I’ve written a few times about how uncomfortable I am making small talk. And it doesn’t matter if it’s someone I know or a complete stranger.
So imagine my excitement when I saw the headline for Dan’s most recent Wall Street Journal advice column: “Stop Making Small Talk. No One Will Miss It.”
Here was the email:
I’ve mostly kept to my established circle of family and friends during the pandemic, but this New Year’s, my neighbors are hosting a get-together, and I’m very excited to attend. I’ll be meeting quite a few new people, and I’m nervous as to whether I can master the art of small talk after so many months without practice. Do you have any suggestions? —Michelle
And here was Dan’s response:
Small talk is boring, and becoming less adept with it may not be such a loss. What if you took advantage of this forced forgetting and tried to replace shallow pleasantries with something deeper? Most of us wish to have meaningful conversations in our daily lives but expect our exchanges with strangers to be awkward. They don’t have to be.
In an experiment, researchers paired up attendees at a small conference and gave each duo 10 minutes to discuss four questions. The questions were designed to bypass small talk and lead to greater connection—for example, “Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?” After a few such questions and answers, the participants reported not feeling awkward at all—on the contrary, they came away feeling more connected to one another and happier than they had expected.
We underestimate how much potential conversation partners care about deep talk compared with superficialities, as well as how satisfying such exchanges can be. In fact, the deeper our conversations are on any given day, the happier we tend to be.
So when you go to the New Year’s Eve party, try not making small talk at all. Instead of inquiring about people’s days or their jobs, ask them what they are passionate about, or where they see themselves in a few years. Maybe even ask them about the last time they cried in front of another person.
I have to admit, I was kind of underwhelmed and felt like I was misled by the headline.
To me, meeting someone for the first time and asking them “Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?” seems like small talk. I’d rather talk about the weather or sports. (Plus, the person might start crying right then and there, thinking “out of all the people at this party, how’d I get stuck talking to this guy?”)
Now that sort of question might be useful as an icebreaker at a meeting, As Dan notes, this experiment was done at a conference, not at a party. Plus, the participants were told to discuss these questions. In addition, the participants in the research study had 10 minutes to each answer four questions between them; not sure how this would lead to a feeling of “greater connection” and be considered “deep conversation”.
Again, I have trouble seeing how this would translate to a party setting, or any gathering of people that is not part of a meeting. but I know I would feel kind of taken aback if I was at a party and someone asked me that question.
I was also curious as to what the other three questions might be, so I did some searching and found another article that references this study as well, and lists what all four questions are. Here are the other three:
- “For what in your life do you feel most grateful?”
- “If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, your future, or anything else, what would you want to know?”
- “If you were going to become a close friend with the other participant, please share what would be important for him or her to know.”
Again, these might seem like good icebreakers at a corporate event, but I would feel very uncomfortable asking or answering these at say, a New Year’s Eve party when I first meet someone.
Now perhaps one way around this would be for the host of the party to hand out these slips to the attendees as they arrived, and told the people these are the questions you are expected to ask when you meet someone new. Under those conditions, the questions wouldn’t come off as odd, at least to me. Perhaps what the research participants really liked was being told what to talk about, as opposed to having to come up with something themselves. And that is what the host is doing.
I had thought about ending this post by asking readers to answer any one of the four questions, but I feel too uncomfortable doing so.
*image from LearnTalk