“And this is my second girlfriend”
The big biker gestured to a cute blonde 30-year-old. Well played Mr. Biker. The 6 feet tall, 120-kilo-something guy. He was pretty cool.
Introducing me to his second girlfriend,… after I tried chatting up his first one. Hahaha,… oops! That was an awesome way to start a conversation.
You compliment a woman on her rad tattoo. Before you know it, you are having beers with a polyamorous trio. We had a pretty interesting chat after that. Discussing love, drinking, life and other stupid shit. Never fancied I would talk so open to people so,…so unlike me honestly. What was that all about?
It is can feel pretty overwhelming to approach and connect with strangers. But even if it’s not your nature. You can learn to do it!
Many people have learned it from scratch. Once mastered, you’ll do it on auto-pilot. Listening to amazing stories of people you would’ve never met otherwise.
So why would you want to? Maybe you want to make new friends. To have deep conversations with. Maybe you want to feel less lonely.
So you ask advice: “How to make friends?”
Friends, family, and Google give you a strange look, and mutter: “go out there and, and,.. uuhmm meet new people, have fun,.. put yourself out there, … fake it till you make it,…uuuh, it’s not that hard.”
… Yeah, that doesn’t help. It is still fucking hard! You’re still feeling anxious as fuck when putting yourself out there.
How do you conquer that anxiety? How do you stop those negative thoughts that pop up?
- “you are just a simple quiet guy, don’t go acting cool”
- “shit, I forgot ALL of their names!”
- “what am I going to say next?”
Thanks a lot, brain! Nope, ‘putting yourself out there’ doesn’t work. Every time you try you hit mental walls. It frightens you, leaving only one option: bail!
So what does work? How have fun while making friends? Well let’s start with the primary interaction you have with new people. And why we do it.
Why do we even small talk
Well, we are social animals. We are born to be part of a group. The first thing you do when you exit the womb is communicating. Screaming your lungs to full potential. Bluntly announcing your arrival.
The majority of your social skills are hard-wired. The basics you picked up when young. But somehow, when you “matured”, you buried these skills beneath mental complexes. Or your skills decayed from disuse because you mainly communicate via screens. On top of that, there are all these confusing cultural mores to socializing.
After a while – small talks seems like this nonsensical practice,… “Nice weather right?”
Why would we ever talk about mundane shit like the weather? In a (seemingly) rational culture, it looks weird. But we evolved for a different context. We used to live in tribes of around 30 people. You knew everybody! You’d know your social status, your relationships and who to ask for help. Need to slay some sabertooths, call Tim. Make some fire, hotline to Susan.
Imagine only knowing your tribe. Thirty people for years and years. And then,….BAM! You meet another tribe!
Your social circle just doubled! That’s pretty fucking awkward… you don’t know these people! What is your relationship to them? What is your social status compared to that buff dude? How do you cooperate? What’s going on!?
As a social animal, you want to re-establish some social order again. To understand how everything is organized. So you explore how everyone is going to relate. You look, touch and smell. Grunt a little dialogue. You get to know each other. Slowly you shape your relationships.
Nowadays we leave out a lot of this practice. Less scratching, sniffing and more cultural layers. But, when we meet new people we still have this social ritual.
Part of it is small talk! I always imagine that it is the human way of butt sniffing. Like how dogs get acquainted. Getting right in there. Having a good whiff. Feeling how to fit in the pack. (For dogs their social ritual must be awkward as shit as well!)
Like dogs, we gauge and manage how to relate to one another. Who is the pack leader? Who is submissive? Are we alike? Who is useful in a team? And how intimate are we going to be?
If you don’t get the social ritual – of course, you freak out! You want to get rid of the ambiguity. Your instinct says: “Find out how you relate to these strangers!”
But you don’t know how.
Your nerves kick into overdrive. Social anxiety sets in. In contrast – charismatic people are experts in this ritual. Putting people at ease and making them feel important and appreciated. Establishing social order through great small talk.
