Next Avenue Logo

Getting (Re)Schooled in Small Talk

It's the first step to take to be ready for post-pandemic socializing

By Janet Siroto

After a year in isolation, Tony, a retired contractor in Savannah, Ga. (he prefers not to reveal his last name), was ready to celebrate getting his second COVID-19 vaccination. He decided he'd sit outside at a local café and treat himself to a nice burger and IPA.

A group of older friends talking wearing face masks. Small talk, conversational skills, Next Avenue
Credit: Getty

"It was my first time setting foot near a restaurant in a full year," he recalls. "The waiter came over and said, 'Thanks for joining us, how's everything going for you today?' It really caught me off-guard. I had attended a Zoom funeral that morning, both my grown kids had been asking for money since they lost their jobs due to the pandemic…How am I doing? Do you really want to know? So, I just nodded, ordered my food and sat there feeling like I don't know how to deal with the most basic interactions anymore!"

Tony's story captures what a lot of us are feeling right now. After a year-plus of lockdowns and limited socializing, the ease with which we used to chit-chat has evaporated. Remember those casual conversations with strangers as you waited in line for a movie…or dropped off clothes at the dry cleaner…or bantered with colleagues by the coffee machine?

While a person doesn't exactly lose the ability to make small talk, it can feel intimidating at this moment.

A microscopic virus put the kibosh on all that, leaving some of us (even people who were previously "big talkers") struggling to get back in the small-talk groove. And as the world begins to reopen, we crave those spontaneous, fleeting connections after such a long period of "pod life."

Do You Need a Small-Talk Refresher?

While a person doesn't exactly lose the ability to make small talk, it can feel intimidating at this moment.

"Socializing, like most activities we do, is a skill. We will get better when we practice, and worse when we don't," says David Badre, professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University and author of the book "On Task: How Our Brain Gets Things Done."

Our lifestyle has been so limited — what with few offices, restaurants and cultural events operating in many parts of the U.S. — that our usual opportunities to talk have been upended. Conversations have gotten beyond stilted.

"Part of the problem is we've all been so focused on 'Which mask do you have?' and 'Did you get vaccinated yet?'" says Peggy Strauss, an art director in New York City. "But it's also that the pandemic has left us with very little to talk about since we can't go anywhere or do anything! Beyond which streaming series you watched, what is there to say? It's been quite painful trying to make conversation."

But now is the time to scoot off the sidelines and get back in the habit.

"It will likely feel awkward to rejoin regular social situations after a year offline," explains Badre. "But, in time, it will come back, and much faster than if it were a new skill."

Tips for the Tongue-tied

How exactly to dive back in? If your conversational skills could use a tune-up, consider these tips:

  • Cut yourself some slack. Acknowledge that it will take time to get back in a groove and have your confidence return. “Recognize that you are out of practice and it will feel awkward at first,” says Badre. “So be easy on yourself if things don’t go quite right.” Don’t let one flubbed conversation sideline you.
  • Avoid hand-wringing. Take a vow not to harp on the horrors of the pandemic when chatting. It’s a challenging, but worthy pursuit as we begin to return to the workplace and casual socializing. “Assume the burden of not dumping negativity on others,” says Debra Fine, a keynote speaker and author of “The Fine Art of Small Talk.” Focus on not doing the verbal equivalent of doom-scrolling when interacting with others and you’re likely to find small talk much less stressful.
  • Anticipate the most common query. “Prepare yourself for the inevitable question, ‘How have you been?’” says Fine. “That’s how we greet people.” She suggests preparing an answer that gets you on comfortable chit-chat terrain. Her current favorite: “Despite everything, there’s been a silver lining.” This phrase acknowledges the hardship we have all endured, puts an optimistic spin on it and invites the person you are chatting with to inquire about that upside you referenced.
  • Face forward. When it’s your turn to draw another person out and fill some dead air, you may find yourself drifting into a “Can you top this?” pandemic misery competition. Which makes sense: We’ve all been through a harrowing global event. But instead of mining that dark topic, Fine suggests deploying a bridge statement. “Say something like, ‘We’ve all had our ups and downs recently, but with summer around the corner, what are you looking forward to, or what’s the light at the end of the tunnel for you?’” she suggests. This way, you’re angling the conversation towards a “better days ahead” direction.
  • Use reruns for a refresher course. A friend of mine offers this advice: “Watch a few episodes of "Seinfeld" before a social occasion. It’s the original show about nothing. Jerry and his friends can blather on about anything from bad haircuts to big salads. It gave me some good chit-chat ideas, along with the laughs.”
Janet Siroto is an NYC-based journalist and content strategist who specializes in lifestyle, wellness and consumer-trend topics, as well as personal essays. Read More
Next Avenue LogoMeeting the needs and unleashing the potential of older Americans through media
©2024 Next AvenuePrivacy PolicyTerms of Use
A nonprofit journalism website produced by:
TPT Logo