Moving Beyond Small Talk


The weather.

The latest sports score.

Those are among the go-to topics that many of us probably default to when we are in a conversation with someone.

But what if you want to move beyond that, and get to know someone a bit better?

Well, Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist, has some suggestions, based on responding to an email in today’s Wall Street Journal:

Dear Dan,

My workplace hosts weekly virtual happy hours over Zoom. It’s a nice idea in principle, but the meetings have been dull—we usually just end up talking about the latest coronavirus news. Is there a way to encourage better, deeper conversations? —

And here was Dan’s response:

The problem isn’t that your co-workers are unusually boring; rather, it’s the social norms for your meetings. Research has found that people usually gravitate toward small talk even when they crave connection, because sharing important things about ourselves can be socially risky.

I was part of a team of researchers working on how to foster deeper connections, and we designed an experiment involving 300 people at a networking event for financial advisers. Some of the participants were asked to socialize as they usually do, while others were given conversation cards with probing questions to ask, like “If you had to change one big decision you’ve made, what would it be?” or “What don’t you tell people on a first date?”

The results showed that those who asked deeper questions had more meaningful discussions. You could try something similar in your Zoom happy hours by giving everyone a question to ask their colleagues. To get started, take a look at Irrational Labs’ “No Small Talk” cards or psychologist Arthur Aron’s list of 36 “closeness-generating” questions.

So I thought I’d take a look at some of these questions.

Here are a few samples of those No Small Talk cards:

  • With which religions do you most and least identify? Why?
  • When were you last outside your comfort zone?
  • What do you like most and least about your appearance?

And here is the link to a list of Arthur Aron’s 36 questions, such as:

  • Given the choice of anyone in the world, who would you want as a dinner guest?
  • Would you like to be famous? In what way?
  • For what in your life do you feel most grateful
  • If you could wake up tomorrow having gained one quality or ability, what would it be?

Science supports minimizing small talk and having deeper conversations.

As published in Psychological Science, researchers found that the happiest participants in a study involving more than 20,000 recorded conversations had twice as many genuine and deep talks as the unhappiest participants. This confirms what most people know: Surface-level small talk does not build relationships. The article that is linked to includes 12 suggested questions to avoid small talk; here’s a sample:

  • If you could do anything you wanted tonight (anywhere, for any amount of money), what would you do and why?
  • If you could know the absolute and total truth to one question, what question would you ask?
  • When’s the last time you failed spectacularly at something?
  • What do you value more, intelligence, or common sense?

And here is a link to another article that suggests some conversation starters, such as:

  • What’s the best present you ever gave someone? Ever received?
  • Is there anything you don’t eat?
  • What sort of vacations do you like to take?

I like to move beyond small-talk as much as the next guy, but when I look at these questions, I think I’ll stick to talking about baseball and the weather. If we move beyond that, then that’s great.

It would seem a more natural way for a conversation to evolve, and not contrived or forced by using any of the above questions.

But what do I know, I don’t really like going to parties and talking to strangers anyway…

*image from Learn Talk

48 thoughts on “Moving Beyond Small Talk

  1. As I was reading along and the questions unveiled themselves one by one, I was thinking that these are all great questions, but would I want to share them with co-workers, or total strangers at a party? Many of these questions are a bit too deep or personal. I am not a fan of small talk, nor am I good at it. I actually don’t mind moment of silence if people have nothing to say…perhaps there could be a better set of conversation topics that are somewhere in between chit chat and deeply meaningful conversation?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. you hit the nail on the head – many of the questions posed seem to go a little too far with someone you’ve just met. I like your idea of some intermediate questions…

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I agree with your take. Many of those questions are too personal or require me to think too much. They sound more like a job interview or a psychology evaluation than casual conversation. I’d be glad to talk to strangers about vacations.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. If I meet a stranger and ask me those questions, I will raise my eyebrows and go. I’m outgoing despite being a bit introvert but those isn’t a conversation starter for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Most of these things I’d feel comfortable discussing, but probably not just with anyone. Some of these questions remind me of one of those workshops where the presenter asks you to partners up with strangers and answer something random. Most people I know hate that kind of thing, and inside everybody’s thinking, “Why do we have to do this?” I remember one where the presenter asked us to pair up with someone we didn’t know and tell them what kind of car we would be if we were a car. 🤣🤣

