Say “Yes” to Small Talk
Kind words go a long way — and the compliments are free
I have changed drastically in the last few months. No, I am not reporting a major weight loss, job relocation, new home, hairstyle or dental implants — however exciting or welcome any of those may be. I have changed my priorities when it comes to conversations, and it is a move both incremental and monumental.
I am now an advocate of striking up innocuous banter anytime, anywhere, with anyone. This has turned out to be a very good thing.
Lest you think I am the person next to you on the Metra into the city or on the plane stalled on the runway who will harangue you about politics or the latest newsworthy outrage, let me assuage your fears. I am recently all about throwing out compliments and positive statements like confetti at a parade. The good news is a compliment does not just make the recipient smile, but I feel better too.
For most all of my life, I have been one of those head-down individuals who avoided eye contact and kept busy reading or checking e-mails on public transportation and in line at restaurants, theaters or anywhere crowds gathered.
The upside is I got a lot done when the flight was delayed, the cashiers were sparse, or the tracks were in use. I could brag to myself that my time was not wasted. Even sitting on the Green Line from Chicago to Oak Park I could get most of a column edited or finish reading a chapter in a book.
My dramatic change came about one recent morning when I faced a 35-minute commute. My phone was not charged and I had left the collection of short stories I was reading at home.
Yes, I could have closed my eyes and taken a little nap. Instead I turned to the woman next to me and complimented her purse. And her young daughter’s barrettes. We launched into a discussion of the latest colors in fashion and why. We waved goodbye to each other and I felt lighter.
It gave me the courage to compliment other strangers in other circumstances. I do not go overboard; I do not walk up to people willy-nilly and tell them to have a nice day or that I like their cologne. I do not interrupt anyone who is busy and I do wait for a politely timed opening.
I smile in line at Target or Mariano’s to the person ahead of me and say something kind. It can launch into a recipe swap, a joke share, new information on a movie or a series on Netflix, or even a review of a nearby restaurant.
This may not strike you as revolutionary, particularly if you have always been a small-talker or an advocate of sharing miniature kindnesses everywhere you go. But for someone who sought neutrality in public spaces, trying not to have a negative encounter, I realize now I was missing out on all the fun.
I think I became a conversation avoider because I witnessed so much irrational behavior by people who became irate at a waitress or belittled a retail worker who could not provide a quick answer. I have seen far too many videos that have gone viral of people swearing and shouting at strangers. They made me avoid talking to anybody I did not know for fear that engaging may lead to inexcusable raging.
I do know better than trying to compliment an irate person out of a tantrum, but I also know that someone whose anger is building in a long line will shift focus if you start to talk about the weather and can compliment his shoes.
I now see compliments as powerful ways to avert negative interactions, maybe pre-empt them, and give everyone a break. I smile at strangers instead of pray they do not address me and engage me in a real conversation. I don’t pry, ask personal questions or nag. I make positive statements that would be nearly impossible to misconstrue — nothing with a double entendre and nothing that can be taken the wrong way. And it’s going very well.
In the last few months, I have not only met people in airports and on trains who have turned into business network connections but, most importantly, I have walked away knowing that even if I never see that person again, I have helped make him or her smile, if just for a moment.
I used to think life was too short for making small talk. Now I believe life is too short not to.Edit Module