Masters of Small Talk Never Do These 10 Things — Do You?


Have you been in the situation of needing to make conversation with people you did not know well? Weddings, cocktail parties, and business conferences can be anxiety-provoking if you don't know how to make small talk. Although you may dread it, though, small talk can be a great thing. Chatting can make simple exchanges more pleasant; it can also start the beginning of a great conversation or even friendship. (See also: 10 Fun, Practically Free Ways to Make New Friends)

It is estimated that between 7% and 13% of humans suffer from social anxiety. What is there to talk about? What should you never bring up? What subjects are safe? Well to start, below are 10 things that small-talk masters know never to do.

1. They Don't Assume They Are Alone in Their Anxiety

It may seem like everyone in the room knows each other, but that's unlikely. I guarantee there are other people there who are as anxious as you are about social situations. Take a deep breath, square your shoulders, and smile. Take a moment to survey the situation and see if maybe there is somebody there that you do know. If not, no need for panic. It's just an event, and it will pass.

My trick is to anticipate the worst and let the dread "in;'" nearly all the time, I end up enjoying myself.

2. They Never Forget to Introduce Themselves

Even if I do know someone at an event or party, I do not depend on them to introduce me to others. They may have forgotten my name, or how they know me, or whatever. Don't barge in on people in deep conversations, but if you see an opening, simply walk up and say, "Hi! I'm Jane Smith" and extend your hand for a handshake. If there are other people in the group, repeat the process.

How to remember names? Repeat the name ("Hi, Tom, it's really nice to meet you."). You might try a little trick to remember the name, like a song, or a nursery rhyme, that makes a word association for you. Once introductions are made, people will usually ask where you work, or how you know the bride or groom, or birthday person, or where you're from. The ball is then rolling.

3. They Never Forget to Introduce Someone Else

My friend Sylvia, a seasoned networker, makes the best introductions. They usually go something like this: "Everyone, I would like you to meet John Smith. John has this awesome travel website and he is my travel guru! He also makes the world's best homemade bread." In her introduction, she gives people clues about things to ask John. She has also given him several compliments, which strengthens his self-confidence and make him smile.

4. They Never Have Bad Body Language

People are receptive to good body language. Take note of your posture, first of all. Are you slumping? Stand up straight. What are you doing with your hands? Do not cross your arms — that is defensive posture. Holding your hands together in front of you, or behind your back, are both "open" gestures. It may help you to have a drink to hold, if you are nervous. Try not to hold it in the hand you shake with, though, or you'll be shaking hands with a cold hand. Make eye contact, but don't stare. Engage. Smile. Listen. The world is full of talkers, but a good listener is hard to find. Nod your head, and ask the occasional question. Don't keep checking your cell phone. If you get a call, excuse yourself politely and take it.

5. They Never Discuss Religion

This was one of my mom's rules, and will serve you well. While it can be a very interesting subject, it is not a "safe" one in that you might easily offend someone you do not know well.

6. They Almost Never Discuss Politics

Another "mom" rule, and a harder one to avoid. But do, because this topic gets heated, quickly. This rule can go out the window if you are at a political fundraiser, because you are likely on the same page the other people, of course. Just tread carefully.

7. They Never Forget How to Use Openers

People who are good at small talk, I have noticed, are really good at asking questions, or "openers." Use the information you glean from your first question to ask more questions.For instance, "So when you went to Portland, did you go to Jake's Seafood?" Or, "What a beautiful scarf! Where did you buy it?"

Hopefully, the person you are conversing with will in turn ask you questions, which will keep the small talk going. Sometimes, the person you are trying to chat up is really reticent. Here is a trick: "So before this event, what did you do, today?" There is almost always some usable material in that response.

8. They Don't Forget to Expand the Circle

So, if a few moments ago, you were the "odd man out," be aware of people who may be hovering and want to join in, too. Make eye contact, extend your arm for a handshake, and introduce yourself (and the others, if you can remember their names). After introductions, you may need to backtrack ("We were just talking about where the best breweries are in this town") and give the newbie a chance to get involved. They will be grateful to you for your help.

Also, in the world of small talk, It's bad form to stay and talk shop with one person the whole time. If someone is monopolizing you, it is perfectly fine to say something like, "Well, Ben, my wife will shoot me if I don't get over there and visit with her great-aunt for a while. Good to see you."

9. They Don't Go Into Small Talk Unprepared

Unless you are having pretty dramatic weather, I wouldn't lead with that. For a conference or company event, do some homework and have some relevant topics ready to bring up. Movies, television shows, current events, or hobbies are usually safe and interesting for cocktail parties. Ask for activity or restaurant recommendations, if you are from out of town. Read the local paper, watch the local news. Just gather up a few possible subjects for your arsenal.

10. They Don't Make a Poor Exit

This is easier to do if you are in a little group, when you simply say, "Excuse me, I need to go say hello to my regional VP." Or, "Hey, I am going to go get a fresh cocktail." If it is just you and another person, when there is a graceful lull in the conversation, something like, "John, it has been great talking to you and I enjoyed meeting you. I hope we can stay in touch." Shake hands again, and go. If you are in a business setting, you might give one of your cards.

So, tell us: How do you handle small talk?

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Guest's picture

Good and insightful article Marla. I like that you gave examples and didn't just leave it at what not to do. Thank you.

Guest's picture

In general, I prefer to turn and run screaming in the other direction. :) I am awful at small talk! I decided I need to research the topic so I can have fewer awkward conversations in the future. Thanks for a great, helpful article!