For years I had a love/hate relationship with the T.V. show Seinfeld. I hated it because it was a show about nothing, but I loved it because it made the everyday stuff of life so funny. Now I have had to restrain myself in conversation, to limit the number of Seinfeld references I make in any given conversation for fear that it will appear that I am watching too many T.V. reruns instead of living a real life. In every episode I found something to relate to, something that made me say “THAT is SO true!” or “I KNOW!” or “I hate it when THAT happens.” And I think that was the true reason why the show was so successful, because everyone could relate to it.
Seinfeld is a show about small talk, and I’m not so good with small talk. When we decided to go on the mission field I realized that I would have to learn how to make small talk. Missionaries have to talk to people. I had to face the true nature of my personality. I am really an introvert. There, I said it. Conversation wears me out. I get stressed out anticipating situations where I will have to talk to people that I don’t know well.
It’s not so much that I have nothing interesting to say. It’s more that I’m less interested in others than they are interested in themselves. I have a hard time making small talk, and without small talk, it’s nearly impossible to jump to the deeper and more interesting topics in a conversation.
So knowing that I have this blank spot in my brain where small talk should go, I decided to take a deliberate step to LEARN the art of conversation and to PRACTICE making small talk with people. So I got a job as a barista in a coffee shop. Baristas are always chatty and friendly. And it’s hard not to like someone who engages you in a 2 minute conversation about yourself and then hands you a steaming cup of coffee as you walk away (maybe the pleasant small talk is to distract you from the distressing fact that you just paid $5 for hot water). I watched how my co-workers did it and I learned.
In this job, I started paying attention to the details of people. I started looking for little things to talk about. The guy who brings his daughter in after a soccer game, I see the ball and shin guards and ask her who won. The woman who orders several drinks to bring to co-workers, I ask her if there’s a big meeting today. The little old lady wearing a sweatshirt from a quilting competition, I ask her if she had a project in the competition. The guy that carries the most recent issue of Field and Stream magazine, I ask him if he’s excited about the fishing opener next month. And that, my friends, is how you make small talk. You notice a detail and build a conversation around it.
Some people have the talent for conversation, the gift of gab; others must learn this skill and practice it to get good at it. Small talk is not about caring about the topic of conversation, it’s about caring about the other person enough to make an effort to make them feel comfortable. Small talk is not about telling you about myself, it’s about letting someone else feel special and important even if it’s just for a minute. Small talk is such an important little thing in our society that someone wrote an entire T.V. sitcom about it… and it lasted for years.