As a law graduate the list of things I can do is quite long, but the list of things I cannot do is even longer. During my time as a law clerk, I have become brutally aware of my shortcomings. I cannot not print a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, or anything for that matter. I cannot write a competent filing letter or use a computer that is not a Mac. While all of these things comprise crucial skills that are absent from my armoury, the skill which is most sorely missed is the ability to confidently practice small talk.
My peers, elders and teachers have relentlessly described me as a social butterfly, an extravert and a “bubbly” presence in the classroom. With such an onslaught of chatty adjectives following me through life I never anticipated that I would fear the social aspects of work. The actual job maybe, talking to people about their weekend, not so much. I am still surprised that a simple elevator ride can reduce me to a barrel of nerves. And the length of time I linger in a bathroom stall waiting for someone to finish washing their hands just to avoid making small talk over the paper towel dispenser is nothing short of impressive.
Let me be clear, I do not suffer with social anxiety. But there is a degree of unavoidable anxiety that comes with starting your first proper job out of university. Particularly when you are working in an environment with highly competent and busy individuals. Most of these are real adults. The inability to confidently small talk is compounded when you are desperately trying to strike up natural conversation with an adult who is smarter and more experienced than you. I am lucky, everyone I work with is incredibly nice (the opposite of what I was expecting). However, I have arrived at the conclusion that their likability makes the pressure of small talk worse because I actually care what they think of me.
Since their world seems so different to mine responding to their weekend plans is a struggle. It is a fine line between passing comment and unintentionally critiquing their parenting style. I can see the line exists for them too. They try to remember what fills your head as a young twenty-something without sounding condescending. I inhabit the awkward space of knowing their name, area of expertise and fashion sense well enough to select them a blazer. Yet, what can we talk about while we awkwardly dance around each other as we make afternoon tea?
Bigger social events pose a unique challenge because the complication of food is introduced. Canapés in particular are a trap. Do you put the whole thing in your mouth or take two bites? What if I am asked a question and the stringy consistency of the food means I am staring at them helplessly while I try to chew to the end of my portion? One poor girl I was with at a function was holding a drink in one hand and accepted a rather large canapé with the other. After she had done it she realised her error as she could not possibly consume her food without the use of her other hand, which was previously engaged holding her beverage. I silently offered my assistance and took her drink. I know, I am a modern day hero. Sit-down meals are just as hard. Everyone lives in fear of the moment when the banter runs dry and all that is left is the clanging of cutlery against plates.
I have now been working for six months. Over that time I have obviously forged relationships with people so conversation comes easier. But I have dedicated time and research (mainly implementing the trial and error method) to work out the most fool proof list of small talk topics.
Despite my initial concerns, talking about family, especially children, is always a safe option. Particularly if you still watch children’s movies. If you are lucky you might have the opportunity to engage in a conversation about the psychological merit of Pixar’s Inside Out. Remember friends, Disney will always help with your career progression.
Another godsend is widely watched television shows. I was lucky enough to start work when season two of The Bachelor New Zealand started. While I did get a reputation for being obsessed with a show that did not depict my feminist sensibilities, it certainly saw me through awkward silences. I would put films, local events and Pokemon Go in this category as well.
No matter what you decide to talk about or how you approach small talk, remember, no one enjoys it. Everyone lives in fear of an awkward silence. The common goal is free flowing conversation. Even Jane Austen had wisdom to pass on in regards to the subject:
Mr Darcy: I… do not have the talent of conversing easily with people I have never met before.
Elizabeth Bennet: Perhaps you should take your aunt’s advice and practice.
Lizzie, as always, says it best. As uncomfortable as it is to be forced into conversing with someone just because you jumped in the lift at the same time, or attended the same networking event, you have to do it because small talk is unavoidable. The only way to get better is to keep on practicing. Resist the urge to put headphones in and even make yourself go to networking events just to get used to the environment (I can say this because I actually did it today). Ask someone how their day was or if work is busy or if they got caught in the rain this morning. You do not need too speak to everyone. Just start small and never be hard on yourself.
I found small talk less daunting the moment I stopped critiquing my performance and acknowledged everyone feels just as awkward as me. In closing, I wish you good luck my friends. No one said it would be easy, in fact no one mentioned it at all. But the gift of the gab is worth developing and if Mr Darcy can do it, so can you.