The Art of Small Talk
By Donna Rapacz Foucachon
This talk was originally delivered at Thrive, a monthly ladies’ group at Christ Church, in Moscow, Idaho.
Let’s take a peek at someone who’s trying awfully hard to learn the art of small talk. She is an old friend to most of you—Eliza, in My Fair Lady. Professor Higgins finds this poor flower girl on the street, and as a linguistics experiment, trains her to speak and act so that he can pass her off as a member of London’s upper crust society. (See video below).
That video clip was called “Eliza Blunders the Small Talk”—and that was just for fun!
I was surprised when I was asked to speak on this topic, because I do not have the gift of gab. In fact, when I do get extremely chatty, it is so out of character that my children don’t like it, and they accusingly look at me and say, “Mommy, did you drink coffee?” Yes, coffee has been known to temporarily give me the gift of gab, but usually, I don’t have it. Those of you who do have the delightful gift of gab won’t need this talk—but perhaps I can give some help to those of you who struggle, as I have.
So what do we mean by small talk? Small talk is not petty talk. Small talk is not silly talk. Small talk is not gossip. As Christians, God’s Word is the first place we need to go to learn about any kind of talk. Ephesians says, “Let no unwholesome word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.” Ephesians 5 places the wrong kind of talk in the category of serious sins: “But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.” Our small talk must be godly talk.
As Christians, the key to successful small talk is motivation. Why do you want to cultivate the art of small talk? Small talk can be about loving ourselves, it can be about self-aggrandizement, it can be for self-glorification. You take leave of a group and say to yourself, “They thought I was witty and smart. People think I have a good personality. People think I’m intelligent and well-read. They think I’m cool. They like me.”
Small talk can be about building ourselves up in others’ eyes—or small talk can be all about loving others.
As Christians, our lives are called to be characterized by a three-fold love.
First, we are lovers of God. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” That’s the greatest commandment.
Out of this first love flows our second love–love for the people in the body of Christ. In John, Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Each time Peter answers, “Yes, Lord.” And every time Jesus says, “Then tend my sheep.” Loving Jesus means loving His sheep.
Our third love is one for people in the lost world. In Luke 19, Jesus looked out over the lost city of Jerusalem– and he wept over it. He said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” Jesus expresses His love for these wicked lost people with words full of compassion and tenderness.
If we’re Christians, we are lovers of God. And as lovers of God, we are called to imitate Him and be lovers of people—those in the Body of Christ, and the lost of the world.
Small talk can be about loving others, about touching them with the grace of God that is in you. Small talk can put people at ease. It can make them sense that they are valued. It can make them sense that they are important. In Isaiah 43:4, “God says to Israel, and therefore by extension to us, “You are precious in my sight.” With our words, we can help people see themselves as God sees them, valuable and precious in His sight.
The kind of small talk that does this is a legacy my mother left to me. When she died, one of my friends said to me, “Whenever I talked with your mother, she focused on me and paid attention to what I said in a way that made me feel like I was the only person in the world. She made me feel like I was important, and worth so much.”
Love can make you talkative enough to reach out to a person. Love can loosen your tongue so that you are able to express to people that you care about them, that you are interested in them. When you love people and your words express a genuine interest in them, they can sense it. There is power in the love of God as it touches people’s lives through you.
Every conversation can be an opportunity to love someone on behalf of the Lord. Every conversation can be a chance to either edify a person in the body of Christ, or to communicate the love we know from the Lord to non-Christians, always with the hope that we can speak the Gospel to them, remembering Paul’s words, “We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God.”
There are many kinds of small talk, and we need to be sensitive to the need of the moment so that we can be of real help in bringing grace to a situation. Let’s think about three types of small talk. In some situations, the need might be to clear the air of a strained or awkward atmosphere; so, you need to fill in with interesting and informative talk that pushes away the empty spaces. Or in other circumstances where people are gathered, there is no one breaking the ice, so you need to talk to entertain, because this is what will put people at ease and relax them. Or the kind of small talk that is needed might not be your small talk, but rather small talk coming from the other person. It could be that what would most help that person is if he or she were able to talk, and contribute to the conversation. So your role would be to draw her out, and help her to make small talk. The other person might like to talk, but they might need your help to do so. You can be a catalyst to make that happen.
