I often hear people complain that they are really bad at making ‘small talk’. And it seems to be true, so many conversations stall after the first five-or-so questions. We run out of things to ask the other person and awkward silences are all that’s left. Interestingly, this common issue is so prevalent because it’s thought to be the result of an evolutionary mechanism; an out-dated tool that we used to use to keep us safe. Let me explain why and then I’ll give you a little tip to help you start engaging, dynamic and interesting conversations out of the ashes of this weird, evolutionary quirk.
Almost every conversation you have with a new person will begin with a series of interview style questions.
Here’s an example:
‘What was your name again?’
‘How do you know so-and-so?’
‘What do you do?’
‘Do you come here often?’
‘What was your name again?’
Or even more awkward, I think; ‘So, uh… What else do you do?
These questions are asked and answered and almost immediately forgotten. My guess is that most of you can’t even remember the last person you had this conversation with, never mind ‘what they did’. The reason for this is primarily twofold. Firstly, it’s a means of keeping the almost inevitable awkwardness of meeting new people at bay for a short time. But on a psychological level it’s thought that this serves a very different purpose.
The reason these questions are so often unfruitful is because our brain uses them to process whether the person you’re talking to is a lunatic or not. Perhaps that’s a bit gratuitous. A psychologist named Mark L. Knapp theorised that conversation in the very beginning of a relationship forms part of the ‘initial contact’ or ‘initiation’ stage of a relationship. This is where both parties involved feel out whether the other person can do simple human tasks like follow social rules and scripts. Basically trying to find out if they’re normal or if you might want to find someone else to interact with. It’s likely an evolutionary thing; meeting members of different tribes could be potentially dangerous and trustworthy ones are probably the ones that speak your dialect. We’ll talk about the various stages of a relationship elsewhere so I won’t go into it more here.
The result of these questions being part of a social script is that it’s something people do without really thinking about it. Consequently, people often ask one question and are too busy forming the next question that they don’t really listen to the answer to the first. You’ve probably heard the old adage ‘people are so busy waiting to talk, they never listen’. This is something people do a lot, not just in this situation and it’s easily one of the major conversation killers. In fact, we’re so used to this treatment, we often answer with an equally throw-away response. Single word answers that don’t really describe anything useful. A friend of mine with a really interesting, complicated job in the dirtier side of finance often replies with ‘legal accounting’, a term to turn anyone off.
people often ask one question and are too busy forming the next question that they don’t really listen to the answer to the first
So, it’s usually a pretty easy thing to tear this evolutionary construct away and replace it with something better.
- Instead of using a throwaway word or waiting your turn to ask a question, simply replace this useless social script with something better.
- Answer to their questions with something that stops the script in it’s tracks and starts deeper, more engaging conversations.
- One really effective way to do this is to address one particular question and really dig deep, finding out as much as you can about that topic.
This will often lead to something that interests both of you and BOOM – conversation time.
Being able to talk is only one way to really make a connection. There are four major keys to attraction. And maybe you’d be interested in three random things that will make you more attractive? Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology.
Thumbnail image courtesy of Amelia Rhea/Flickr