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Kate Silver - This article originally published on Get Old.
"Nice weather we're having." "You catch that game?" "Can you believe how long this line is?"
Small talk. It may seem trivial, but it may be the path to a deeper connection, says Bernardo J. Carducci, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychology and director of the Indiana University Southeast Shyness Research Institute. And it's something that all generations can share, regardless of age differences.
Carducci has spent several decades researching shyness and helping people to overcome it—and he says small talk is often the first step. "Every business deal or every romance starts with a simple conversation," he says.
Being comfortable with making small talk is especially important for older adults, says Carducci, because they are often at risk of becoming socially isolated. "People are lonely and their shyness holds them back," he says. "Everything we know suggests that loneliness facilitates the demise of one's health. We know this notion of social connectedness is critical and, I maintain, at the cornerstone of that is small talk."
Carducci has written a book to help people improve their conversational skills, called "The Pocket Guide to Making Successful Small Talk: How to Talk to Anyone Anytime Anywhere about Anything."
He shared some advice with Get Old:
- Accept that small talk has a purpose. In fact, it may even have the power to make your community a better place. "When you see people and talk to them on a regular basis and make this connection on a regular basis, you're much more likely to treat them in a civil way, and they're more likely to treat you in a civil way as well," says Carducci.
- Start talking. Carducci says that shy people are stymied by a fear of judgement, and that's something they must work to overcome. "If you worry about being judged, excessive self-consciousness basically leads to critical evaluation and what you do is you shut yourself down," he says. You can't have small talk without the "talk" part, and it's up to you to take the risk and see what happens, whether you're at a dog park, waiting for a poetry reading to begin or standing in line.
- Keep it simple. Talk about the weather. Make a comment about the room you're in. Complement a piece of jewelry or an article of clothing. Make some kind of light observation that may be easy for a neighbor to respond to. "The whole point of making this connection is to make it easier for the other person to engage in the conversation," says Carducci.
- Don't overthink it. You don't have to say something brilliant—just say something. "People think, gee if I'm going to open this conversation I have to have something that's going to capture this person's attention, that's going to knock them out and show them how smart and witty and urbane I am. Then you set yourself up for this really high standard that you have to maintain. Plus, that puts pressure on the other person to maintain that same level."
- Remember that conversation is team work. Rather than fixating on what you're going to say next about you, consider what you can say to keep the discussion going. "The hallmark of a good conversation is you're not focusing on yourself, you're focusing on how can I move this thing forward? How can I respond and contribute to what that person said?"
- Focus on similarities, not differences. It doesn't matter whether you're speaking to a teenager, a young adult, a middle-aged person or a senior. What's important is that you find common ground and go from there. Maybe you have a grandchild or child who is their age. Or perhaps you both live in the surrounding neighborhood. It may be tempting to talk about what's different about you, but small talk is more successful on common ground. "If you find the similarity then you're in a much more comfortable position and there's going to be less anxiety," says Carducci.
- Be kind. "You can never go wrong by being kind to others," says Carducci. When you're kind to people, they're more likely to be kind back to you. Niceties may help you get to know the people you interact with, whether it's at the coffee shop, the post office or your kitchen table.
- Don't undershare, but don't overshare. Sharing information about yourself —something that Carducci refers to as "self-disclosure"—is a part of small talk. You want to provide enough information that it can serve as a launching point to talk more in depth. But not so much that it might feel uncomfortable for the other person. "We know from the research on self-disclosure that people who are bad conversationalists share too much too quickly. As a result, what happens is people begin to judge you as emotionally unstable. If you move too slowly, you keep holding back information, people judge you as being withdrawn," he says. It's important to find a balance between the two.
- Don't worry about silence. "People worry: they didn't respond, I'm failing! And they start to get nervous," says Carducci. What feels like two minutes to you may actually be just a few seconds of silence. Allow the other person to gather his or her thoughts and try not to overthink it.
- Talk, don't debate. You know the old rule about not talking politics or religion? Balderdash, says Carducci. It's not talking about those topics that's a problem—it's debating them that could get you into hot water. "With a debate, you're trying to prove them wrong and you're right," he says. Be mindful of your approach and respectful of others and you can talk about almost anything.
- Practice, practice, practice. Conversational skills are learned, says Carducci, and that means they can always be improved. "Nothing that I've ever read says we are born with the gift of gab," he says. "It's an acquired skill." Carducci recommends starting quick conversations with people throughout the day for practice. The more you do it, he says, the easier it gets.
Do you have a go-to topic when it comes to small talk? What's your favorite thing to say?