One of my specialties in my practice is working with people who struggle with various forms of anxiety, including social anxiety. And it’s a consensus that small talk is a thorn in most people’s sides. Small talk is something that has the appearance of being easy — and some people do master the art of small talk over time to where navigating it can become second nature. However, there are reasons that small talk is often difficult and anxiety-inducing for many people.
Let’s first start with understanding a bit about conversations. Many conversation experts will be quick to point out that you should always aim to be the listener in a conversation and ask people questions about themselves — the cliche is that “everyone really just wants to talk about themselves”, so the easiest thing to do is just give them the opening to talk about themselves.
Well, as much as some people might like to talk about themselves, this actually is really not the case, overall.
While it is true that many people will be easily able to answer questions about themselves, many people actually feel much more comfortable being the listener in a conversation, for various reasons. Many people feel quite uncomfortable talking about themselves. However, if two people enter a conversation trying to be the listener, that’s where the struggle starts. Both people end up trying to start the other talking, and this can lead to some stressful back and forth with short answers to questions, and then struggling to come up with more questions.
Conversations generally flow best when both are actively listening to the other and are building off of the other. This brings depth to a conversation and expands on topics, merging the interests and curiosities of both sides. Both are the talkers and both are the listeners. Between two “talkers”, or between a talker and good active listener, this can go well more easily. Once you’re in this kind of conversation, you’ve actually already gone past the point of small talk. You’re having a real conversation.
With this as a backdrop, the real reason that small talk can be so problematic for people is that small talk is actually a state of conversational ambivalence, or limbo. Small talk is a pleasantry. It is what people do to generate face time with other people while they decide if they actually want to have a more in depth conversation, or if they want out of the conversation.
The biggest problem is that people often get stuck in the small talk ambivalence without fully understanding if they want to find their way into a more connected and expanded conversation, or if they want to end the conversation. They attempt to make a conversation out of small talk, which generally is a very limited way of having a conversation.
There are many reasons people may struggle to make this decision. For example, not sure if they want to spend the time it takes to have a longer conversation, anxiety of running out of things to say, anxiety of connection, vulnerability, getting stuck in the conversation and not knowing how to eventually end it, or fear of offending the other by ending the conversation, not knowing how to end it, as well as others.
So rather than consciously or unconsciously pushing the conversation forward or ending it, people sit in the ambivalence — which is a conversational road to nowhere. Being stuck in this ambivalence is what generally makes small talk awkward. You’re not fully in a conversation, but you’re not out of the conversation either.
For many people, they may want to have a more in depth conversation (and small talk is the way in), but they aren’t good at actively listening, or are not good bridging the conversation to the other person so both can participate in a more connected way. While learning how to do this is a different issue for another post, at some point in a conversation one has to decide if they want to expand into a more full conversation or cut off.
One way of dealing with this is to understand within yourself if there is anything about the other person that makes you curious, or anything you may have in common that you can open up for a conversation, or otherwise. If you’re finding the vibe between the two of you is making you more nervous, and it seems like you’re not going to be a good conversational match, then a few pleasantries before ending the conversation may be enough.
Conversational dynamics and how to navigate them is a more in depth topic. But in terms of dealing with small talk, it may alleviate some anxiety if you can start to make decisions about expanding or ending conversations so you don’t get caught in between.