The key is love. As an imitator of God, look with his heart at that person who is one of His sheep, or at that person who is lost and needs so much to know His love and salvation. What is their need? This requires sensitivity. Have you ever heard sermons at a wedding where the groom is exhorted to study his bride so as to know her, and therefore know how to love her? Don’t you like that kind of love being directed toward you? Anyone does. That is what we can apply to each person we talk to. Study the person. Focus on them. Look for clues that will tell you what this person is like, and what kind of questions would be good to ask them. How can I love her? It takes developing sensitivity to know. What kind of talk will help the situation I’m in?
We mentioned three kinds of small talk—interesting and informative talk, entertaining talk, or talk that will draw a person out.
To contribute interesting and informative talk, you’ve got to have some content to talk about. Those of you who have the wonderful gift of gab have no problem with this, but for those of you can’t think of things to contribute to a conversation, you’ll need to invest some time to become knowledgeable in some areas. You can make your life more interesting by stepping out of your comfort zone. You can seek to add experiences to your life that will stretch you, and keep you growing. You need to have something to share. Broaden yourself so that you can relate to others better. A great way to do this is to travel. Grab every opportunity you can to travel, and as you do so, listen and keep your eyes open. Experience new things, and learn everything you can.
But what if you simply can’t travel because of your circumstances, your responsibilities, your commitments, or lack of money? That’s no problem! You can expand and enrich your life through reading. You can go to other places and be in other people’s skin, in their minds, in their hearts– through books. You can learn new skills from the written page. Love books.
Make efforts to become a person who has things to share. A leader I know once said that on a human level, there are two sources of power: money and knowledge. You might not be able to do anything about acquiring a pile of money, but anyone can acquire knowledge, and in one sense, it gives you power in conversation. Being able to talk to people is a gift to give to them.
To start, pick just one subject that is of special interest to you.
It can be nerdy. When people see someone having an interest in something or liking something, that object of interest becomes attractive to others as well. Pursue excellence as you learn about your topic. Proverbs 22:29 says, “Do you see a man who excels in his work? He will stand before kings.” It doesn’t matter what field you choose, if you can do something with excellence– or acquire excellence in your knowledge of a topic– you become interesting; you could become fascinating and worthy of being sought out by kings. Surprise people by the unusual area of knowledge you’ve acquired, and talk about your subject with enthusiasm. Become an expert in a period of history, in an area of science, in a sport.
Learn things that are unique to your region, or to your own heritage. Here is a fun example. I come from Florida. In Florida, oranges and orange juice are like grapes and wine in France. There is not just one generic fruit called an orange, in the same way that there is not one generic grape that makes wine. There are all kinds of oranges, and my father loved them! I grew up hearing about the particular types, and tasting their distinct flavors, and recognizing their specific names.
The oranges were so different that each was like a unique fruit. My father tried to have at least one tree of each kind in our backyard. I can describe to you the incredibly diverse tastes –and colors –and skin appearances –and flesh textures of Minneola Tangelos and Temples and Murcotts and Paiges and Valencias and Hamlins and Parson Browns and Pineapple Oranges and Satsumas and Clementines and Cara Caras and Navels and Blood Oranges. Did you know that Minneola Tangelos are tear-dropped shaped and are so vibrantly and beautifully orange that they’re almost bright enough to be light bulbs? Did you know that Murcotts taste like honey? Did you know that your toddler could peel a Ponkan because it has a skin that is so loose it almost drops off? Did you know that Blood Oranges are tart? Did you know that navels actually have a second fruit growing at the apex? It’s an odd topic, but it’s fun to know about oranges and to be able to talk about them.
