The art and science of the small talk


So you have your whazzit and somebody approaches you and starts a conversation with you. Or you notice somebody’s whazzit, you approach that person and you say, “hello, whazzit?” Or you are introduced to somebody, you smile and shake hands; then, what?

How do you engage in a small talk?

“What do you say after the first hello?”

I lost my copy of his book to Typhoon Ondoy so I will refer back to my current favorite author, Leil Lowndes. He says, “Small talk is not about facts or words. It’s about music, about melody. Small talk is about putting people at ease. It’s about making comforting noises together like cats purring, children humming, or groups chanting. You must first match your listener’s mood.”

Let’s make this simpler. Small talk is not talking about politics, religion, wars, genetically modified organisms, rice sufficiency, cancer cure, pollution, climate change, terrorism, ISO, natural farming by Masanobu Fukuoka, edible forest gardens, planets and meteors, current state of the nation, Taiwan and many others. They are best left for when you are in a serious business round­table and making decisions for your company, the country or the world. Small talk is not about heavy and heady stuff. The ones that you will need to research, gather empirical data, do analysis, verification, validation and conclusion. It is not about talking of topics where you are emotionally invested.

Small talk is simply talking about light hearted topics, easy on the ears, easy on the mind, and easy on the psyche. Any topic that will make your smile and not think hard. Let’s say, mundane topics that will not reveal your deep secrets, longings and convictions.

Like when somebody says, “it always rains in the late afternoons and whole evenings.” You don’t start a discourse on the rainy season. Dante. El Niño. La Niña. Heavily silted waterways, Manila Bay and Laguna Lake. Flood-control systems. Waste management. The good and bad about using plastics. Pollution. Etc. Before you finish, your conversation partner might have left you.

One important thing is to take a quick assessment of the mood of your conversation partner and match it. What makes a conversation unpalatable is when there is aggressive mood mismatch. Sometimes we are not warming up to a certain topic or we are feeling some discomfort, and here is somebody who comes excitedly and tells us. “This topic is great. Blah. Blah, blah.” Or you are busy writing for your column, and somebody calls and starts chatting spiritedly about the things she purchased during the Independence Day sale. Blah, blah, blah. Finally I told her, “My cellphone is now lowbat, please call again later.” Of course, it was I who was lowbat not my cellphone.

In Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP), this is called mat­ching and pacing. The purpose is to build rapport. NLP expert Sue Knight says, “Rapport involves not only relating to people face-to-face but also remotely by appealing to their style of communication and their expectations. Many people think that rapport is chatting about the weather, the family and the like, I may be, but only if that is what the people you are talking to are doing the same. If not, then chat about these things might achieve a completely opposite effect of rapport.”

Rapport is not about passing the time of day. Rapport is about joining people where they are in their style so that you connect with them in a way that supports all future communication. Pay attention to the mannerism of the people around you.

People in rapport typically adopt the same posture, move and gesture in similar ways, laugh together, adopt the same style and rhythm in movement and speech. They match each other.”

Now, don’t start simply mimicking the move, gestures, posture, words and laughter of the person you are talking to. That will be uncomfortable and contrite. But try in very subtle way until you are both laughing naturally and/or talking animatedly about the same topic. You are now past the small talk and can talk about anything.


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