Better Small Talk

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We
e ready to start chatting. Of course, Im talking about breaking the ice. For most of us, this is what we imagine when we are trying to create an initial impression. To be frank, its not that we don know what to say—just like with when we forget someones name, we know the most direct path to getting what we want. We should just ask. And so the easiest and most direct way of breaking the ice is to just say hello and introduce your name. But this isn helpful for most of us because we typically feel too uncomfortable to be so direct. Thus arises the need for sly tactics to accomplish what we want through indirect means. Our discomfort happens for a multitude of reasons, summed up by the feeling that we are interrupting people or otherwise inconveniencing them. We have trouble breaking the ice with strangers, even though its such a simple thing, because we create a ”theyll think ” or ”what if ” feedback loop in our brains. What can I say to avoid being awkward? What if Im interrupting them? Will they think Im stupid? What if they are busy? What should I say? What can I say? For instance, if we chat up a stranger or barge into two people already having a conversation, we are afraid: Theyll think Im a weirdo. Theyll think Im a creep. Theyll think Im rude. Theyll be annoyed. What if they want to speak in private? What if they hate my face already? It doesn matter that these aren true—we think they are true, so they block us from easy solutions to the problem of breaking the ice. In the matter of making introductions, we need to find tactics to undercut the judgments and assumptions we make of ourselves. So how can you feel okay about breaking the ice? By doing it indirectly. In other words, having some sort of excuse or justification to speak to someone—when we have come up with a reason, suddenly its easy to interrupt people or walk up to a stranger. For instance, suppose that you are intensely shy and nervous. You eschew most forms of social interaction. But if you were utterly lost and on the verge of exhaustion, would you have a problem walking up to someone and asking for directions? Doubtful, and not just because of necessity. Youd feel that you have a compelling reason to speak, and that would override your fear of judgment. Thats the meaning of indirect in this context: you have an actual reason to approach someone, and when we can create one for ourselves, we can convince ourselves to take action more easily. In other instances, you might refer to this as the feeling of plausible deniability— where you have a plausible reason to walk up and start a conversation in a way that no one can think you
e rude or weird. Actually, if they think you
e rude or weird, they
e the rude or weird ones. Therefore, I want to present three indirect methods of breaking the ice that help you feel safe because you aren necessarily walking up to someone just for the sake of starting a conversation. The biggest part of the battle is making breaking the ice feel acceptable—its an ”I don feel confident or comfortable ” issue more than an ”I don know what to say ” issue. Recall that asking for directions on the verge of exhaustion makes all of those worries secondary. The first, indirect method of breaking the ice is to ask people for objective information or a subjective opinion. These can be very legitimate and important questions that would necessitate speaking to a stranger. It doesn necessarily matter that the person you are asking knows the answer; its just a way to begin a dialogue. For that matter, it doesn even matter that you don know the answer. Excuse me, do you know what time the speeches begin? Do you know where the closest Starbucks is? What did you think of the CEOs speech? Do you like the food here? The first two examples are inquiring about objective information, while the latter two are asking for a subjective opinion. The second, indirect method of breaking the ice is to comment on something in the environment, context, or specific situation. It can be as simple as an observation. Imagine you are thinking out loud and prompting people to answer. Did you see that piece of art on the wall? What a crazy concept. The lighting in here is beautiful. I think its worth more than my house. This is an amazing DJ. All the rock ballads of the 80s. Notice how these are all statements and not direct questions. You are inviting someone to comment on your statement instead of asking them to engage. If they don choose to engage, no harm no foul. You are not putting any pressure on them to respond, and you don necessarily need to expect an answer. The third and final indirect method of breaking the ice is to comment on a commonality you both share. For instance, why are you both at your friend Jacks apartment? What business brings you both to this networking conference in Tallahassee? What stroke of misfortune brought you to the DMV this morning? So who do you know here? So how do you know Jack? Has Jack told you about the time he went skiing with his dog? The idea with these commonalities is that they are instant topics of conversation because there will be a clear answer behind them. These indirect icebreakers aren rocket science, but their main value is to make you feel okay with engaging someone in conversation, which is the real problem. Eventually you may get to the point where you feel comfortable just walking up to someone and shaking their hand, but in the meantime, you can get started here.

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