leadership & management

Giving Small Talk a Facelift

Many years ago I read about retiring the standard small talk question “What do you do?” You know the scene: you meet someone at an event, introduce yourselves and within moments one of you will ask that question. And while it does promote social civility, it doesn’t do much for helping the conversation progress into anything memorable. If you join the quest to abandon the boring, you’ll need some different questions in your repertoire.

Nate Damm shared a fantastic one: “What’s your story?” He describes:

“What do you do?” usually sparks a conversation about work and the daily grind, and a lot of people really don’t like their job. Even if they do like it, it consumes their life for 40+ hours per week and that’s enough. Don’t make them go over THAT again.

“What’s your story?” is much more personal, but not in a creepy way. This will get to topics such as hobbies, travels, schools attended, former home cities/countries, current home cities/countries, family and passions really fast. It kind of skips all the formalities that many of our boring conversations go through before getting to any real valuable or memorable stuff.

A slightly riskier question is: “What’s the work you want to be doing?” or “What’s the work you do that matters?” I’ve used these in crowds with a make-a-dent-in-the-universe vibe and they worked great.

In the spirit of retiring “What do you do?” I also retired “How are things?” as my standard small talk when I run into people I know. My favourite replacements have been “What’s going well?” (which almost always sparks a smile) and  “What are you reading these days?”

What questions will you try out this week? See if they turn your small talk into meaningful talk.

4 replies on “Giving Small Talk a Facelift”

Hey Amanda! Thanks for linking to my post. I love your question, “What’s the work you want to be doing?”

I know that if someone asked me that it would stay on my mind for a while. Most folks don’t come close to knowing the answer to that! Great idea.

A great story from Robert Fulghum to add to the topic:

The next time I got on a plane and sat down next to someone who looked sympathetic, I…suggested we play a game – just for the fun of it – and each make up our occupation and pretend all the way to Chicago. The guy went for it. So he declared he was a spy, and I decided to be a nun. We had a hell of a time – one of the great conversations of my life. He said he couldn’t wait until his wife asked him, “Well, dear, how was your flight?” “There was this nun dressed in a tweed suit…”

I highly recommend reading the entire story from his book “It Was on Fire When I Lay Down on It”.