Well hello, Aunt Agnes, how have you been?
Oh holidays! That wonderful time of year when relatives you haven’t spoken with in months are invited to dinner and they sit down right next you. What on earth do you say to Aunt Agnes, besides please pass the dinner rolls? Small talk can be a challenge for many people, you want to be friendly and polite, but you just can’t think of a thing to say.
Here are some strategies to try when your mind goes blank:
Talk on a topic common to both of you at the moment, like the food, the room, the occasion or the weather. “Looks like Susie made her famous green bean casserole again!”
Comment on a topic of general interest. Try scanning Google News or reddit the night before and look for common interest stories, then work them into your conversations. “Did you know NASA just emailed a wrench to the international space station?”
Ask a question that people can answer as they please. It’s useful because it allows people to choose their focus (work, volunteer, family, hobby). Try, “What are you most grateful for this year?”
Ask open questions that can’t be answered with a single word. If you do ask a question that can be answered in a single word, instead of just supplying your own information in response, ask a follow-up question. “Who have you known the longest in this room?” and “How did you meet them?”
Ask getting-to-know-you questions. These questions often reveal a hidden passion, which can make for great conversation. “What things do you hope you get to do in the coming year?”
React to what a person says in the spirit in which that comment was offered. If they make a joke, even if it’s not very funny, try to laugh. If they offer some surprising information, react with surprise.
Follow someone’s conversational lead. If someone obviously drops in a reference to a subject, pick up on that thread. “Oh, my daughter loved that ballet studio too! Has Sarah been going there long?”
Work in your favorite topics to see if there’s interest. “Are you going to watch the football game this weekend?” But if they say no, they’ll be bird watching instead, follow up on that topic. “Oh, what do you like most about bird watching?” Or “What’s the last interesting bird you found?”
After you’ve mastered the art of small talk, start aiming for questions that invite people to tell stories, rather than give bland, one-word answers. Instead of “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” opt for, “What’s the most interesting thing that happened at work today?” or, “How’d you end up in your line of work?” If that person is up for taking the conversation deeper, you have an opportunity to create an actual connection, rather than just some silence-filling noise.