So small talk is important to manage new or ambiguous relationships. This is not necessarily achieved by talking about the weather, sports or Kardashians. No, it is mainly achieved by:
How we small talk
The way we present ourselves is what counts. Not what we say. Whether it is meeting people, making friends, networking etcetera. Through our communication style, we determine how we relate to one another.
As said, in small talk you try to find your social standing. Your place in the social order. As well as the correct amount of intimacy.
Most people have a consistent self-image. Determined by self-esteem, confidence, beliefs, and context. When meeting someone new, an image of the other is estimated immediately. A first impression.
When you are sure about your own value, you convey this. You are confident and display this. It is in your body language, voice, and demeanor. Little influenced by others and context. Same goes for the other.
When someone else sees how confident you are. And knows how sure he is of himself. You easily establish a strong social balance.
The most natural conversation occur between confident people. If one person is unsure of where they stand, establishing a social balance is more precarious. Are both people insecure, it is awkward.
When you establish a balanced relation – you bond and connect more. When you are confident– determining how you relate is easier.
So confidence makes you connect more easily.
Little problem, you don’t feel very confident yet.
Luckily everyone can become more confident. Temporarily or on the long term. You can learn how to communicate confidently. Developing social skill and lasting self-confidence in the process.
While socializing, there are two significant processes that paralyze your confidence.
Your inner critic and your anxiety.
Handling your inner voice
Mr smarty pants, the big narrator, el wittiness. No matter how you want to call your negative voice; it can be pretty nasty. It stops you from taking action! No matter how motivated you are! You keep hearing negative stuff like:
- “Why are people looking at me like that?”
- “Hope people don’t think I am annoying.”
- ”I can’t talk to her, I am not cool enough.”
Not helping brain! Let’s not get into how you got stuck with this self-doubt now. How to handle this unconstructive critic. There are a few tactics to minimize its effects.
One technique to negate negative self-talk – is rephrasing your thoughts. Whenever negative scripts arise, notice it, and consiously rephrase it in your head. For example:
- “I am so weird for doing that.”
Hey! Ding ding! You noticed negative self-talk. Accept it, and reiterate it in a more constructive manner:
- “The thing I did was weird, next time will be different.”
You separate the ‘I’ and ‘Weird’. Instead of associating those concepts, you split the relation. The action was weird. Not you.
By not making it about you, and adding “next time will be different”, you allow yourself room for to improvement. This actively reprograms your thoughts. Takes some willpower, but changing your thoughts positively is worth it.
So, become more conscious of your thoughts and rephrase them. Creating a more positive narrative in your mind.
Mental Habit Hacking
Cue – action – reward
To change this habit loop, you first start to notice your patterns. Search for the cues that start negative self-talk. Then deduce the ensuing actions and rewards. Having analyzed the if-this-then-that procedure, you can change the input and output.
Next time, try to pause when you notice a cue. Consciously PAUSE – and consciously start a different action. Really catch yourself. Cultivate this moment of pause and choice. Do this so often that you create a new positive thinking habit. An existing habit pattern may look like this:
- Cue – A new situation with new people
- Action – thought: “I am too afraid to talk to these people”
- Reward – anxiety, and excuse to flee
Next time you recognize the cue, pause! And insert a different action. So:
- Cue: – A new situation with new people
- PAUSE –>’I was going to think about my fear – instead –I will think more empowering’
- Adjusted action: – thought: “I CAN talk to a few people, despite my shyness”
- Reward: – More calmness and a reason to talk to people.
Notice how this can help curb negativity. Keeping a journal helps you track your thoughts and change them. Keep actively changing your negative thought pattern until you have a new one!
For long-term peace of mind.
It is linked to many benefits. One is the awareness of your inner verbal tempest. You learn to accept and disassociate from your involuntary thoughts. By focusing on your entire being.
You'll notice that your consciousness is a spontaneous process. You learn to distance thoughts from your being. Making less meaning of the randomness, finding more balance and positivity.
