Think About It: Big thoughts on small talk

Don Meyer, Ph.D.
Don Meyer, Ph.D.

“Small talk is the biggest talk we do.” - Susan RoAne

I wonder how many of us would actually admit that we agreed with Caitlin Moran who said, “I am not good at small talk. I will hide in a cupboard to avoid chitty-chat.”

I must confess that early in my life making small talk — actually any kind of talk — did not come easily for me. Over and over I would become tongue tied when I found myself in social situations. I was extremely awkward. Often I would hear my mother talk for long periods of time on the phone with one of her sisters and I still remember being puzzled because I could not fathom what they had to talk about.

If you want to improve your small talk, you may want to take a look at Allan Green’s “The Fine Art of Small Talk; Conversation Starters for Business Networking and Daily Life.” He says, “Ten seconds is all you need to get someone interested in what you have to say, whether it be a person you’ve been dying to speak to at a party, an elderly person, a randomly encountered individual, or an old friend.”


Each of his six tips has much to help the tongue-tied: be an incredible host; go out of your way; do not close your door to strangers; be accommodating; and cherish memories. But the one that connected the most with me was his very first chapter titled “Great Conversations Begin with Great Questions.”

Years ago I learned the importance of this conversation starter when I heard my dear friend, Dick Foth say, “If you want to start a conversation with anyone, you can always ask them the simple question, ‘Where are you from?’” With that question, I have begun more conversations with total strangers than I could ever mention here. That question opens the door for follow-up questions, which cause the other person to begin talking.

As Green says, “Once an open-ended question is put on the table, the person being addressed feels somehow obligated to throw back a response; they have to contribute to the conversation in an intelligent way.”

I did not realize that “All over the world, people of various cultures and languages use a common greeting that roughly translates into the following question, ‘How are you?’ Remarkably, it is essentially globally understood that if you want to begin a conversation with someone, you must first ask a question.”

Green’s ideas about questions are powerful. For example, if your goal is to guide a conversation in a particular direction you could ask, “How has your experience at the university been so far?” or “What is your opinion regarding the current political debates?”

In order to invite a person to recall memories from the past you could ask, “What is jumping off a cliff like?” or “Who was your first violin teacher?

You could always try a rhetorical question with a witty comment like, “When you cry, will your tears run out?” or “If you find yourself, are you another individual?”

There are also “closed-end” questions like, “Are you going to do the marathon next year?” or “Did you finish your meal?”

Of course, the art and craft of conversation requires that we not only know how to ask questions but also when to ask them. A good question asked at the wrong time can be a wet blanket on any conversation or even socially catastrophic. For example, you would never say during a wake, “Have you heard the one about...”

Elie Wiesel said, “He explained to me with great insistence that every question possessed a power that did not lie in the answer.”

Green ended this chapter on questions with these words: “The next time you sense a conversation growing cold, why not heat it up with a little interrogation?”

Do you think that has merit?

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of the University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville. Responses can be e-mailed to Official page: Follow on Twitter: @DrDonMeyer. Archives at: