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Fear of Mingling

4 Easy Steps to Being a Small-Talk Superstar

By Bull Garlington

Here are four easy steps to master small talk when you have to start a conversation — and, if you’d rather, four steps for when someone else starts it.

Here’s the thing: 87 million articles on the internet will tell you there is no step-by-step solution to managing a small-talk situation. I disagree. That’s just how Big Conversation keeps small talk down. Small talk is easy. Small talk is necessary. Small talk is the method through which lasting, enduring and, in the case of business, profitable relationships are built.

lawyer small talk

This article will tell you exactly how to navigate the terror-inducing social circumstance of standing in front of someone in awkward silence knowing you will have to engage in small talk and wondering who the hell goes first.

Skip to Method 1: “When They Start the Conversation

Skip to Method 2: “When You Start the Conversation

You can jump to the recipe if you want to (or if this is an emergency!). But hear me out: I’m here to ease you into this thing and take you from an uncomfortable bumbling maladroit to a smooth and confident conversation savior.

So, first I need you to understand the most important truth about your small-talk situational emergency, a truth that will change your life: You’re not alone.

The Other Person Is Feeling Just as Weird as You Are

Imagine you’re at an event and it’s the long waiting period as everyone is arriving and the speaker is a little late so you’re all mingling. You don’t know anyone. You’re by yourself white-knuckling your coffee because you’re stricken with anxiety. If someone interesting walked over to you right now, deftly opened a conversation and carried you over the ungainly hump of small talk, you’d marry them and have their children. They’d be your hero. Your rescuing angel. They would relieve the distress of your anxiety and soothe the affliction of self-doubt that has you locked in a terrible silence thinking you’re graceless, unwieldy and embarrassing.

Well, guess what?

You Are That Person

Instead of waiting for someone to save you, go find another person locked in ligneous panic and step in to save them. See that man over there standing by himself with a look on his face that makes you think you’re looking in a cumbersome mirror? Tell him you like his shoes. His relief will scrub away all the remnants of blunderhood, establishing instant rapport. This is the great secret of small talk — and all conversation: It starts with the simplest, smallest act of micro-heroics, which is to say almost anything.

It’s All About Breaking the Ice: Two Proven Methods

Small talk is an icebreaker. Small talk is the amuse-bouche before a glorious seven-course meal of a conversation. I maintain you should always be proactive; be the first to talk. However, I also understand you might be reading this precisely because you abhor that very thing. You have a fear of the first word. Which is understandable and common, and look, I’m just going to give you two proven methods for mastering small talk. One for when you start, one for when they start. Ready? Let’s do this.


Step 1: Respond in kind.

It’s easy. They say, “Hey, nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?” Then just come back with, “I mean, the temperature is perfect.” Of course, if it’s raining sideways and there’s a tornado alert and they cut their eyes over and say, with a completely straight face, “Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?” Then they’re a long-lost Addams Family member or they’re being sarcastic. Which is great. You should come back with, “Perfect rain bathing weather. I’m headed to the pool now.”

Step 2: Follow their lead.

Since they started the conversation, it’s likely they will take the next step and ask you a question about yourself. If they’re good at this, it’ll be an open-ended question, inviting you to talk about yourself. Something like, “What brought you to this conference?” BE CAREFUL. Your natural tendency may be to deflect with a self-deprecation like, “Oh, it’s a boring answer. Tell me about your job.” Don’t do that. Answer the question. You don’t have to tell them everything. Don’t bullet point your conference agenda. This isn’t a PowerPoint. Just be authentic. “I want to learn more about the ethics of artificial intelligence in the retail industry.”

Step 3: Introduce yourself.

Well, this is just great. Turns out she’s an IP lawyer working in regulatory systems and AI ethics is her jam. She makes a great point about ethical systems implementation, leading to a natural break in the conversation that is a perfect moment to take the conversation further. Hold out your hand and say, “I’m Sharon Shennanigans from Sheboygan I.P. Group, it’s nice to meet you.” And boom, look at that, you’re in a real conversation.

Step 4: Relax.

You did it. You small-talked! It was actually easy and kind of nice. What happens next? Maybe you’ll get together after the keynote speaker and have coffee. Over a couple of lattes, you both confess how you hate the way your respective organizations manage their AI, so you vow to quit and start your own firm. It works and you become millionaires, thought leaders in the AI space, and win the Nobel prize. Or, maybe you exchange cards and follow up later. Either way, it all started with your tiny act of courage to respond to their question. Pretty awesome.


Step 1: Say anything.

A compliment’s the easiest. Find something to remark on. Shoes. Jacket. Handbag. Backpack. Cool gadgets on display. Whatever, your only goal here is to get this conversation started. You can, however, lean into the awkward. Remember, they’re probably just as anxious as you are. Make a witty statement about the difficulty of small talk by asking, “So, what’s your position on existential phenomenology?”

Step 2: Keep going.

Maybe they say “Thanks, I got it at Nordstrom’s,” and you can talk about their purse or jacket for a minute. According to the internet, the next thing you do is ask an open-ended question. You know, the kind of question that ensures an answer more than two words long. But the internet is stupid and doesn’t know you. Open-ended questions are good, but really any question is good enough. Your goal here is to learn just enough to ask a thoughtful question about them. If you’re trying too hard to figure out an open-ended question, you may just end up standing there silently wondering what to say. Relax. Just keep talking and let a question bubble up naturally.

That’s another secret to small talk: They know what you’re doing. No one just landed here from Zargon. Everyone knows it’s small talk. Unless they are actively awful, they’ll play along. They want to play along. They hate this too.

Step 3: Introduce yourself.

As the conversation turns from their delighted answer to your question to a momentary pause, you will have a natural opportunity to introduce yourself. Which you should do. Don’t offer your card. Just stick out your hand and say, “I’m Michael Maclawyerguy, from Lawyer, Lawyer, and Attorney. It’s nice to meet you.”

Step 4: Relax.

The hard part is over.

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BULL Garlington Bull Garlington

Analog Attorney columnist Bull Garlington is an award-winning author, columnist and public speaker. He is the author of the books “Fat in Paris,” “The Full English,” “Death by Children” and “The Beat Cop’s Guide.” He prefers South American literature, classic jazz, Partagas 1945s, a decent Laphroaig, and makes a mean chicken and andouille gumbo. Follow him @bull_garlington.

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