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How to Avoid Death by Small Talk

Do more than mingle with the potted plants with these 3 tips

By Minister Faust (Malcolm Azania), '91 BA, '94 BEd

November 24, 2018 •

How many times has this happened to you? You're wedged next to somebody you'd never - in a logical universe - encounter for three minutes, let alone three hours. And this somebody starts chatting the way that ducks quack and owls hoot: sound, but without much meaning. Weather. Sports. Wine. And you're thinking, If only this airplane would rip open, I could fall free … content with silence or a quick attempt to learn gliding.

Conversation isn't dead - it's just cowering under the deck. So follow these tips to coax that beautiful beast out of its hidey-hole to liven up your next compulsory sit-together.

  1. Make it a conversation. If only one person is yapping or asking questions, it's a speech or an interrogation. Ask questions, and occasionally share something related to the topic that connects with you.
  2. Mix it up. Substitute, "What do you do for fun?" for the old kernel, "What do you do for a living?" What if this person just got fired? Went out of business? Is on long-term disability? Thinks his job won't measure up to yours - because many people use the question to figure out who's supposed to bow and how deep. But fun is the great equalizer. And if this person tries to dodge by saying she's too busy to have fun, just ask what she used to do for fun, or what she'd like to try during or before retirement.
  3. Ask about their favourite teacher. And let them choose how to define "teacher." Our favourite teachers (often our parents) shape us so we can shape our own worlds. When people talk about their own personal Mr. Miyagi, they naturally engage their own storytelling and gratitude. They open quickly and personably into beautiful and sometimes tender or powerful memories that let you glimpse the real them.

If you're curious and willing to share, conversation is easy. So don't jump out of that airplane. Stay, and enjoy the ride with a new friend.

Hear more about small talk from Malcolm Azania in his TEDx Talk on YouTube. Azania received a 2018 Alumni Honour Award. You can nominate a grad who inspires.

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