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How Can I Turn Small Talk Into a Conversation? (lifehacker.com)
58 points by rmah on May 26, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 58 comments

Having a genuine interest in the other party makes all the difference. (Lack sincerity going in and you'll sound like a polished politician at best.) When you really care about the person you're meeting, your external focus leaves you no room to worry what they think of you -- an all too common distraction -- and leads to a self-reinforcing confidence that aids the exchange more than any pre-scripted techniques can.

Exactly. I found that everyone has something interesting to say, although most of them do not even know it. By taking "genuine interest" you'll help them find something they were not really aware of, and then all you have to do is shut up. They'll talk for the whole time and end up finding you the most interesting person around.

I'll remember you as a pleasant person but not the most interesting one. I've found that the most interesting people tend to talk a bit more because they always have something interesting to say, either stories or insights, and people want them to speak more.

Genuine interest + actively engaging with them + interacting with another's story

Of course, there is always more to learn. :)

But what if you don't have much interest in the other party? Most people are not interesting to me.

I used to feel that way. But, after some contemplation, I realized how conceited that is. People are so multidimensional and have such varying experiences that it is arrogant to think that there is nothing interesting about someone you have just met. They may not be good at communicating and they may seem to be boring or shallow. But, they almost certainly have knowledge and experiences that are foreign to you. The trick is finding what they are. If someone can't find anything interesting about another human being, it probably says more about their lack of wonder than about the target's "interestingness" (although sometimes communication is the problem too). I really like watching Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe to see him converse with the people he is working with. If you were small talking with these people in the dentist office they might seem boring. But, Rowe is able to bring out their interestingness.

Dale Carnegie says that the secret to being a good conversationalist is to be a good listener. People like to talk, especially about themselves (and I don't really mean that in a bad way). If you are a shy person, ask questions that don't have short, dead-end answers (so no questions with binary yes/no answers) and you can "steer" the conversation while the other person does all the "peddling." ;)

I highly recommend Dale Carnegie's classic How To Win Friends and Influence People. The title turns people off, but it is a classic "people person" book.

Same here, although I didn't contemplate the change. It just sort of happened somewhere in my late 20s. Late bloomer I guess? Always thought I was smart and understood people. But, now realize I missed plenty by not really getting it and finding what was interesting about others.

You can treat it like an anthropological exercise, and try to really figure out the values, interests, and motivations of someone who bores you to tears.

Just don't do it with a sneer on your face or contempt in your voice.

Then expand your interests until they are broad enough to allow connection with more people. Even if you think you're more interesting, you should relish in the opportunity to give others new insights and point them in the direction of your favourite experiences.

Either way, you should be able to enjoy talking about the human condition, friends, and experiences you've had. These are quite universal.

Then just start talking about stuff that's interesting to you. Maybe it will be interesting to them too.

Worst-case? Learn to convincingly feign genuine interest. The key is to fool yourself. If you aren't buying it, they aren't either.

The cool thing is when you get somebody to really open up about their interests like this, you sometimes discover it really is interesting, after all.

I just dive right in with "So, how about those crazy Republicans!" If they're a Republican, they'll be offended and go away. If they're not, they'll talk my ear off.

The key is to offend people early so as not to waste time getting to know someone you'll hate.

</advice dog>

"If they're a Republican, they'll be offended and go away"

Or possibly they just don't like rabid partisans who are incapable of discussing any subject outside their personal political beliefs.

"not to waste time getting to know someone you'll hate"

Yep. Automatically hating anyone with a different point of view before even getting to know them is definitely the way to go. It's called "diversity", right?

I recommend googling "advice dog".

I recommend less political bigotry. For everybody.

You didn't google "advice dog," did you?

I did and I don't get it.

"Advice Dog is a popular image macro series that that features a picture of the head of a smiling puppy on a multicolored color wheel background split into 6 colors. Usual derivatives are often accompanied by two lines of text written in a guidance / advising format with the advice given usually being very poor, unethical or deplorable."


(Addressing all parents of this comment) Don't tell people to google it, just paste it in first and avoid all the distracting chatter so we can go read other threads.

Better yet, don't make tongue-in-cheek comments or reference well-established Internet memes. Actually, try not to be funny at all. No... even better, just don't post. There. Now there's more time for everyone!

I enjoyed it :) It's not the joke, it's explaining it that can get tiresome and must be dealt with with dispatch.

IMHO, Hacker News is a place for insightful discussion; if you want to invoke memes and what not, I'd appreciate you going to r/programming or a different site.

Interesting theory. Tell me that after you get 37,000 more karma points.

>I just dive right in

Advice dog aside, that part is actually correct. Just dive right in. Say it. Start the conversation you want to have.

Don't worry about what they may think, or preamble, or leading up to it, or any of that.

If you've got something interesting to say, most people will appreciate that you just took the bull by the horns and started talking about it.

And even if not, most people appreciate someone who can steer away from awkward silences and boring small talk, no matter which direction they actually go with it.

This is pretty well regarded advice in dating circles, where it is important not to waste your life chasing dead ends on dealbreakers.

I live in Europe, here we have more left wing fanatics and fewer right wing fanatics.

That said, some of the True believers (politics, religion, programming languages, etc) are the nicest people. As long as you can handle non-rationality.

(Also, being Swedish originally, I'd rather die than offend someone in person; the internet is different.)

Edit: How about an ASCII face for "advice dog" comments? What I commented on could have been said by lots of cool people I know (they might not know me, though :-) ).

How about down voting "advice dog" and other meme comments lest HN be overrun by memes?

