“Language most shews a man: Speak,that I may see thee.” The great English dramatist and poet Ben Jonson wrote these words in the seventeenth century.
Meeting and starting conversations with strangers doesn’t usually come so easily for most of us. Unless we live in a cave, our conversations with others will be more valuable to us than anything else in the world. And when we are in the business/professional world, social skills sign our checks. Not knowing how to make diplomatic small talk in this world is like showing up to work everyday wearing a PUNK tee. The people who have natural social skills do not appreciate the fact that good social skills are taught. They are taught by parents, by friends, and some people just have to teach themselves.
We traverse through social and professional settings, zigzagging our path, which becomes a tad confusing. We sometimes have to make people think we like them when we secretly find them to be bores and pandering to native human egocentricity. In a situation like this, I usually have a difficult time keeping a conversation going. Either the other person is boring, and utters few words, or I am not really interested in listening to them anymore. With time, I learnt how to be charming and fake, without seeming to be fake. People need the lubrication of small talk and etiquette for dealing with each other. Much of our interaction with each other is fairly shallow, but this shallow interaction is helpful for getting to the deeper interaction. I should view each interaction from a more creative perspective, where the outcomes are not only black and white, but with varying degrees of gray and color depending on how each situation is approached.
Knowing how to be good at shallow interaction gives us a larger number of people than we would have otherwise who are comfortable with us, with whom we can then have deeper interactions. Small talk is not about facts or words. It is about putting people at ease. It is about making comforting noises together (no pun intended but like cats purring or groups chanting). It is about matching the listener’s mood.
Looking at someone for a moment before breaking into a smile to make them feel that the smile is a directed to them rather than something that’s always pasted on my face is what works for me each time. I try to match the energy level of the conversation with the person. When asked where I am from or what I do, I give some story to make it interesting rather than merely sounding like an interview.
Yes, it takes time to formulate some of the techniques and make them a consistent daily habit. They are as true today as they were then. People evaluate us by the words we use and the way we use them. Of course, people also make judgments based on our body language, dress style, attitude, facial expressions and similar criteria that immediately register at a subconscious level. So, conversation is a package deal…we need to dress it up!
The famous journalist and social critic H.L. Mencken once wrote, “Before a man speaks, it is always safe to assume that he is a fool. After he speaks, it is seldom necessary to assumeit.” This cynical maxim may be true for many.