Can small talk be authentic?
Do you enjoy chit-chat?
On small talk, the weather, connections, and levels of communication…
I don’t. I never did like chit-chat. But I’m proud to say I’m now fluent in small talk.
How did that happen?
Years ago, not only I didn’t like small talk, I didn’t understand it.
I felt like:”What’s the point? I know what the weather’s like. Why are we going to comment on it for 10 minutes? And then… What? Talk about the city I’m from? Yeah, I know it’s the pink city, everyone keeps telling me that… I know it already!” Etc.
I really didn’t understand it.
But the thing is: I was missing the point.
And as a result, it felt like it was difficult to have real conversations, to really get to a deeper level of connection.
But two things were happening.
First, I was scaring people away because I was going to deep too fast.
Second, and that’s what was happening most of the time for me, I wasn’t engaging in conversation at all. It was really difficult for me to begin a conversation because I just didn’t know what to say, because it felt so useless to small talk.
But at the same time, I wasn’t stupid, I saw that if I didn’t small talk, people were scared, feeling uncomfortable or weird. So I decided “OK, let’s do this!”, but I didn’t know how! It was so boring to me that I just didn’t know how.
I learned to do it in the end because I realized that was happening and I wanted to connect to people.
Why is small talk important after all?
A friend of mine just said to me the other day, it’s the glue of conversations; it’s like the glue that brings you together to begin with.
And I like I like this idea, because that’s right: Small talk makes you safe to begin with and to go deeper in the conversation with someone.
An overview of the levels of communications
I do entire workshops just on that, but to sum it up, there are three levels
that we will consider today.
Small talk comes first when we meet someone, especially someone we never met before. And it’s also the most superficial.
Some researchers actually call it the ritual level, because it’s really ritualized. That’s why it’s safe. We realise how safe it is when we travel to another country and the social codes are different; suddenly we don’t know how to behave in an appropriate way, and we worry we might offend someone, or just do the wrong thing. Did you experience that?
For example, in France we are known for doing “la bise”, kissing on the cheeks, to say hello. But there is an art to it, and it’s only when I explained it to an Australian friend that I realised… It is not that simple!
In every country, we say hello in a ritual way, then there is a certain set of questions or sentences that are socially acceptable; Usually very superficial questions.
And of course there is also this wide spread “How are you?”, which no one really mean: That’s small talk. It’s not the “how are you?” that you would ask to a friend, wanting really to know what’s going on. We just use it as a way to say hello.
All of this stays at the small talk, informational or even ritual level, and that’s super safe because it’s codified. So everyone knows more or less what’s going to happen in that.
Small talk is a safe way to connect to someone
And it gets you to know, like the energy of the person. And then when you go into a kind of deeper level of small talk, maybe talking about weather, the football… Whatever. (which could already be taking the conversation into a deeper level, the personal level)
It shows what is the interest of the person. Where is it going? And do you match on that?
And that is important to know if you want to go deeper in the conversation or is you just stay there with a polite: “Oh, it was nice to meet you by.”
Actually, just a few years back, I got the “skipping small talk entirely” treatments and felt weird. It went something like that. A guy I barely knew just sat next to me in a bar, said “Hi”, and the very next thing he said to me was this question: “So, tell me something you never told to anyone else.”
And I was like: “Really? That’s how you’re going to make me feel safe enough to reveal to you the secret. I never told someone?” I mean, there is a reason why we never tell people things; We need our privacy, vulnerability is great but here too, there is a safe way to play it.
By the time I understood the purpose of small talk, but that felt like a strong felt sense experience of “Oh wow. Yeah, I really feel unsafe and unseen right now. How can you feel like that it’s OK to have that question at that moment of the conversation? Later on that could be totally fine! But right now it feels like Meh, not thank you!”
How can you enjoy smalltalk?
First of small talk is not a problem. It’s cool, it can actually be fun. The problem is most people never go deeper.
It’s only the first level, the more superficial. And in each level you are closer to the surface or you begin to go deeper. So there is also some latitude in the small talk to go a bit deeper.
But if you never move from there, it’s like the friendzone of conversation. It’s the “chit chat zone”. You will stay stuck forever talking about the weather and your name and where you’re from and your accent, and things like that.
Small talk is the first level, informational, really neutral. It doesn’t say much about your personality yet. What says more about your personality at that level is actually the non-verbal stuff. It’s how you behave.
Move beyond small talk, deeper in the levels of communication
Now that you know the purpose, you just small talk enough time to establish common ground. To show: “I’m not creepy. I’m not a stalker. I’m a cool person to talk to, now, let’s move on. Let’s go deeper.”
You can take the conversation to a deeper level, meaning personal level: more personal questions.
Ask more personal questions
And if you need, just think ahead to questions you would like to explore instead of the usual “What’s your name, where are you from, what do you do?”, the combo I talked about in the previous podcast, that personally I kind of not want to hear anymore because I heard it so many times and it’s become automatic.
But there are some questions that are still superficial enough, yet could be surprisingly interesting questions: They don’t go too deep into personal, while moving away from the small talk.
For example: “What do you enjoy doing when you don’t work?” This is often more interesting to ask than “What you do for work?”. I meet a lot of people who are passionate about what they do, so most of the time it overlaps. But many people don’t really like the work they are doing, so they would rather talk about what they actually enjoy, than what they do every day and want to get away from. Either way, you get to see people light up because they are talking about something that they actually like. And you’re going to learn interesting stuff and you’re going to have an interesting conversation, because it will spark joy in people, so there will be more room for authenticity.
