy? A grounding technique such as the ‘54321’. Look around and tell yourself five things you can see; four things you can touch; three things you can hear; two things you can smell and one thing you can taste. ‘You can even sneakily do this during a conversation if you start to feel socially anxious,’ tips Dr Mort.
If, like us, your go-to tactic for ending small talk is a well-timed loo trip, that’s what Dr Mort calls a ‘passive’ approach or using social cues (see also: rummaging in bag for phone or keys) to indicate you want to wrap things up.
She suggests adding a few more direct stock phrases to your toolkit, such as ‘this was lovely, could we put another date in the diary?’ or ‘I’ve got to be somewhere in a bit, but this was so nice. Let’s do it again’.
Catching up with an acquaintance or going on a first date? Rather than arranging coffee or a meal where you’ll be talking for most of the time, try doing something you can both share in – whether that’s going to a gallery, exercise class or cinema.
These are known as ‘side by side’ activities (as opposed to ‘face to face’ ones), according to Dr Mort, and they can ease the small-talk pressure by giving you a clear conversation topic (i.e. the activity), more comfortable pauses and, often, a natural end time.
‘The pandemic took away almost all of these “side by side” opportunities,’ she says. ‘So, we switched from having these lovely moments, which took the pressure off talking, to more face-to-face chat [with video calls, for example] which requires much more energy. My biggest tip? Bring back these “side by side” activities.’
As with most things, you’ll become less rusty at small talk the more you do it. ‘The nerves and anxiety often come from predicting something bad is going to happen,’ says Dr Mort. ‘So, the more you put yourself in that scenario – in a controlled way with your coping skills and at a speed you’re comfortable with – the more it goes well and you learn ‘oh, turns out it’s totally fine’. You’ve got this!
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