It's painful. It's meaningless. It's the bane of our existence. Yet, in the hopes of fitting in and being a member of society, we all do it anyway. As a journalist, half of my time is used up making small talk (with the other half split into the YouTube/BuzzFeed hole and actual writing) with strangers, people I kind of know, public relations people I really like, and fellow journalists I actually like. Heck, we journalists even go on week-long trips with strangers. Now that's a whole lot of small talk. That's like, two hour-long train journeys filled up with nothing interesting to say. That's 20 minutes before boarding time when you've run out of observations to exchange. Six years into this industry where talk is cheap, but pretty much vital, have I grown to love small talk? No. But I have grown to pretend to like it. Here's some real talk on how to wing it, fake it till you make it, and enjoy the awkwardness that excessively comes round this wonderful time of the year.
1. Nail your ice-breakers At every media event, a PR person will inevitably ask, "How did you get here?" It's a great cover because from this question, that person can actually figure out which publication you come from, based on the mention of your office. They can also figure out that your company's not doing the best if you told them you took public transport. Either way, it's better ammo than weather talk. Sure, it's nice to find a common enemy — the heat — between two strangers, but the conversation often dies straight after that in predictable Singapore.
Other good ice-breakers: "What do you think of the food?", because everyone who's anyone thinks their opinion matters. While you hear them out and nod agreeably, you can think of what to say next.
2. Don't worry about your first words According to Leil Lowndes' How to Talk to Anyone: 92 Little Tricks for Big Success in Relationships, you don't have to worry much, because 80 percent of the other person's impression of you has nothing to do with what you say. So yes, you can pretty much forget about point 1, because we all know that looks matter.
3. Hey, haaaaave you met... Thank God for How I Met Your Mother. Not only did the sitcom introduce us to Neil Patrick Harris, it also gave us the Bro Code and other nuggets of goodness his character Barney had to navigate through society like a pro. His "Have you met..." technique is not only a great way for your mate to pick up chicks, it's also swell if you want to exit the conversation and let someone else suffer through it, or genuinely bring two people together who you think can make things happen. Bear in mind Bridget Jones' tip on introducing people too: With thoughtful details.
4. Answer a question with a question In an episode of Frasier (because clearly, all of my life's valuable insights are gained from sitcoms), Martin seeks Nile's advice on how to talk to someone he has nothing in common with. The psychiatrist's tidbit? "Answer a question with a question".
"Do you think the Raden Saleh exhibit at the National Gallery connected more with Singaporeans than the one with Yayoi Kusama?"
"Why do you ask that?"
"Well, it appears..."
Hey presto. The other person does most of the talking, and you look like an inquisitive intellectual who's respectful of their opinions... without needing to actually know anything.
5. Wear something unique This works both ways, whether you're a guest or a host. As part of the hosting contingent at a recent Christmas party, I wore a pair of reindeer ears. Sure, I wanted a distraction from a bad hair day, but it also worked well with people I barely knew but got reacquainted with, thanks to their appreciation of my willingness to go festive.
6. Exit a conversation gracefully Susan RoAne, author of How To Work a Room, suggests that instead of interrupting the other person while they're talking, interrupt yourself instead. There's always that awkward moment where you notice a real friend walk in, but you're still stuck listening to someone you barely know go on about the perils of being a new mom. Instead of cutting them off at 'breast pump', wait for them to finish, and then launch into a charm offensive of how you'd like to hear more, but there's someone who's just arrived that needs your help.
7. Get someone a drink The best thing about parties? Liquid courage. Copious amounts of it. If you're about to be stuck in a conversational rut — and most of the time, you can sense these things — with the other person, offer to get them a drink. Usually, they'll come with you, giving others space to cut in. Chances are, someone else is bound to recognise either of you, giving both of you opportunities to escape and not feel bad about it. I offer to head to the bar all the time — and I don't even drink.
8. Ask them about their travels We're all travel braggers. Hotels.com's Mobile Travel Tracker recently reported that 1 in 3 Singaporeans would only visit a country or landmark if it was great for travel bragging on social media. "Where was the last place you went to?" is a question journalists often ask each other to ascertain who received the better press trip invites, because boy does it get us talking. If the person's Instagram account isn't enough of a #passionpassport diarrhea for you, hear them out while they go on about how they've left their heart behind in a developing country.
9. Repeat the last word or phrase of each sentence as a question This is probably the easiest way to keep things going with minimal effort.
"Have you been to 1880?"
"Yes, the one everyone's talking about. It's a private member's club"
"A private member's club?"
"Yes, at Robertson Quay. Apparently it costs $7,000 just to join."
"$7,000 just to join?!?"
You get the picture.
10. Ask about their kids When all else fails. Here's hoping that person actually has kids.
11. Finally, address the awkwardness Cut the bullshit and trim the fat. If you sense a shared love for this necessary evil, you could actually relieve the anxiety and stress from a social situation by addressing how awkward it is. "Don't you wish you're home alone on Netflix right now?" Laugh it off. Offer a drink. Then bid farewell and hope to never bump into them again.