5 Ways to Make Small Talk More Meaningful

Just the other day, you avoided making eye contact with your chatty neighbor when you saw her unexpectedly at the grocery store. And you skipped the office holiday party so you wouldn’t have to make awkward small talk all night with your co-workers.These weren’t your first transgressions against polite society, and they probably won’t be your last.

Why do we introverts dislike small talk? Some argue that if we were better at it, we wouldn’t dread it so much. It’s true that just like salsa dancing or cooking, the skill of small talk can be learned and refined—and as our level of mastery increases so does our confidence. But this doesn’t explain why introverts feel the impulse to hide behind frozen broccoli to avoid small talk in the first place. 

In reality, most introverts are drained by small talk because it feels fake and meaningless. When you exchange pleasantries or chat about the weather to avoid silence, you don’t learn anything new or gain a better understanding of your conversation partner. Psychologist Laurie Helgoe, author of Introvert Power: Why Your Inner Life Is Your Hidden Strength, argues that small talk actually blocks honest interaction. “Introverts do not hate small talk because we dislike people,” she writes in her book. “We hate small talk because we hate the barrier it creates between people.”

Along with feeling meaningless, small talk saps an introvert’s limited “people” energy. Imagine that introverts walk around with an invisible battery inside them that contains all their juice for social interaction. When they leave in the morning for school or work, the battery is probably close to full (if they’ve had enough downtime). Throughout the day, the battery gains or loses energy, depending on the situation. They talk to a good friend about a topic that interests them, and zip!—their battery is topped up. They make awkward small talk with an energetic acquaintance for a long time, and slurch!—their juice level dips.

Author Diane Cameron aptly states, “Introverts crave meaning, so party chitchat feels like sandpaper to our psyche,” or like the depleting of precious, precious energy.

The regrettable news for us introverts is that small talk is a necessary evil. It makes us appear friendly and approachable and can open the door to deeper connections. If you never make small talk, you’ll never make a new friend, go on a first date, close a business deal or convince your co-workers you tolerate their daily presence. Small talk makes the social wheel go ‘round.

The key to making small talk more useful and less draining is to steer the conversation toward topics that are actually interesting (the sooner the better)—something that will fill our battery, not drain it. So what do introverts like talking about? Ideas, ideas, ideas.

Helgoe writes in Introvert Power,

“Introverts are energized and excited by ideas. Simply talking about people, what they do and who they know, is noise for the introvert. He’ll be looking between the lines for some meaning, and this can be hard work! Before long, he’ll be looking for a way out of the conversation.”

Here are more tips to survive small talk and turn it into something meaningful:

  1. If you feel anxious about making small talk, remind yourself that your nervousness is coming from you and your beliefs, not the situation. Ask yourself: what’s the worst that can happen? If the small talk fails and the other person doesn’t like me, so what? Also, just because small talk was awkward in the past doesn’t mean it will be that way again.
  1. Take the spotlight off yourself by asking questions. We introverts tend to be private and reserved, so we feel uncomfortable disclosing a lot of personal information right away—at least not until we trust the other person or make a meaningful connection. Take the pressure off yourself, and get the other person talking by asking questions about his or her life.
  1.  Embellish your responses. Of course, if you relentlessly bombard the other person with questions, it will feel like an interrogation. Eventually, you’ll have to answer some questions yourself. To avoid cutting the conversation short, share more than just one-word, closed answers. Add some intriguing tidbits to your responses so you provide “hooks” for the other person to continue the exchange. For example, when someone asks how you are, instead of replying, “Fine,” say, “Good, thanks. I jogged on my favorite trail this morning, and I’m feeling great!” Or, “Good, although with the holidays just around the corner, I’m feeling a little stressed about all the shopping and food prep I have to do.”
  1. Deepen the conversation with open-ended questions. You’ll actually get to know your conversation partner, and you might stumble across something meaningful in the process. Open-ended questions invite the other person to say more than just a few words. Try things like:

“Are you working on anything exciting lately?”

“What has been the highlight of your week?”

“When you were a kid, what was your dream job? Is any part of that still true?”

“What are your thoughts on [insert recent issue in the news lately]?”

  1. Go easy on yourself. Introverts tend to be introspective souls who think deeply about things. However, this incredible gift can become a curse when we use it to brood about our mistakes. If a conversation didn’t go according to plan or ended on an awkward note, be kind to yourself. Everyone messes up sometimes. Spend a few moments reflecting and focusing on your takeaway lesson for next time. As author and motivational speaker Denis Waitley writes, “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker.” You should expect that to accomplish something worthwhile, you’d have to deal with the occasional blunder.

Share your thoughts.

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  • Sachin Sharma

    Excellent article! Being an introvert myself I can’t be more agreeable. But have a couple of things of mine to add . I have realized from my personal experience that an introvert is usually self-focused and being a part of a group gives one a sense of fear to lose ones identity. One usually have the fear of “whatif” and it makes reluctant to participate. Please correct me if I wrong.

  • JamesB

    Interesting article and good tactics for dealing with office neighbors who use the random “drop in and start talking” approach. I agree with most points and add that “small talk” is further hampered by large noisy environments. Some, such as a coffee house, are easier to have 1:1 conversations as afternoon caffeine helps me to deal with new afternoon interactions. Other venues, such as company cafeterias or wedding receptions, are still quite difficult even with advice given here.