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Great post, Jim! I learned a long time ago that people are happiest when talking about themselves. My social skills have been honed over the years to ask these types of probing questions and then being a good listener engaged in their responses. When I am in a group of people I do not know well, or possibly at all, I try to ask people about themselves. At the end of the evening, they won’t know me any better, but they always remember you kindly. That is the path to being a great conversationalist!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. i am an incredibly horrible small-talker, at an event or party, i tend to seek out one person and talk nonstop about real things (i feel for them), and online takes it to a whole other level.(that’s the introvert in me). i can see it getting sticky if questions get too personal, and maybe a question for all like, “What new or interesting fun thing will you be doing this week?”. like i said, i’m really not good at it. and it’s always hard for people to get off the zoom meeting at the end. endlessly waving, unsure of protocol, who should sign out first…..not natural at all –

    Liked by 1 person

    1. you sound a lot like me; at most parties I tend to just stay in one place, and whoever happens to stop by, I’ll chat with. I don’t mind talking about big issues, but only with certain people. And yes, it’s always tough to figure out how to leave a Zoom sessions

      Liked by 1 person

  7. To have some excitement in a conversation, I’ve found that jumping straight into politics or religion often does the trick. But I generally only do this with people who are not strong enough to kick my ass.

    But the safest approach seems to be what you suggested. Let conversations start out small and evolve (if they will) into subjects that are bigger and deeper.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I am all for good conversation but these says I stick to small talk even with friends. It seems so many people lately are on edge and something you could have had a conversation about a few months ago seems to get people testy or even grouchy, even those who normally would engage in deeper conversation.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thinking what to say may not work, perhaps conversations with a total stranger you are unlikely to meet again are more likely to go deep. Some might be a ladies’ only thing, like sitting on a park bench with a pregnant lady and soon you are exchanging birth stories! But one evening we were standing squashed on the tube train ( happy pre Covid days ) coming home from a west end theatre matinee with the children, and this hunky fellow started chatting, asking where we’d been, so we started talking about the theatre and he said ‘Avril and I made a conscious decision not to have children.’ We never saw him again, will never know what Avril was like or if they regretted their decision, he seemed at ease with our children, but I did wonder why he would tell us that!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. that is an unusual thing to say to a stranger; sounds like it is something he has thought about a lot…

      and your mention of the West End makes me really miss London, and the theater. We were lucky to see Hamilton when we were there a couple of years ago…


  10. I do like deep conversations but I wouldn’t use these as conversation starters with strangers!
    I think you need to develop the relationship more before these questions come up. But the length of time can vary greatly with people.
    There are some people you meet and you just feel you have an instant connection, you feel comfortable delving into the deeper issues . Others it may take longer, just really depends. But it can be fun having silly talk as well! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Conversation starters..too uncomfortable for me…I love a great conversation and seem to have the knack of finding the person I can have that with… generally after a bit of small talk with a few others…not sure how I would react in a zoom setting though but will find later as I am attending my first zoom conference on… The Story of Plastic having watched the film I have lots of questions and a few answers but it all depends on the speakers ..looking forward to it though …

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Very thought provoking post! I think a lot of those questions are too personal on a first couple conversations. Getting to know people takes time. Sometimes business is just business! One of the things we used to do in our weekly meetings was tell everyone briefly what you did over the weekend. Many times it was sports, but I was always telling birding stories. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that there’s no need to dive right in with some deep questions when you first meet someone. I’d probably be making things up about what I did with my weekends… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m pretty transparent with my birds and the Rays & Bucs so no reason to make crap up there. And even then, these topics are pretty okay for a first time discussion. (sports, the safe way) unless you are a Yankee fan and you start talking about the Red Sox or vise versa…LOL!

        Liked by 1 person

      1. I wouldn’t necessarily ask a stranger these… but interesting questions that can be rephrased depending on who you’re speaking to.

        “How did you guys meet?” Seems to be one that is safe to ask fairly new friends.

        Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.