The art of small talk, and how to avoid being Dr Sheldon Cooper at it
Have you ever been in that situation when you are at a party and you find yourself standing by a person you haven’t met before, your brain is blanking out and you do not have the slightest idea of what to say? Don’t worry, my dear sociopath, we have been there too! And we are going to help you out today by showing you how to make small talk and what is appropriate when practicing it. And teach you how to not be Dr Sheldon Cooper.
Before you actually start speaking to somebody, it’s not a totally bad idea to first introduce yourself to them. When doing that, you can add some information about your job or remind a person about when or where you previously met.
“Good morning! We always eat lunch at the same time but we’ve never talked to each other before. My name is [Your Name].”
“Hello, how are you today? My name is [Your Name]. I’m still studying English so please tell me if I make any mistakes.”
“Hi Angela. You might not remember me but we met at Ben’s Halloween party a couple of months ago. I’m [Your Name].”
However you do it, try to avoid sounding too uppity about yourself:
These topics are usually familiar to everyone: weather, news, sports, trends in entertainment or technology. However, some people might not be particularly interested in a specific topic – use your knowledge of body language and facial expressions to decode if a person is interested in what you are saying.
“Did you watch the Oscars last week? I can’t believe Leonardo DiCaprio finally won one!”
“This weather is crazy! It was cold yesterday and today I came in a T-shirt. I hope it stays warm, don’t you?”
“That basketball game yesterday had me glued to my seat. Wasn’t that a great save at the very end?”
Alternatively, you could talk about stairs.
Sheldon: Do you want to hear an interesting thing about stairs?
Leonard: Not really!
Sheldon: If the height of a step is off by as little as two millimeters, most people will trip.
Leonard: I don’t care. 2 millime—? That doesn’t seem right.
Sheldon: It’s true. I did a series of experiments when I was 12. My father broke his clavicle.
Leonard: Is that why they sent you to boarding school?
Sheldon: No. That was the result of my work with lasers.
Quote from the episode Pilot
Situation or surroundings
If you’re lost for words, look no further – look around! Sorry to confuse you with the phrasal verbs. What we mean to say is, talk about where you are: the place, the food, the people you know – and don’t know.
“Wow, this food looks amazing. What would you recommend?”
“That cake looks divine, where did you find it?”
“Everything is delicious; do you know who prepared it?”
“Did you see? They finally fixed the light in the break room. It’s been broken for almost a month!”
“How do you know the host?”
“Did you enjoy the speech/presentation just as well as me?”
Even better, pay someone a compliment on how they look!
“That brooch is beautiful, wherever did you get it?”
“I wish I could steal your stylist for myself!”
Whenever you’re complimenting, just remember – you do not always have to be completely honest, like Sheldon in this episode:
If there is still awkward silence, you can talk about your day or ask your conversation partner about theirs.
“How was your day? / How has your day been so far?”
“Has anything exciting happened today?”
“What are you planning for after work?”
“Are you doing anything fun after work?”
However, be careful if a person is clearly looking as if they are going through a terrible day. Just offer some comforting or try to cheer them up instead.
“Hey there. You look like you’re having a rough day. I hope it gets better for you.”
“The day is almost over! Do you have any interesting plans for the evening?”
Or offer them some tea.
Leonard: What’s that?
Sheldon: Tea. When people are upset, the cultural convention is to bring them hot beverages. … There, there. … You wanna talk about it?
Sheldon: Good! «There there» was really all I had.
Quote from the episode The Middle-Earth Paradigm
Talk work (but not too much)
Discuss what you do and what you are interested in doing:
“Are you in the film industry, too?”
“Oh, interesting. What made you go into psychiatry?”
“Educators are so amazing to me, your work is so important! What’s your favorite thing about teaching?”
“How long have you been a weatherman?”
“What do you think about the new technologies coming out in the design world?”
“Where’s your favorite business-trip destination?”
“What a busy day. This is the first time I’ve gotten up from my seat all day! Are you busy too?”
Remember to avoid gossiping and you’ll be fine!
Sheldon: I’m a physicist. I have a working knowledge of the entire universe and everything it contains
Penny: Who’s Radiohead?
Sheldon [after twitching for a minute]: I have a working knowledge of the important things.
Interests and follow-up questions
Your goal is to find something in common you and your speaking partner can talk about. Asking “What are your hobbies?” out of the blue can seem a bit, em, strange. Instead, try to base your questions on observations:
“I noticed your hat has a Yankees logo. Are you a fan of baseball too?”
“I tried baking cookies like yours last night and they came out terrible. How do you make them so good?”
An example of how not to talk about your interests:
Sheldon: Here are some topics that interest me. Quantum mechanics, trains, flags—
Penny: No, no, it’s about my acting career.
Sheldon: Oh, I’m sorry, that’s not on the list.
What’s wrong with this dialogue, except for Sheldon’t bluntness, of course? There are no questions! In the real world (as opposed to the world of the science-obsessed geeks), people ask questions to show they’re interested.
“Hey, I heard you were thinking of adopting a new dog. Did you find one?”
“I’ve been meaning to ask you this for a while: how long have you been working here?”
“Your hair always looks great. What hair products do you use?”
“What would you do if you won the lottery tomorrow?”
“If you were about to be stranded on a desert island and could bring one person with you, who would it be?”
“Aliens just landed and want you to share with them the five best foods in the world. What would you give them to try out?”
OK, that last one might make you sound like an alien geek!
And remember to not get too personal!
Amy: If we’re friends, we should be able to talk about anything.
Sheldon: All right.
Amy: So, you had some questions about me seeing other people.
Sheldon: Just a few.
Amy: Go ahead.
Sheldon: How many dates have you been on? Who were they with? Where’d you go? Where did you meet them? Did you sleep with them? And how much longer to the aquarium? I’m getting kind of hungry.
Whatever the consequences, just BE YOU – that’s the best advice we can give!
In the publication we used the quotes and examples from these two articles: