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You Can Make Your Small Talk Meaningful

Just yesterday, 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:

01If 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.

02Take 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.

03Embellish 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.”

04Deepen 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]?”

05Go 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.