How to engage in small talk after isolation and during adversity

According to public speaking and communication expert Lauren Sergy, people are showing more hesitancy to engage in conversation — both from lack of practice and to avoid heavier subject matter.

Paying compliments and preparing stock questions can help dust off your social skills, expert says

After about six months of isolation, quarantine, and working remotely, many people will be brushing up on their social skills when they head back to the office this fall. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Since COVID-19 ushered in an age of quarantine, physical distancing and working from home six months ago, opportunities for small talk around the water cooler have greatly diminished for most.

But that will be changing for those heading back to the office this fall, and who may have fallen out of the habit of socializing.

According to public speaking and communication expert Lauren Sergy, people are showing more hesitancy to engage in conversation — due to both lack of practice, and to avoid heavier subject matter.

But she said it's actually a great time for chit-chat if you can navigate it gracefully, and shared small-talk tips on the Calgary Eyeopener Wednesday morning.

"If you can get past the rather fraught question of, 'How are you doing?' — which is sometimes followed by a pause, whether or not someone decides to answer honestly — you actually do pretty good with small talk [right now]," Sergy said.

Small talk 'not so small anymore'

Sergy explained that one issue people are facing is that, at the moment, light conversation is hard to come by.

In fact, she hasn't seen this much apprehension to engage in discourse outside of election season, when people are apprehensive about getting too political.

"[Small talk is] not so small anymore with so many major, major issues going on, and people kind of tired of just pretending to power through it," Sergy said.

"It has become a little bit more tetchy, a little bit more difficult. So you'll see people treat it more cautiously, and sometimes even avoid the small talk altogether."

What Sergy recommends is to focus on the everyday — "the stuff of life," she said — that people can easily mention and engage with, because they are shared experiences.

"Small talk does not have to be brilliant. It doesn't have to be clever. But what it should is provide an opening for someone to answer a question," Sergy said. 

Asking about someone's weekend plans is OK, but it leaves much of the conversation up to the other person, she said.

"On the other hand, if you said something like, 'What's what's one thing that's really bringing you joy right now?' Well, that sets the tone for the conversation; that you want something happy and uplifting. But it also gives … the other person something more specific to respond to, which can encourage the conversation," Sergy said.

Very, very friendly

Another way of approaching conversation in a positive way, Sergy said, is to pay a compliment. So if you like someone's footwear, purse or haircut, let them know.

"That sort of observation is a great way to engage people," Sergy said.

"So, 'I love your boots' is saying, 'Hey, where did you get them?' That you have such great taste. It's very complimentary and it's very, very friendly."

The hardest part can be undertaking the responsibility of starting a conversation, so she recommends preparing yourself with a few stock questions and going for it.

And if someone engages you in small talk, don't overthink the answer. 

"It's 30 seconds of chit-chat, not not two hours of solving the world's problems."

Fuelling the social need

Still, those 30-seconds of chit-chat shouldn't be diminished or overlooked.

For many of us who have experienced heightened isolation during the pandemic, it is tremendously important that we maintain our connections to others, Sergy said.

"They're really important, those connections. You know, it's fuelling that social need that we have to simply be with other humans in a non-high stakes environment," Sergy said.

"And in terms of work, being willing to make that kind of chit-chat in the office space is going to improve morale. It can improve relationships. It can make it easier to discuss the hard things."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener


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