Another one that’s surprisingly interesting, because it sounds really shallow, is: “What is your favorite dish to cook?”And I find this one really interesting, because often-times it comes back to childhood memories, like “It was this dish that my grandmother was doing all the time. And I learned to cook with my mother and …”. So it’s apparently very shallow, but it can lead to very interesting, sometimes cultural history, or family history…
It can become really personal, but still super, super safe. You’re not asking something like: “When was the last time you cried?”
So you can think ahead these kind of questions. A favorite of mine, that is already beginning to be a bit edgy for people, depending on who you’re talking to. It is the one I was always asking in the first season of my podcast: “What makes you feel alive?” This is super interesting question, but it really can feel personal.
Navigating the levels of communication is an art
If you want to play that way, you have to realize it’s an art and you have to get a sense of where, and how deep people are going are willing to go. It will depend on how the conversation is going.
It will also depend on how much they are used to play with this kind of stuff: If they are used to authentic relating, circling… they will take on these questions, also because they will know that they don’t have to reply to anything at all if they don’t want to. They will be really relaxed about telling you, “Well, you know, I’m not really comfortable to talk about this right now. So how about instead …?”. If there are not, some people could feel they have to reply to you and feel really uncomfortable.
This is an art and it comes with practice. Good news is: the practice is fun! After a while, you kind of get a sense and a feel of how deep people are willing to go.
In doubt, you can always pick a questions that is personal — asking the person what they think or feel about something –, but still superficial enough that they can stay on an anecdotal thing — like what we saw just before.
Try answering small talk level questions with personal level answers
For example, the next time someone asks you: “How are you?”, take it personal! Don’t answer the automatic “I’m fine”; or the inauthentic “I’m good.”, when the real answer would be: “Well, I’m good for relaxing right now because I’m super tired…”.
Give an honest answer, and see how deep you want to take it. Again, what I find fascinating with some of the ritual questions, is you can actually the answer quite deep… Or stay shallow. It gives you the total control on how you want to play that.
Even with a question like “how are you?”, you can really play with. If we meet for the first time, and I’m asking you “Hey, how are you?”, you will be tempted to stay on the superficial levels, because that’s what this question feels like in that situation.
But if we know each other for years and I say:”Hi, so, how are you?”… That question feels a lot more personal, doesn’t it? It’s not about of the question, it’s about how deep are you willing to go and how deep is right to go in this moment.
Again, it’s an art and it takes practice to feel into that. Why not try it next time you’re asked: “How are you?”, take it personal, even if it’s just a superficial question. You can still answer, in a safe way, you don’t have to tell all the details. It’s always more edgy when we’re struggling. It’s easy to say “I’m super good because I just saw my friends….” It feels a bit more complicated and difficult for us to admit things like:
“Well, I’m not so good.”
Even so, how about this real story, right now: “Not so good. I feel a bit tired today because… My neighbour did a freaking washing machine at 6am this morning and it didn’t feel great to be waken up way before what I’m used to, and especially with a loud unpleasant noise.”
I just went personal, but still in a superficial level. I didn’t tell my big secret or anything, so it still feels safe for me and the other person. But we are really going down the level to a personal level.
The deeper down the levels you go, the deeper the connection
Personal is where you really begin to connect with the other person. And there are deeper levels, but for today we’ll stay there.
But the thing is, most of us never learned it. And we don’t know, like I did! I was totally ignorant about this, and wondering: “Why is it difficult to connect with people?
Why do I find it difficult?” Now I know!
By the way, that’s the kind of thing we play with in the Deep connection, real fun! Meetups I’m doing every week, exactly for that reason: Most of us don’t learn it, so we need a safe place to play. And it’s also really interesting when we play with this kind of stuff, and we are in a safe place where people give actual feedback like: “This question actually felt weird for this and this and that.” Or “Oh, I love your question, because…”
Rarely in real conversations we get to know how people feel about how we communicate. And sometimes it can lead to misunderstandings that would be so easily resolved by just openly talking… But I’m getting ahead.
It has to be the right moment and the right level for both persons
My invitation for you is to move on beyond the small talk when it has done its job, don’t stay in the chitchat zone forever. Try these two things: Ask more personal questions, or take the answer just a little bit more personal.
Feel into how deep is safe for you and the other person.
It can sound strange that it wouldn’t be safe for the person you’re answering to, but let me give you this example: A friend of a friend I knew a little, but I knew very deep personal stuff about her because she was always talking about the deep personal stuff
to anyone and all the time… And it didn’t feel right. It felt like she had no boundaries.
Going deep is a two way thing. When you are going into deep personal stuff, the person in front of you might not be ready to hear it.
So you have to feel in both ways: When is it right to go deep with your questions, and when is it right to go deep with the answers?
Lots of stuff to play with. Enjoy your conversations! And you’re welcome to play with us on the Deep connection, real fun! meetups, casual meetups created with meaningful connections in mind.
(Intro music for the podcast: “Tiny people”, by Alexei De Bronhe )
The Deep connection, real fun! meetups
You can’t get another hit of “What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you do?”? 🧐
Me neither! 😅
If you are you tired of the superficial networking events and social meetups, but don’t want to take deep connections workshops and would rather spend your evening enjoying nice conversation with interesting people…