  • Anything that normalizes the introvert’s experience is music to my ears. Thanks!

  • weaboo10

    what do i say.. it even feels weird to ask someone back “how are you”,, so cringie dunno why

    • Because you can’t expect them to give you an honest answer unless you’re already close friends, which makes the question meaningless.

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  • Bob Sable

    I devour articles like these because I’d rather have a tooth drilled than make small talk. Whenever someone asks me how it’s going, I struggle to come up with an interesting answer. I want to say something witty just to break the monotony of the typical “How’s it going?”-“Fine” couplet. Part of the problem, I think, is that we introverts often let others begin the conversation. If we take the initiative, we can drive the direction of the interaction by asking those open-ended questions that Jennifer suggests.

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  • Jack Ricchiuto

    I’m just releasing “The Art of Converstions” and this piece could not be more right on. Thanks so much!

  • Kris

    I like this article, especially point no.3. I have often been told that I am short with my answers and can seem snobbish when I do so. But on the inside I feel like I say exactly how I feel and i am straight to the point when i answer questions, but I don’t drag on with my answers. I have often thought that I don’t like to say things just to fill the air, I like to say things that mean something.

  • Cari Z

    I am definitely an introvert and learned to make small talk working as a grocery store checker for many years. I used to find it difficult to talk to new people because I wanted to say something meaningful and deep – to everyone! When I couldn’t think of anything I’d just be quiet. I gradually learned to make small talk and not worry so much about the topic. However, it IS very draining for me to do this constantly. I have a step-daughter that never seems to be able to go deeper than getting her nails done, what to eat for dinner, etc. Talking to her for any length of time is an effort because I have to think like her and keep it surface. I end up feeling like I’ve been stuck in traffic – only making three inches of headway for each conversation. She doesn’t want to know anything real about anyone. In reality I think it’s a defense mechanism to protect her from being hurt. Anyway, I have learned that making small talk CAN be a way in to someone. I met many wonderful people at the grocery store by asking questions and listening, and eventually the small talk became rewarding.

    • IBikeNYC

      “I end up feeling like I’ve been stuck in traffic – only making three inches of headway for each conversation.”

      What a splendid analogy! Wanna roll down our windows and talk to one aNOther?

  • Marcia Lawton Schlichting

    Thank you so much for your website! I’ve been miserable for almost 70 years and wondered why I couldn’t be more outgoing. But, now I realize so much through your articles and am not beating myself up anymore. One of the most weird comments I’ve heard here in Ohio is people (that you don’t even know!) say “Hi, how are you?” They don’t really want to know, it’s just a figure of speech, which I have yet been unable to say.

    • JadePenguin

      It’s not just Ohio; I find it happens to me all the time! Someone asks ‘how are you’ and I start answeing the question, only to realise they were just making small talk and didn’t really care 🙁 There was a ‘Finnish nightmares’ cartoon about the same thing!

      • IBikeNYC

        I’d never seen or even heard of “Finnish Nightmares” but looked them up based on your comment. Kindred spirits on the other side of the globe! Thanks for passing that along 😀

      • I think this applies to Europeans in general. As a European introvert in the US, I just can’t get used to it.

    • IBikeNYC

      Yeah; people have done that, here, too, for decades.

      The NEW one (God help us all) seems to be that “Wanna hang out / get together?” MEANS EXACTLY THE SAME THING AS “How are you?”

      (It took me a while, but I finally figured out that I should — and did — pull my thumb out.)

  • ckmodele

    I am looking forward to trying these new techniques to start off the new year. Stay calm, remember to breathe and give myself permission to not suffer through it, check , check, check!

  • Li Jiuan

    Thanks for the tips! Asking questions usually works and I enjoy being a listener. Talking about common areas of interest also helps keep the conversation going sometimes. Shall try out tip 3 & 4 to survive the next chitchat.

  • HonestPublicPolicy

    Valuable article! Thank you! I’m often accused of being like the late Meet the Press moderator Lawrence Spivak, because I find value in asking questions…and yet, in responses, the conversation becomes so much more meaningful…and I don’t have to talk.

  • Sach1304

    I am not sure if it just introverts who find themselves drained or its more about the talks. I myself an ambivert, avoid office parties if I know I will have to chatter about things neither my interest nor my liking. To add to this, I also know that it is not going to be a learning experience nor it will be exciting. I believe its more about people who enjoy spending quality time in which they can see that they can learn or enjoy stuffs necessarily not being to their liking. But still wouldn’t mind to seeing something new or different which may not be of their interest as they very well the effort going in. Its more to do with the mindless chattering which pisses one off more often than not.

  • Alan Tecker

    Thanks for the small talk tool kit. Steering a conversation to ideas is a good suggestion. I have definitely noticed that I can be energized by ideas I find meaningful, even when I feel drained from social interaction.

    • JadePenguin

      Yep! People often generalise that all introverts always dislike conversation when it’s not true! We can really enjoy socialising, just that it tends to be 1-on-1 or small group where it’s deep topics and we’re given time to think and give our input.