Small talk. Why introverts don’t like small talk & how to be better at it

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So, “we all know” introverts don’t like small talk (well, you’ve heard it plenty of times). It’s often put to me as “introverts hate small talk”. But, what causes the problem? It’s not that introverts don’t like to like to talk,  as they do.  This article explores what’s different about smalltalk to “normal talk” along with why smalltalk is an issue for many people and how to be better at smalltalk.

What is smalltalk?

Smalltalk is polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters. So many people ask “as it’s about unimportant matters, what’s this small talk meaning?“. Depending on your view small talk lubricates the discussion so you can get to know them better, or it’s a barrier to getting to know somebody.

To be more impressive it’s called phatic communication. Communication that has a social function, but no meaning. That social function being to prolong or establish communication, coming back to that conversational lubricant.

What are examples of small talk.

The classic, especially in the UK is about the weather, i was in a conversation the other day where people were not only talking about it raining – but how the type of rain was different to the day before! It could also be general discussions about food, clothes, what was on TV, etc. Nearly everybody could join in, but the subject is almost pointless, it’s the conversational lubricant as people (hopefully) get to a more important issue. That’s why small talk is important (according to some people).

Why do introverts hate small talk?

Is there evidence, or is it a myth, that introverts hate small talk? As part of my survey (please complete it yourself) I asked many introverts if they dislike small talk. 73% said “yes”, where only 25% of extroverts dislike it! We can discuss the degree (“i hate small talk”, dislike, bored with, etc.), but the better question is why do introverts hate smalltalk, or what is is about small talk that introverts don’t like? 

Here are the most common responses when discussing small talk (does discussing small talk count as small talk? Am I being flippant now?)

  • Boring and no point: Introverts prefer deeper conversation, normally with a few select friends. Discussion about random irrelevant rubbish serves no point and is boring.
  • It’s fake: Small talk, to some is fake. If they’re not interested in connecting with someone, why waste the energy? It’s inauthentic.
  • Don’t like big egos: Small talk seem full of mind-numbing egotism, the people who appear to enjoy small talk the most are those that talk for ever, preferring to talk about themselves and their successes. Introverts value humility.
  • Too shallow: Introverts prefer a deeper conversation, with a meaningful outcome, which includes relevant details.
  • Fear of being caught out: If you don’t know what to say, it’s easy to feel worried about being on the spot. Introverts tend to process thoughts internally, extroverts process externally. In more basic terms, an extrovert is talking in order to process their thoughts, where an introvert needs to stop and think about things. This can lead to feeling bad if the introvert doesn’t have an “instant answer”.
  • Energy: Introverts lose energy spending time with people and would rather spend their precious “people energy” doing something more useful (extroverts are the other way round).
  • Gets in the way of real conversation: Exchanging pleasantries and chatting about irrelevant stuff to avoid silence doesn’t help you understand your conversation partner – or worse. If all we do is fulfill societies expectation of trivia, small talk gets in the way of “proper conversation”. Psychologist Laurie Helgoe says introverts hate small talk because it creates a barrier between people. Superficial, polite discussion prevents openness, so people don’t learn about each other.
  • Deeper meaning: Helgoe again, “Introverts are energized and excited by ideas. Simply talking about people, what they do and who they know, is noise for the introvert.”The introvert is looking for meaning and will get tired trying to find it. Introverts look for deeper meaning, not superficiality.
  • Privacy: Some introverts are private people (as are many extraverts), who don’t like opening up more than they need to.
  • Don’t like socialising: Actually, introverts don’t have a dislike of socialising and can socialise productively. However, it’s not their preference; is your issue with small talk about socialising?
  • Small talk is boring
  • Internal processing: Introverts typically want think things through (internal processing) before responding, that’s not being unfriendly or slow witted (but some worry it is). It’s much better to give well thought through points, than quick reactions and misinformation.

Take the short survey (less than 5 questions), I’d love to know what you think.

Why do I hate small talk?

Hey this is a blog, so no harm in getting personal? More seriously somebody asked me if I hate small talk. Having researched he answers above and understand them my answers to “why do I hate small talk” are below. Do I hate it? The odd thing is sometimes it’s great and at other times it’s dreadful.

  • Egos: Like many introverts I struggle conversing with somebody who likes to wave their ego around.
  • Am I interesting enough? It’s a bit of imposter syndrome. Odd this is in my heart sometimes, but not in my more logical head
  • People energy. This can come and go, like most introverts. Sometimes it lasts for ages and sometimes it just drops out.
  • Let’s get deeper: Let’s quit the phatic stuff and get more meaningful.

How about you? I’d love to hear your thoughts on small talk, drop me an email or let’s chat on social media.

Get better at small talk

If you’re saying to yourself “why do I hate small talk” or  “I don’t like small talk” and want to Get better at small talk, the first step is to understand what is it about small talk you don’t like. Then, more importantly, what will you do to manage that?

Being aware of, and using, your introvert skills such as listening will help. Stop worrying about being interesting and be interested as you listen well, ask relevant questions and perhaps summarise what you’ve heard. Most people are honoured if you take an interest in them (but not in a creepy interrogating way) and that makes you interesting to them. Focus on being interested, rather than worrying about saying things you hope are interesting.