Build a meditation ritual – and in the long run, you will create a greater sense of mental ease.
The Anxiety Barrier
When trying to talk to people, there always seems to be this invisible wall. An anxiety barrier. As long as this mental wall (anxiety) is higher than you can jump (motivation/drive), you won’t take the leap. For most people, it will always be there. But it can be lowered by managing anxiety. Or get better at jumping it!
To make meeting people less daunting, let’s hone your technique. Since what you say matters little compared to how you say it.
For instance; use your voice to your advantage. Talk clearly and well-articulated. Trouble pronouncing? Try talking slower, slow is good. Take a few deep breaths before saying anything. Talking is not a race. Nobody will care if you stutter a bit, or jumble up a few words. Avoid monotony and learn to use all the tools in your vocabulary!
Smile! Be the first one to crack a smile! Displaying friendliness puts people at ease. Opening them up instead of putting them on guard. Seemingly simple, but somehow very hard. Practice, a good genuine smile works wonders! Think of why you should feel great, or about an awesome experience you had. Use that feeling to boost your smile!
Not only apply positive body language. Also, learn how other people are conveying themselves non-verbally. Having a hard time with that? Try this or that book on body language. You can learn when people are open to conversation. Recognize when people are enjoying themselves. And much more moods. Pretty useful! At first you will notice these things very cognitively. But they will become more intuitive through practice.
A key element to high jump? The run-up. You use momentum to make the jump. Same for jumping the anxiety barrier, use momentum. Enter a room, don’t take the time to think. Just dive head first into a conversation.
If you are doing a Fosbury flop, you don’t walk up to the pole, stand next to it, look it up and down, pondering how to jump…..
No, you do a run-up and jump!
Same for conquering your anxiety, use your momentum.
Enter a room, see someone open to conversation. Don’t think. Move in and say hi. No hesitation. 3-second rule for the win. Just finished a dialogue, use your social momentum to immediately start a new conversation. Momentum is your friend!
Boost your Confidence
Imagine confidence as the power to jump. It is crucial in conquering your anxiety. But we don’t always have the luxury of feeling confident. Try using some of these tactics to boost your confidence in advance of a social challenge:
So you’ve prepared – you take the leap of faith. Leaving the orbit of your comfort zone. There you are, face to face to a stranger and:
BLANK! Shit, what to say!? Yeah, we forgot that cover part, hahaha. So:
What actually to say
Let’s start with some easy ways to start a conversation. You can practice these in front of a mirror. Try them out. The opening can be very simple. You don’t have to start witty or elaborate. If normally you blank in social situations, practice these so often they become second nature. So you just blurt them out.
All right practice and use these simple openers:
- “Hi, how are you?”
- “I don’t believe we have met”
- “I am [insert name player 1], nice to meet you [insert name player 2]”
Shake hands, deploy three kisses, head-butt each other; whatever is appropriate in your cultural context. Other ways to start a chat are through:
for example; somebody forgot or dropped something, pick it up, hand it over. Or do something else that is thoughtful. Use this action to start a conversation.
If you see something you like. Hair, shirt, shoes, car,… whatever. Compliment it! Give a heartfelt compliment. “Hey I like your this” or “Hey I like your that.” People love compliments!
Asking for a favor
ask someone for help, it may seem odd, but asking for help shows some vulnerability. That makes it easier for each other to engage in conversation.
Use the context to your advantage. Something odd happens, or maybe something is remarkably normal. No matter; state your thought. Say it out loud to someone, comment on life. Use your unique observation to start a conversation.
How to keep a conversation going
So you are talking. Now what? You want to find out if both of you are cool. So you can connect. The best strategy, make others feel good talking to you. Put others at ease by: letting them talk about themselves, finding common ground or sharing interesting stuff about yourself. But with all these tactics: listen with an open mind and genuine interest. Listen more than you talk.
First people have to start talking. So ask good questions. Avoid clichés like: where are you from? And what do you do? Kind of boring. You don’t engage people that way. Instead, ask questions that stimulate emotions:
- "So tell me, what is your story?"
