5 Ways You’re Screwing Up Your Small Talk Game

By Yvonne Milosevic

Not everyone is a natural conversationalist. In fact, many of us downright suck at making small talk with strangers or acquaintances at work, in bars, or at parties. Whether you’re an introvert who hides out in the bathroom to avoid casual conversation, or someone who needs an explainer on the right way to chit chat, you can up your small talk game by steering clear of these five conversation killers.

Asking dead-end questions.

No vibrant conversation ever started with questions you can answer with “yes” or “no”. Classic examples include: “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” Cue the gaping yawn. Don’t treat small talk like a fact-finding mission or an interview. Instead, show curiosity and a genuine desire to learn more about the person. Open-ended questions allow the person to reveal as much—or little—as they feel comfortable sharing. Try these openers on for size.

At a party: How do you know the host?

At a networking event: What got you started in this industry?

At a bar: What are some of your other favorite restaurants/bars in this area?

Starting off with easy questions helps establish a rapport. Then, you can move on to deeper conversation if the vibe is right.

Launching into taboo topics.

Politics and religion are the obvious no-nos. But you should add discussing relationship status and money matters to the list. Say you’re at a gathering and see a woman you’ve met on few other occasions with her Significant Other. Today, she’s flying solo and you ask how her bae is doing. Turns out, they broke up last month and your innocent question stirs up 37 kinds of awkward feelings. Hell yeah, it’s complicated.

Likewise, when you gush about buying that sweet little cabin in Aspen, or your amazeballs vacay to Bali, you risk alienating anyone struggling to make rent each month. Save those stories for closer friends, not new acquaintances who might resent your swaggering.

Not respecting the 50/50 rule.

Okay, maybe sometimes it’s more like 60/40, especially if one of you is an introvert. Regardless, good conversation is a give-and-take between people. Neither side should dominate the conversation. If you’ve chattered on for a while, take a breath and ask some questions. Or, speak up and contribute if you’ve been listening from the sidelines for too long.

Don’t take it too personally though if the person you’re chatting with hasn’t asked you many questions. It doesn’t come easy to some people. Also, in some cultures, asking questions of near-strangers is considered rude and invasive. If you suspect that’s the case, just keep the conversation topic light and flowing.

Making the conversation about you.

This faux-pas goes beyond breaking the 50/50 rule. If someone mentions a horrible encounter they had with their boss this week, don’t chime in to share own your awful supervisor story. If they bring up the recent death of their grandmother, don’t start talking about how you lost your uncle last year. And if the person is celebrating a recent promotion, don’t steal their thunder by crowing about your latest raise.

In short, don’t shift the focus onto your experiences, sufferings, or triumphs when someone else is sharing. That’s just not cool. Instead, follow Stephen Covey’s advice: “Listen with the intent to understand, not with the intent to reply.”

Being distracted.

Maybe you’re periodically sneaking a peek at your phone, or mentally rehashing an argument you had with your brother last night. Whatever the cause, you’re not giving the conversation 100 percent of your attention. Worse, the person across from you knows it.

If you have a legitimate need to check your phone, let the person know you’re expecting an important call or text. Otherwise, show some respect and decide whether you’re going to be in or be out of the conversation.

And now for one last tip: check out this TED Talk on how to be a better listener. Turns out, the very best conversationalists listen more than they talk.