Do you dislike small talk?
(And you're not alone - it turns out that almost no one likes small talk.)
Do you prefer quiet to loud, depth to superficiality, sensitivity to cool?
This is a space for finding a richer form of happiness — for defining success on our own terms, and learning to thrive, as our deepest, truest selves.
Many people had told me that giving a TED talk could change my life. And they were right—but not only in the ways that I’d imagined. Yes - there were the changes you usually hear about: how you get to meet fascinating people. How your ideas get heard. How your books get read.
But the most profound change I noticed usually goes unremarked: I no longer have to make small talk.
Once people realize that I’m the one who gave “that introvert talk” or “that talk about sad songs”—talks that, if nothing else, were frankly vulnerable—they feel comfortable sharing their own stories with me.
I’ve had the most charismatic person in a room confide that he’s secretly shy, and wearing a social mask. I’ve had people tell me about their favorite sad songs, and why they love them so much. But mostly, they open up in ways that have nothing to do with introversion or sad music at all. They talk about their career aspirations, their marriages and divorces, their fondest relationships, their wildest dreams.
In conversations like these, I don’t get bored and tired the way I used to at formal social events. Why would I? I get to connect with fellow humans across what had often seemed a chasm of social protocols.
And I’ve come to realize that the problem with “networking” is not talking to strangers but rather making small talk with strangers—a subtle but crucial difference.
I’ve also learned something important about people. We’re all insecure—even the most shiny and well-coiffed of us. We’re all vulnerable. And no one (well, very few of us) likes small talk, any more than you do. Maybe introverts dislike it especially, but studies show that small talk is universally dreaded. We all want to connect for real.
The only question is, how do you find the elusive portal to the deep stuff?
The answer is not that you have to write a book or give a TED talk. Here are seven much better answers!
Collect kindred spirits. Your goal, in life and at networking events, should be to find your people. In fact: forget the whole idea of “networking.” It’s a soulless, mechanistic word that encourages people to think of each other as instrumental cogs in a machine. Instead, look for people whose company you truly enjoy—people you sincerely like and want to keep in touch with. At any given event, once you’ve met two or three of them, your work is done. You can stay, if you like; but you can also go home and watch a movie in your pajamas.
Focus on what you’re doing—not what you’re getting, or even giving. You’ve probably heard that networking is about giving, not taking. This is a terrific sentiment, but it’s given rise to a networking culture of people asking each other “how can I help you?” in a thinly disguised attempt to ask “how can you help me?” So instead, focus on being sincere. Ask yourself: What are you doing in this world? How does your work relate to your life path? How do the relationships you make at work—and at this very networking event—relate to that path? If you operate from this center, people will feel it. They will naturally want to help you, and you will instinctively look to help them.
Give the speech. Shy people will be surprised to hear this, but it’s much easier to attend a networking event if you’re the one giving the speech, or otherwise taking on some prominent role. Once you step off stage, everyone knows you. Even more, they know just how to start a conversation with you! You don’t have to give a grand keynote to make this work. Volunteer to give a short five-minute talk during a low-key breakout session at the next gathering you attend, and watch how it breaks the ice. If you’re deathly afraid of public speaking, as I once was, try Toastmasters. Really. The secret to overcoming any fear is to expose yourself to it, in small, manageable steps. (I’m also developing a course for you, on public speaking – stay tuned on that!)
Prepare a few things to chat about. Since you might be swearing that there’s no way you’re volunteering to give a talk, here’s Plan B. Prepare a few topics to bring up in conversation: your thoughts on a speaker or the wedding venue or an interesting tidbit you read online. It doesn’t matter the topic, as long as it’s likely to find common interest with the person you’re speaking to. Once the conversation is off to the races, ask curious questions of the person you’re speaking to, and listen intently to the answers. Just take care not to cross the invisible line into Q&A, interrogative-interview territory—you want to make sure to offer a few comments of your own.
Set a quota. Decide in advance how many formal social events you’ll attend per week, month, quarter. Pick the ones that are genuinely interesting to you, so you’re excited to be there. The rest of the time you’re allowed to stay home, without guilt or FOMO.
Choose your people. If it’s a professional event, find a list of attendees beforehand, and pick the ones you want to know and have a decent reason for contacting. Reach out to them in advance, via social media, or an email introduction from a mutual friend. Not everyone will reply, and that’s okay. Some will! Set up a meeting if you can. Instead of wandering the halls during breaks, looking for someone to talk to, arrange for pre-scheduled one-on-one sessions so you know where to go, with whom, and what to talk about once you get there.
Pace yourself, and be strategic. When attending long conferences or social gatherings, plan how many and which events to attend. Which topics or events sincerely interest you? At what time of day are you at your best? Some people are freshest in the morning. Others, like me, are most relaxed in the evening. I can literally feel my cortisol levels melt away as the shadows lengthen. You must know yourself and honor your preferences. Resist the pressure to attend everything, knowing that you’ll be your best and have more to give if you allow yourself to recharge.
If you’d like to share the Kindred Letters with friends or family, you can do that here:
I’m always very glad you’re here, and do not take it lightly,