Chris Schlect, one of my daughter’s professors at New Saint Andrews College, is an example of someone who has become an expert on his region. He takes what happened in the past in an obscure corner of Idaho, and tells about it in such a way that it puts you on the edge of your seat as if you were watching an action movie. When you hear him talk, you feel the drama of cultural clashes as you hear the story of an indigenous group’s encounter with a modern, expanding nation. You watch as a battle is won because a Native American sharpshooter positions himself on a hill and kills the US Cavalry’s bugler, and thereby wipes out the army’s communication system.
What if you just don’t have time to read books to learn things, like Chris does? How about watching an informative video while you’re ironing? Or listening to an audio book while you’re on the tread mill? Or listening to a pod-cast while you fold clothes? Try to be creative in double-using your time.
But many of you are in a period of life, that of raising little ones, where you don’t have much control over your time. The phrase “free time” does not apply to this of phase of life. And that’s fine, because you’re doing a pricelessly important job, and you are doing just what God wants you to be doing. The great news, though, is that you don’t have to have a lot of time to add copiousness to your life, to become more abundant in your skills and knowledge. Studies have shown that you can learn anything, and even master a topic by spending just 15 minutes a day studying it, as long as you do it regularly. The key is relentless regularity. In other words, short amounts of time, daily, are more effective in the process of becoming an expert in something than are long periods of time, irregularly. You could get up 15 minutes earlier, or take 15 minutes during your children’s nap time or quiet time.
A lot of you probably spend time each day reading through Facebook. I would guess that for many of you, it adds up to more than 15 minutes. And you probably learn a lot by watching short videos on interesting topics that pop up here and there. But that is so much less effective than learning in a focused way, in an intentional way. Imagine if you took those 15 minutes to systematically study a specific topic! You could learn a foreign language. You could read the Great Books. You could learn all about wheat farming or lentil farming. Or you could pick some eccentric topic that is of interest to you that no one around you knows a thing about.
When you have just a little bit of time, it helps so much to already be on rails that are going somewhere. You have ten minutes, and you don’t have to lose them by trying to decide what to do. You need to have a plan to learn, and then keep track of where you are in the learning that you’re pursuing, so that you can pick it up immediately, get on the rails, and concentrate for a few minutes on your subject matter. Mark the place in your book where you stopped reading so that you lose no time when you pick it up for just a few minutes.
An area where this is crucial is in personal Bible reading. You want God’s Word to always be feeding your heart and informing your speech. If through your small talk with someone, you realize that she is burdened down with worry about how God is going to answer a certain prayer, you can remind her, “Everything’s ok! Remember what Jesus said, ‘What man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good gifts to those who ask Him?’ Friend, with a Father like that, everything’s all right!” But, to have a ready encouragement from the Book that is powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword, you’ve got to have a steady flow of the content of the Bible coming into your mind and heart. And it’s so hard to find the time to read it when the children are little and are omnipresent. But if you are on a read-through-the Bible plan, the rails are there, and no emotional energy is wasted trying to decide where in the Bible to pick up and read. Keeping something like a Read Through the Bible in 2 years plan in your Bible is a great help. There is a great “Read through the Scriptures in 2 years lectionary on our church website. Print it out and make sure it is always in your Bible, ready to be held in your hand and referred to in an instant. It doesn’t matter if you miss a day, or days—the next time you get a few minutes, you just pick up where you left off. Don’t try to catch up. Ignore the dates, and just go by the plan, checking off what you read so you can easily find your place next time. You’ve got rails to travel on that are taking you somewhere, and you can get right back on them.
In your quest to add general knowledge to your life, you can learn from non-Christians as well as from Christians. My high school AP English teacher taught me more about how to write than any other person in my life, and yet she was an atheist who did not appreciate my efforts to integrate faith and learning in my papers — at all! The public library is full of resources to help you. I’ve learned that all truth is God’s truth, no matter where you find it. John Calvin said, “the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we will neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it –wherever it shall appear…” So learn what you can, wherever you can—often from surprising sources. Always be on the lookout for opportunities to learn.
The idea is—do what you can to build up a repertoire of interesting things to share in conversation with others. Compile a body of knowledge to draw from so that the well never runs dry as you seek to use small talk to love people. There are situations where your informative small talk can be of great value as it takes away strain and awkwardness, and turns an unpleasant situation into a delightful one.
