Talk the talk

Small talk is the bane of an introvert’s existence for more reasons than you’d expect.

First, we’re thinkers, which is not conducive to the rapid-fire nature of small talk. When we can take our time responding via email or text, we’re articulate, witty and smart. In person, however, we’re fumbling, hot messes.

Suddenly, “How about this rain?” is a very complicated question to answer. Quick! What’s a clever, funny and gregarious response?

“Yep” is not it, but that’s usually all we can come up with on short notice. You think it’s awkward talking to an introvert? Try being one.

Second, introverts think small talk is stupid, and we don’t give a damn about the weather. We get bored, and we don’t have the stamina to gush about menial topics. To an introvert, those are minutes of our lives we’ll never get back. Introverts prefer meaningful conversations that interest us. We would much rather talk about our biggest fears than how our days were.

But above all, the awkwardness, the pressure to keep a conversation going and the energy we need to sound friendly is exhausting as hell. We can do it (some of us even pretty well), but it takes enormous effort. One of my introverted friends said engaging in small talk is like putting on a “social mask,” and it’s true. Even when it goes well, small talk can be like a performance. We usually need a big nap after the curtain call.

As much as introverts dread it, however, interacting with people is a necessary part of life. If we want to succeed, we may not only have to tolerate small talk but nail it, whether it’s during an interview or on a date.

In fact, this point in the term has more meet and greets than ever—students have started classes, joined student groups and intramural leagues and landed new jobs. Luckily, I know a few tips for not-disastrous small talk.

Stage one: The approach

“Where are you from?”

OK, don’t panic. Instead of reacting with the old standby (averted gaze and a one-word answer), take a moment to consider your fight-or-flight response. In many ways, our aversion to people is unnecessarily self-protective. Maybe he really is interested in the answer. Give the person the benefit of the doubt, relax and even offer a little kindness in return.

Stage two: Body language

Introverts are big fans of the Awkward Stun Gun Pose: no smile, no eye contact and no facing body. If you want to have a conversation without looking completely hostile before you even open your mouth, just don’t do that.

Stage three: The answer

Answer with more than one word. Give the other person something to work with like, “Montana. And, yes, we have speed limits now.”

Stage four: Keeping it going

What comes next? Focus on the other person. People love to talk about themselves, and they appreciate others taking interest. Ask questions that require more than one-word answers. Don’t just ask what their major is—ask how they got interested in the subject. With any luck, they’ll do most of the talking for you.

Plan B: Think ahead

For certain important conversations, take time to anticipate the exchange (remember, introverts need time to think to be their best selves). Interviews, for example, can be fiascos.

True story: Last month I interviewed a source for an article and ended the call with, “Best of luck with everything you do for the rest of your life.” Needless to say, I now write my “how to not look like an idiot” list before any interviews.

In cases when you’re just not up for it, however, don’t be afraid to fake a phone call. If they’re really persistent, try to convert them to a religion you just made up or show them pictures of your cat.