A long list of questions that you memorise and try to ask isn’t the answer, as it will probably make you more nervous. But thinking about questions will help.

Being interested, will make you interesting

How to make small talk.

The purpose of small talk is normally to get to know somebody you don’t know, for a reason. Asking questions that allow people to open up, talk about things they’re interested in, or allow you to talk about things you’re interested in, will create more genuine questions. Here’s some ideas about what to say in small talk:

  • Ask real questions: Trotting out meaningless nonsense from a half remembered list is going to make the conversation even less meaningful than you already fear it is
  • Look for exciting stories: What areas of the other persons life could you unlock that are interesting (to them, or you) or that they are proud of? Even better if there are shared, or similar, areas on your life.
  • Ask interest inducing questions: Discussing something that  one, or both, of you are interested in is going to help you move from small talk to discussion more quickly
  • Add some value to conversation: Is there something useful you can add, a perspective, some relevant information, or give something of yourself away. Don’t start “giving advice” or “giving feedback” unless you’re asked.
  • Ask questions where you have knowledge / stories too: Shared experiences and areas that open up their (and your) thinking are good.
  • Always be honest: If the objective of small talk is to begin to open up a relationship, starting with lies (that you might not even remember) won’t be a good start.

Questions you could ask to make small talk easier

Having a list of questions you just work through might make the conversation fake. These could help you get better at small talk, but not if you use this list as if you’re an interrogator!! Once you’re “into” the conversation let your listening skills guide the questions will make it feel less fake. But, if you’re trying to think of questions you that might work….

  1. What business person inspires you the most, and why? There’s a context, relevant to the event you’re at. The person may be somebody you both know (shared experience), but the rationale helps understand their view. It allows you to add your thoughts and the discussion can be expanded into other areas of business.
  2. What makes networking work for you? Again, it’s context specific and about understanding somebody else’s view on something you share and asking advice. Adapt it for other settings.
  3. What’s the best business advice you ever received? You could swap business for some other shared area you’d rather discuss.
  4. What’s the biggest business tip you’d give? Who doesn’t like to give advice, when asked? Adapt for other types of discussion.
  5. When’s the last time you failed at something? Bad, as it’s negative, but different! Don’t ask it till the conversation is flowing and say something complimentary about them to start with. But it can move the conversation into a deeper area.
  6. What made you start your own business? Obviously, it’s only relevant if they have, but you could exchange this for anything else they’ve started, to get an insight into their thinking. This can allow you to add things about yourself.
  7. How do you use social media in your business? The “how” makes it an open question, social media is a common subject which often opens other debates (I hate social media, I don’t like marketing etc.).
  8. What to do you prefer; Apple or Samsung? (or Apple v PC). We’ve all got smart phones and this is a common difference. It’s bad because it’s a closed question, but you can easily open this discussion from there; it’s good as it has shared experiences, understanding of their thinking and touches on advice.
  9. What’s the best networking you’ve ever experienced: If you’re at a business event, then asking for other similar business events can work well. It’s about moving from a shared experience (where you are) to understanding something about them (what is good) and getting some advice from them (everybody likes being asked advice). Be prepared to comment on what events you like and why, then you’re into a discussion, not small talk.
  10. Do you prefer large open networking or small groups? This one breaks the rules, it’s a closed question. However it easily allows follow up questions, leading into discussing experiences you’ve both had. It may also start to give you clues about them (introvert, extrovert?).
  11. Describe your dream client: You’d need to be at a business event and have started the discussion before asking this, but it’s a great networking question.  For more ideas about networking and how this could help, click here.
  12. Who knows more of your dream clients than anybody else? Another good networking question, making them think, allowing you to offer help (if you can) and allowing them to easily ask the same question.

Don’t use this list as an interrogation checklist, use one or two of the ideas to help you deepen the conversation and learn something about each other.

Networking and small talk

If you run your own business and you often go networking, you may struggle with small talk, specially if you’re an introvert (25% of extroverts don’t like it either). The tips above will all help. Introverts tell me they find the following hard:

  1. Open networking meetings: Those meetings where people stand around and you run out to things to say, or worry that you’re the only one not talking to anybody? Your smartphone is a great tool. It can  give you an excuse when the conversation runs dry! You can also look around for others on their phone, 99% probability they’re desperate for somebody to talk to! Read more in Ninja networking
  2. Zoom networking meetings: Don’t worry about being loud enough to cut through the loud talk in the zoom. Use the chat-box to target individuals and have mini one to one conversation.
  3. 121’s in networking: You have the advantage of being able to research your partner before the meeting, use LinkedIn to find some things you want to know. The aim is a bit of business and a little personal chat, so you understand their business and know them a little. One thing that can make it easier is your personal brand. What in your personal brand makes it easier for them to ask you questions? Did you know I love scuba diving?

Focus on what’s important in networking, “performing well” in networking events doesn’t make you a good networker. A good networker quietly develops relationships, read more about Ninja Networking for more on this.

You may also like to read:

Or listen:

Charlie Lawson, author of "The Unnatural Networker" and Director of BNI-UK knows a thing or two about networking. Here's what he said about how introverts can improve their networking.

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