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How to master the art of small talk

Techly's How To Adult Series

We’ve all been there.

You’re at a work do, or on a date, or at a party and you’re talking to someone when suddenly you find yourself with nothing to say.

Jumping out the nearest window is always a viable option, but it isn’t sustainable in the long run.

Those who have mastered the art of Small Talk – the social lubricant that separates us from The Beasts – always seem to pull it off effortlessly.

They never run out of things to say and always seem to be in your peripheral vision at any social gathering; telling a small group of entranced listeners an incredible anecdote, or listening intently as their conversation partner speaks.

So how do they do it?

Check out another guide in our How To Adult series:

How to hold your mates’ babies without looking like a complete idiot

Contrary to popular belief, not all smaller talkers are “born with it”. Some of them read up on the skills and techniques required. Only then can they ease the nameless existential dread associated with striking up a convo with an acquaintance, or, god forbid, a complete stranger.

Well, Techly is here to help. As part of our new ‘How To Adult’ series, we’re gonna give you the ammo you need to tackle small talk the next time the need for it arises.

If you have a look online, you’ll find plenty of generic advice, such as “listen more”, “ask questions” and “pretend you know the person”. While these may be true, they lack the specificity to really be applied to daily life.

For a more focused approach, I’m going to recommend two acronym-based systems to help you survive: ARE and FORD.

The ARE Method

The ARE method, which stands for Anchor, Reveal and Encourage, was developed by communications expert Dr. Carol Fleming.

The first part of this method is the Anchor, which is taken from your immediate environment. For example, say there’s a song playing and you say, “I love this song”.

Next, you move on to Reveal. This is the part where you reveal something about yourself like “I used to be able to play this on the guitar”.

After this, you Encourage. That’s when you ask a question related to the topic, like “Do you play any musical instruments?”. And wham! crisis averted, the conversation is going.

Now you just need to keep the ball rolling with roughly equal amounts of time spent listening and asking questions.

On the one hand, you can’t be that person who corners people to blurt out your comprehensive and unified theory about how aliens built the pyramids. On the other hand, you can’t be a brick wall that offers zero feedback.

Finding this balance shouldn’t be too hard once the conversation gets going.

The FORD method

The other method that is commonly touted as a winner is FORD, which stands for Family, Occupation, Recreation and Dreams.

This is exactly as it appears, with each word providing a topic you can talk about with anyone.

The key here is to start off pretty general. “Do you have a sister?” will always be better than “Is your sister hot?” – being too specific from the start will just freak people out (you can get specific later, after you have established some rapport).

To avoid the feeling of being creepy or conducting an interview, one good technique is to start by saying something about your own background.

For example, you might say, “That guy reminds me of my brother, he’s a real extrovert” – after this, it won’t seem funny to ask the other person if they have a brother.

Another tip is to ask open-ended questions. Questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no can be conversation killers, and can lead to rapid-fire exchanges like something out of a game show.

“Do you like being a teacher?” is worse than “Why do you like being a teacher?”, for example.

Don’t forget about context

Something to be aware of is that different cultures have their own rules and customs when it comes to small talk.

I lived in Taiwan for over a decade but never really got used to one particular question which often arises in the course of Taiwanese small talk: “What’s your blood type?”

You see, in Taiwan (and other East Asian countries), blood type is a bit like your horoscope and is used to describe someone’s personality.

I’ll be honest: it’s straight up twaddle and 100% pseudoscience, but is still the kind of thing people will believe in “for fun” (again, like horoscopes).

Anyway, it’s a bit of a shock for Westerners when a stranger asks you your blood type. As far as small talk goes in the West, blood is definitely a no-no and should be avoided at all costs.

The moral of the story is, if you are in a cross-cultural situation, check what is deemed appropriate/inappropriate first.

While we are on the topic of things to avoid, you’d also do well to dodge all the classics: Religion, Politics, Money and Health. In the West at least, these are typically private matters.

You are better off focusing on things that are publicly enjoyed or shared such as sport, entertainment, news (not too bad of course) and the weather (boring but safe).

Hopefully, the above will help you next time you find yourself stuck in an awkward silence. ARE and FORD are good because they are useful, easy to remember and applicable to almost anyone.

Also, is it weird that I still don’t even know my blood type?

About the author

Stefan is an Adelaide-based freelance writer. In his spare time, he plays tennis badly, collects vinyl and brushes up on his Mandarin. Follow Stefan on Twitter

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Comments (1)


    Tuesday 25 September 2018

    you could have at least told me you were using my tweet in your article damn