As we count down the days until we can get vaccinated and gather with our jabbed friends, it’s hard not to start envisioning life on the other side. But as excited as a lot of folks are for the first IRL hangouts this spring and summer, there also seems to be a fair amount of anxiety about the very first face to face conversations with those B and C-tier friends who we haven’t talked too much over the past year, and with folks who we actually haven’t met IRL yet (like new co-workers, or friends’ new significant others).
If you’ve been inside for the past year with, say, only a housemate or a pet to talk to, well… it makes sense that you’d be a little out of shape, chitchat-wise. And after a year when the answers to “How are you?” and “What’s new?” have been some form of a tired shrug, at best, a lot of folks are feeling very, What the hell do we even talk about?! The weather? Getting vaccinated?? The horrors of the past year and our unresolved pandemic beeves??? It all feels wrong somehow!
If you are feeling lightly anxious about having nothing to talk about, oversharing, spontaneously crying, making a joke that does not land, snapping at the friend-of-a-friend who casually reveals they hosted a wedding for 200 people in October 2020, talking to a new acquaintance in the same voice you use to talk to your dog, or simply blurting out, “How ‘bout those Cubbies, huh?” at the first hint of an awkward pause, you’ve come to the right place! Here’s how to make post-pandemic small talk better and have actually good conversations as you get your communication sea legs.
Know that open-ended questions are a great place to start.
“Questions are by far the most important tool in any conversation,” Akash Karia, a professional public speaker and the author of Small Talk Hacks: The People Skills & Communication Skills You Need to Talk to Anyone and be Instantly Likeable, told VICE. He said that asking questions and actually listening to the answers is key to being an interesting conversationalist. “If you have a level of curiosity, about people’s lives, and you’re able to extract experiences by asking questions,” he said, “1), You flatter the other person, because you’re asking them to talk about themselves. 2), it takes the pressure off you, because you don’t need to always be filling that space with things. 3), it gives the other person a topic to talk about.”
One thing to keep in mind: when you’re asking questions, do your best to make it a conversation, not an interrogation. A ton of rapid-fire inquiries can be exhausting for the person on the other end, so make sure you’re giving them a chance to reply fully, and even steer the conversation a bit before hitting them with a follow-up question. And while asking questions can be a good way to avoid having to talk about yourself, make sure you are sharing a little bit of yourself and that you aren’t blowing off their questions for you so it doesn’t feel totally one-sided.
When in doubt, ask for advice.
As the old saying goes, opinions are like assholes: everyone’s got one, and they all loooooove posting them on social media, despite the fact that the rest of us are like “Please, I beg of you, stop doing this.” People simply love giving recommendations, and Karia said that asking for advice is a really good option right now. (It’s also a good way to avoid super-personal conversations, or to change the subject when things are stalling.)
What to say:
- “I’m realizing I need a new [grill/pair of sandals/beach umbrella/bluetooth speaker] for this summer—do you have one you like?”
- “By the way. I’m thinking about getting a bike and wondered if you have any recommendations for a good place to buy one around here.”
Don’t try to force positivity or humor.
If you’re able to safely gather with friends, then there’s likely something to be excited about. But this pandemic has been defined by an astronomical amount of loss, and it’s extremely reasonable to still feel sad and angry about the hundreds of thousands of deaths, government incompetence, racial injustice, massive unemployment, and all of the personal disappointments that came with the past year. If that’s where you are, you don’t have to pretend everything is fine during your first hangouts.
If you’re not feeling particularly upbeat or like you’ve got a lot of jokes in you, or you’re worried you’ve simply forgotten how to be funny after a year without any practice, that’s OK. At least that’s what my friend Josh Gondelman—a very funny author and a writer for Desus and Mero, and someone who is pretty good at small talk—said. “I feel like people will be able to tell if someone is forcing it, which is worse than not being funny,” he told VICE. “The last thing anyone needs after a year of limited social contact is someone out of practice sweatily trying to riff bits. (Not the last thing they need, but you get it!)”
Like Karia, Gondelman suggested asking people lots of lightweight, open-ended questions—like the best thing they have eaten or watched recently, or what they are looking forward to—instead of trying to be witty and entertaining. “It’s been a weird year, and I’m sure if you let your natural curiosity guide you in a gentle way, you’ll end up getting answers that even the people you’re talking to didn’t realize they had in them,” Gondelman said.
Make space for negativity—your own or other people’s.
Instead of trying to force fun, allow everyone to feel how they are feeling. Bummer conversations are going to happen, even on sunny, beautiful, mask-free days when it feels like things should be “normal” again. Of course, you’re not obligated to listen to an acquaintance vent about everyone’s bad pandemic behavior for an hour, but there’s also no need to be a conversation cop who cuts people off with “But look on the bright side!!!” when a downer topic comes up naturally.
“I feel like ‘How are you?’ has become kind of a weirdly controversial question in the past year,” Gondelman said. “But when I ask I always mean it. Like, if you’re doing badly and feel comfortable talking about that, I’m always ready to listen. Or if I ask someone how they’re doing and they don’t want to get into it, I’m fine with them lying. I’ll never find out later they’ve been going through something tough and go, ‘Hey screw you!!! You said you were FINE!!!’”
“I understand that it’s sometimes a question with a painful answer, but ideally when we’re talking to people, we ask questions that we are prepared to accept the real answers to,” he said. “I think it’s OK sometimes if small talk turns into big talk unexpectedly.”
Trust that other people are also feeling anxious about making conversation, and know that you are probably not as out of shape as you think you are.
Karia said one of the worst things you could do is go into a conversation thinking, I haven’t talked to anyone in a year, I’ve lost all of my socializing skills and I’m going to make a fool of myself. “First of all, you have been having conversations,” he said. “They may not be in the same physical space, but you’re still having conversations—with family members, on the phone, on zoom. You’re still practicing the skill of conversation, just the nature of those conversations has changed.”
Karia also said there’s a lot of research demonstrating the ways a person’s mindset affects their behavior, and others’ perception of them. So telling yourself you’re bad at socializing will lead to the kind of overthinking and self-doubt that makes you… not terribly fun in conversation. “If you go with a belief ‘I have been having conversations, and I’m still able to have those conversations, it’s just that they’ve changed in nature,’ you’ll find that you’re a lot more comfortable,” he said. “Be careful of what beliefs you have about yourself because they influence the outcomes that you get.”
And remember that you’re not the only one who feels nervous about this. “Being out of practice socializing isn’t a problem that’s going to be unique to one person,” Gondelman said. “Instead of taking it on ourselves to shake off the rust, this is an opportunity to reevaluate how we socialize. Like, maybe your best way for one person is to ease back in with small hangouts. But for other people it’s about going dancing where you don’t have to talk much at all. I hate saying there’s a silver lining to the pandemic, because there isn’t. But one way to move forward as conditions get safer is to use this as a reset and socialize in ways that are more attuned to our individual (and group) needs.”
Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. Follow her on Twitter.