Your comment reminded of me of a hypothesis I once read about Fermi's paradox, that it may not be physical infection that extraterrestrials would worry about catching from humans, but memetic infection.

Same principle here.

You just described the climax of the movie Independence Day.

What figlet did for ascii art fonts your new website could do for ascii art meme spewing.

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On HN, the actual rasterization of image macros takes place in the reader's mind.

V hfrq gb or noyr gb EBG13 va zl urnq.

Yeah, well I can decode double-rot13!

"When you share that little piece of your story you'll get one of two responses: a question about how it was or a disinterested, "Oh cool."

In regards to this, speaking to the underlying subject (sports, as per the article's kayaking example) and expanding from there can open more doors than simply mentioning a particular sport which few people do. So, expand kayaking to sports or what is so great about kayaking (ie, "it's great to get out of the office."), therefore the other person can have more things to talk with you about than just kayaking.

This goes back to something, of all things, I overheard on Dr. Phil when the show came on the air. The topic was about getting to the heart of a problem and the "hack" he spoke of went like this,

So, you're middle-aged and thinking of getting a red sports car. Ask yourself why you really want it. The answer might be, "because I want to feel young." Well then, what you want is not the sports car but the underlying feeling it can give you. Now, start over and ask yourself why you want to feel young.

Rinse, repeat until you find out what you really are after and I'll bet there are many more avenues to your destination than just getting a sports car.

That's called the Five Whys in business school, root cause analysis in engineering, and life with a two year old.

I just start by saying something outrageous and politically incorrect. I also go in with the mindset that nothing really matters in the long run. life is absurd, so just be absurd

The most important conversation of my life (as it led directly to my eventual marriage) started out with a total stranger (girl) walking up to me (guy) and saying

   I see you have awesome stuff in your pants.
Referring, of course, to the multiple sets of poi equipment I had stuffed into my pockets. This started a conversation with the instigator and another girl next to me. Once the instigator left (after about 30 seconds), my continuing happiness was ensured by the exceptionally suave line

   So... do you wanna keep talking or what?
So, ridiculousness is proven to work in real-life situations. :) You may just end up making somebody else's life.

I accidentally downvoted you due to sausage-like fingers being incompatible with my phone touchscreen, so I'm just letting you know that your story delighted me.


An originally-Maori artform involving spinning weights on strings, which has in recent years vastly expanded beyond its New Zealand origins to cross-breed with club spinning, staff spinning, glowsticking and various other performance arts. See http://www.playpoi.com or http://www.homeofpoi.com/ .

Looks like someone just found Camus.

I think a simple rule is to get the other person to do all the talking by asking them questions. Because most people tend to naturally talk about themselves you may have to force yourself in the opposite direction. If you're fairly conscious about keeping the other person talking, then you're less likely to go off on a boring rant about yourself.

The best conversations I've had tend to have very few questions, and more comments going back and forth. Almost all conversations start with questions but the goal should be to reach a point where you aren't asking any questions at all.

Absolutely, I suppose I meant that you should try to be aware and get the other person talking. In order to do that you need to find out what that person is interested in. Drilling them with questions isn't really the right approach, rather just steering the conversation in a direction that the other person seems to like.

The very best conversation is going to be when you both happen to be interested in the same topic, in which case there's not much effort or social skill involved. That's easy.

The difficult part is when you're at a situation like the OP mentioned with a lot of "small talk" going on and you are struggling to talk with people, feeling awkward, etc. Perhaps you want to have a friendly conversation with your grandma who is not into computers. Perhaps you're trying to network at a corporate event or you're just trying to chat up a girl/guy, etc. People who are very social are masters of making other people feel that they are interesting. They are usually very skilled at getting you talking.

To turn small talk into a conversation, switch from objective facts to subjective opinions.

Indeed, smalltalk is object oriented.

Do people really do this?

I kind of wish I had known this before I went to YC's Work At a Startup event.

Load up on gimmicks before talking to people? No doubt some do. But it sounds awfully stilted, and I think you're better off without it.

Sounds like a potential job for future Google Glass projects: http://www.counselheal.com/articles/1883/20120526/people-smi...

Probably, the most important people skill that needs to be learned in this age

Become the facilitator of the conversation, like an interviewer. Listen and ask questions. This works because most people enjoy talking about themselves or their interests.

Well Smalltalk might not be the best language for a Conversation implementation. You might try a more modern interpreter like Ruby or Python if you want a more universally understandable connection.

I clicked the link thinking it would be a REPL for Smalltalk :)

Ask questions.

The article has it spot on but it can be simplified into two very important ideas:

1. Keep asking questions until you hit a nerve and find something you have in common with the person. It also works the opposite way. You can find a point of disagreement and talk about that. Nothing heavy, something as simple as "What? You hate country music? I love it! Why don't you like it?" can turn into a full on friendly conversation just the same as "Oh you work with Save the Whales too? How did you like that last event they had?" can.

2. Get a life. If you're a one-dimensional person who's all about one single thing you can't relate to anyone even if they have that one thing in common. I can talk to someone about web development for a long time but eventually talking about the same thing is tiresome. The more life experiences you have the more you can talk about and the easier it is to find things in or not in common with someone else.

The rest on that list are just variations on that theme. If you get a life and ask a lot of questions even the most introverted person can easily turn small talk into large talk (made up term).

Wait, this wasn't about a programming language?

It's a domain-specific language mostly[1] geared towards communicating with other humans. Incredibly expressive if you can master it, but the grammar is insane.

[1]: There have been some misguided attempts to appropriate for other purposes, but these are largely ignored in the linked article. cf. http://cukes.info/

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