What about the second kind of small talk we mentioned? You are in a situation where people are gathered and no one is breaking the ice. You need to engage in small talk– not to share knowledge this time, but to entertain, because this is what will put people at ease and relax them.
Being funny is a great way to entertain. Not everyone can be witty. I’m not, but my brother was. He kept us in stitches at home. The ability to say funny things was simply in his genes. But wit is not always natural. I had American missionary friends in France before I was married—Ron and Linda. Ron was one of the funniest people I knew. At get-togethers, he was the life of the party. He brought lots of joy to everyone by keeping people laughing with his hilarious jokes and comments. I thought he was like my brother—just born with wit—until I spent more time with Ron and Linda in their home and saw how things worked for Ron. Would you know that Ron had a notebook where he had written down his favorite jokes and lines, and before going to a get-together, a meal, or a party, he would sit down and seriously study and practice his jokes and stories!
Some of the things in life that appear the most effortless are the things that people work at the most. Figure skaters glide across the ice and look as if every muscle in their body is relaxed. The hands of a piano player run up and down the keyboard, seemingly without exertion. And yet there are hours of grueling practice, and blood, sweat, and tears behind both accomplishments.
Some people aren’t born funny, but they decide to be funny. They put effort into it. You might want to collect, memorize, and practice your own favorite jokes and stories. You can put people at ease in situations with your humorous contributions. Or you can draw people out by asking them to tell their favorite joke. As you sit around a meal table, you can get some serious laughing started by hearing each guest’s favorite joke. In a dinner table conversation where the ice isn’t being broken or where conversation is lagging, you can also help the guests to entertain each other by asking an interesting, serious question. You could engage everyone by asking, “What would you invent, if you could invent something? For me it would be a coat made out of a thin material that had a thermostat that you could set, so that the coat would keep your body the right temperature—cozily warm or pleasantly cool– no matter what the air temperature was. Small talk about inventions can get very interesting, if you are with people with good imaginations. Or you could engage everyone by asking a simple question. I was once at a dinner where the hostess got everyone talking by going around the table with a very non-threatening question. Our precious southern hostess asked it to each one. “Francis, what’s your favorite vegetable?” Francis and I laugh about that to this day, because the question was so hilariously unexciting—but it was great; it got everyone talking!
What about the third situation we mentioned, where the need is not so much for you to contribute small talk, but rather to draw someone out and help them to contribute small talk? Don’t assume that when you’re with a quiet person, your happy chatter is what will help put him or her at ease. It might be just what he or she needs, but it might not. It might suffocate their feeble attempts to talk. Be sensitive and try to understand what the person needs. Remember that small talk is not about you; it’s about the other person. It takes a quiet and gentle spirit to draw someone out through either asking questions that show your genuine interest, or through pleasant, low-key small talk that doesn’t overwhelm the person. Both can create an atmosphere conducive to the other one talking because they feel secure and loved. In this kind of situation, it’s not a high-powered gift of gab that will communicate grace to the reserved person, but rather it is talking peacefully and slowly, pausing, leaving space, giving the other person time to answer. We are all made differently. Some people think on their feet, while others need time to know what they think and to respond. And when the person does talk, realize that sometimes people don’t want an answer; they just want an ear. Telling you what’s on their heart, or verbalizing the problem they’re struggling with, has helped them and has in itself lightened their load –because they’ve shared with a friend. They possibly want just your understanding and prayers, not a counseling session from you that takes them out of the “friend” category and puts them into the “counselee” cagtegory. But at other times, a word of counsel may be what is being sought. Again, small talk is not about you; it’s about the other person, so you must learn to be sensitive to what he or she needs.
Being a good listener takes time. When someone tells a story or shares something, hear them out. Let them go to the end of their thought by asking questions. Listen to them. Don’t say right away, “Oh, yeah, I know what you mean. That reminds me of when….”, and then you start relating what they have said to your own experience. Stay centered on what they want to tell, and share from your own life only after you have listened well, and if your story would be helpful to them.
