Remedial Small Talk

About six months ago,I decided to get better at making small talk with strangers. The first thing a geek has to understand is that small talk is not,as someone once said to me,“a retarded waste of time.”For non-geeks,small talk communicates something along the lines of “Hello! Although you do not know me,I am a distant member of your tribe. I mean you no harm.”It is important. Not offering small talk freaks people out.

If that’s your goal,then by all means,go for it. Give them that boggle-eyed stare that we all know so well. (I’m not kidding about this. There’s no law that says you have to pretend to be someone other than who you are.) However,if you want to work at “passing”in normal society,then you need to make with the chit-chat. Think of it as a game,think of every encounter with a stranger as an opportunity to polish your skills. (That way,by the time you’re ready to try them on someone you’re interested in,you’ll be in fine fettle.) Level up,baby!

The first rung of small talk –the best place to start –is a compliment. Pick something about the other person,and say something nice. You’ll be shocked at how well this works.

At first,I often found myself flailing to find something to compliment. Thus some notable early failures such as “I like that pen! Does it click?”(Eesh.) Finally I hit on solid gold,and I will now share it with you.

You’re probably staring at the ground anyway,right? Compliment their shoes. This not only kicks off small talk in the right way,it also explains why you’re staring at the ground in the first place. You’re not pathologically shy! You’re just smitten by their footwear!

Here’s the rule:Shoes are either “pretty,”“comfortable,”or “sturdy.”Thus,depending on the shoes,you will say one of these three things:

1. “I love your shoes! They’re really pretty.”

2. “I love your shoes! They look really comfortable.”

3. “I love your shoes! They look really sturdy.”

Then make eye contact (don’t hold it –just a quick glance –it won’t hurt you) and smile.


They’ll take the ball from there. Probably tell you something about where they bought the shoes,or how much they cost. Just nod. Then…you’re done! 9 times out of 10,you can just drop it there and you’ll be golden.

Speaking of footwear,the first 24 sock is finished,as are the first two discs of season 4.

Lisa Souza Mombassa sock

The color made a LOT more sense after I learned that it was named after a lion named Mombassa. Presumably he looked a bit like this handsome fellow:

Some random lion picture I found online

I can totally see it now! Thanks to Lisa for clearing that up for me.

8 comments to Remedial Small Talk

  • You’ve read “Why Nerds Are Unpopular”I suppose? We read it aloud. you know,bedtime reading with the kiddo sort of thing. I sure wish I’d read it at 15,would have saved me so much grief.

  • I appreciate any and all small talk tips. Small talk is another aspect of “acting normal”that I have a really hard time with. Also,finding ways to wrap up a conversation. I usually settle with some kind of agreement to talk again,like “Talk to you later”,or “See you next week”. But this isn’t always quite right,so I’m left with,“Um. Bye.”

    I like the way the sock turned out. I’m working my way up to sock knitting. Some time before Christmas,I may actually produce a set. Maybe.

  • I’m horribly awkward in the whole “small-talk”department;I’m glad other people have these issues.

  • Hey –great instruction for small talk tips! I was raised by New Englanders,who are not known for their social chattyness,and I’m a geek.

  • Sandy

    The problem Kirstie mentions,I have that one too. “I don’t want to talk to you any more because we’ve hit the end of our possible topics of conversation”? “I have to go to the bathroom”? “I am thirsty”? “Oooh,someone I like better has come in”?

  • I use that compliment thing,too. Works a treat. Accountants are second only to geeks in nerdiness.

  • Hey,I love your socks. They look really sturdy,comfortable,and pretty!!!

  • Dani B

    My favourite exit line:“It was great to bump into you/see you today! Take care!”.
    Maybe it’s a Canadian thing,but barring someone wearing great accessories,I always open with the weather. This week it’s been variations on,“Are you enjoying the warmth outside?”“Oooh,it looks so sunny out,has it stayed warm all day?”“I feel so betrayed that the weather has turned cold again!”.
    I’m a barista at a ‘bux just off the campus of my university,so I can always use,“Stressful week?”when someone orders something with extra whip,or “Big paper due tomorrow?”when they’re getting a venti red-eye.
    Seriously,working behind the counter of a coffee shop where you’re encouraged to make conversation with EVERY customer has gone a long way toward making me less self-conscious about small talk. Lawd knows if you put me in a room full of people I didn’t know a year ago,you’d have found me finger-knitting the cat hair and lint from the carpet rather than start a conversation. My mom says I ‘watched’a lot as a baby…maybe this was an early sign of my geekiness?