- "Hey, I love your [item you genuinely like], where did you get it?"
- "What was your highlight of the week?"
- "What passion project are you working on?"
Try these or any other question that appeals to positive emotions. To follow up you can ALWAYS ask: “why?” Use the power of that little word. But ask it out of interest! Not out of judgment. Be open to their personal view on life.
- “Why do you feel that way?”
- “Please elaborate, why was that your highlight?”
- “Why are you passionate about that”
Dig deeper – mine people’s emotional drives. Not a clear answer initially. Ask HOW people felt about things.
If a subject is depleted – you move on using this awesome tactic. Keep on talking by zooming in/out or stepping aside to relating subject. Zooming in on the subject – to go into the nitty gritty detail. Zooming out for a bigger scope – going to the more conceptual level. Or look for tangents of the subject.
If someone is telling a story. Encourage them with little nudges. Don’t be mute. Use small remarks and gestures to show you are listening: “aah yes” “aha” “I understand” “mmmm mmmm”; agree, disagree, nod, groan. Simple words, sounds, and cues to stimulate someone’s storytelling. Show you are are interested! This way I keep my mother-in-law satisfied for hours!
If people tell you something; don’t immediately repel their statement. It can be important to them. Instead, accept it as it is.
You don’t have to agree to everything. But accept how people think, feel and communicate. Take their feelings into account.
So suppose you oppose knitting. Because the knitting lobby is ruining the textile industry. When someone tells you: “In my free time I like to knit sweaters for my kittens.” Don’t immediately go like: “I hate knitting, couldn’t stand to do it for 5 minutes.” You smack the door in their face. Be more acceptant and considerate.
How about reacting like: “Wow cool, what do you like about knitting? Personally, I never felt any appeal to it.” This way you can convey your own feelings and opinions. But you accept that they like it. You show interest and ask them to elaborate because you don’t understand them, yet! Because you are willing to get to know them better!
Common ground is the best place to bond. Actively search for subjects you two can relate on. Then exploit the shit out of it. Does someone like gaming? And you too? Why not have a passionate discourse about how modern games neglect storyline in favor of graphics.
Ask questions to find someone’s interest, passions, and backgrounds. Or share what you enjoy. Look for the overlap. You will find easy conversation – and bonding.
When people tell a story or answer. Don’t instantly jump in with a follow-up remark.
Wait a few seconds.
Consider what they said,… and react deliberately on their statements. Got an unsatisfying answer? Or think there might be more hidden layers? Wait a bit longer, pause 10 seconds.
People usually want to fill the void. A little trick to keep people talking. Don’t worry about “awkward silences”, those only exist if you acknowledge them.
Share stories and vulnerabilities
Don’t only rely on your conversational partner. You too can add a lot of value. Use your stories. Why not remember and practice a few go-to stories? Stories that are funny, exciting or maybe even sad. Something to emotionally engage with. We are hard-wired for stories – once you master this, you can have amazing interactions.
You can also share emotional aspects of your life. Give trust by exposing yourself a bit – gaining trust in the process. Displaying vulnerabilities shows confidence and openness. That doesn’t mean whining, but sharing your story. People are willing to bond with someone who is strong by being honest and vulnerable.
Well, that’s it for the 101. It is a lot to take in. But hope you got a better insight in small talk, and why it’s important. Start using these tips!
Tomorrow, start by smiling to one stranger. Just one! The next day to two people. Then three. Then four. Until after ten days you’ve smiled to ten new people in a day.
The next day – say “Hi” to one stranger. Then to two, three,… etcetera. Use this training regiment with:
- Asking people for the time
- Inquiring directions
- Asking how people are
- Introducing yourself and having a small conversation
Slowly but steadily get your social muscles in top shape. Use these little exercises, so you can more easily apply all the lessons above. I hope these tips will give you the courage to start. Let me know how it goes!
If you liked this article, why not share it with others who can benefit?