In big group situations, if you feel like you are not doing so well at small talk, if you’re feeling like you’re on the outside, or if you feel intimidated–then look for someone who might feel more like that than you do. Seek out the one who might need some love, and go see if maybe you can touch them with the grace of God in you, through the love communicated through your words. If you love them as God does, you will want to get to know them. You can gently ask questions that will help them to open up.
What are some of the obstacles that can keep you from engaging in the art of small talk? Let me mention a couple.
The first is that you might be an introvert. If so, I would highly recommend this book, “The Introvert Advantage”, by Marti Olsen Laney. It’s not by a Christian, but there’s a lot in it that can help you understand how your hard drive is wired, how your Creator made you. An introvert and extrovert are not defined by how they act with other people, but by how they get re-charged. An extrovert gets energized by being with people, but an introvert gets renewed by being alone. Or conversely, a lot of time being alone makes an extrovert despondent and energy-less, whereas being with people a lot is what empties the emotional tank of an introvert.
If you’re an introvert, and you’ve been with people a lot, you’re going to have a hard time making small talk. I love people, and I love to be with people– but I’m an introvert. If I don’t get time alone in the midst of being with people, my emotional tank gets empty and I start feeling distant, stiff, and brittle, and I have a hard time making small talk. If you’re an introvert, you need to try to plan your schedule so that there’s not too much back-to-back people time. Learn to know yourself, and plan according to the needs of your temperament. But when you can’t help an over-full schedule, and you find yourself depleted and you feel like you have nothing to offer to people, don’t think that something is wrong with you. God made you the way you are. Aerate your schedule, and you’ll soon find you like being with people again.
A second obstacle that might keep you from gracefully participating in small talk is that you’re self-conscious. Being self-conscious can paralyze you. The foundational answer to this is to concentrate on your identity in Christ and be secure in who you are in Him. You are His daughter, He made you who you are, and you are loved and accepted by Him. You don’t have pressure on you to be anyone, or to come across in any certain way, or to prove yourself. Wherever you are, just be you– mentally sitting in God’s presence—secure and accepted. Thinking about Matthew 17:33 helps me to be self-forgetful. “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will find it.” When you die to yourself and lose your life to Christ, you find it—and you’re free, free to give to others.
In college, I befriended a girl on my dorm floor at FSU who was so shy and tied up in herself that she couldn’t talk to people. She told me that when she was walking on campus and would see someone far away coming down the street that she knew, she would cross to the other side of the street and put her head down so that she wouldn’t have to say “hi” to them. I asked her, “Beth, who are you thinking about when you do that? It’s not just the prideful people who are always calling attention to themselves who are self-centered. You are totally preoccupied with yourself, and with what you’re feeling.” This friend, Beth, turned to the Lord, called her self-absorption sin, and honestly, was transformed. She left her self-centeredness behind, and began to care about others and interact with them–and it was beautiful.
There are some things on a practical level that can help us be free from self-consciousness. I used to be involved in Campus Crusade for Christ, and always appreciated what they told their staff members. “Before you leave home, think about yourself. Spend enough time on yourself to make sure that your hair looks good. Put your make up on. Think about what clothes look good on you, and make sure you spend enough money to own some outfits that make you look your best. After you’ve spent time on you and done the best you can with who you are, go out– and then forget about yourself. Instead of your energy being tied up in self-consciousness, it can be directed towards others. For love’s sake, do whatever you have the power to do in practical ways to free yourself from things that make you self-conscious– so that you can be centered on others. And entrust to the Lord the things that you don’t have power over.
Being free to engage in small talk is a tremendous blessing, because small talk can be a great tool that helps you to love others. Appropriate small talk is beautiful. As Proverbs 25:11 says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.”
- What is the point of small talk?
- Is small talk easy or difficult for you? If it’s easy for you, can you think of some tips to give us on how to engage in it? If it’s difficult for you, what are some of the obstacles that make it hard for you? Does anyone have ideas to give on how to overcome these obstacles?
- What are some ways that you can double-use your time in your efforts to expand the knowledge and skills that fuel small talk?