Do you make these stupid small talk mistakes?

I used to be terrible at small talk.

I used to think small talk was beneath me.

If something wasn’t profound, I wasn’t going to talk about it. I was going to speak only about the weighty issues of the day, the biggest things facing humanity.

With all the gravitas that a 14-year-old could muster.

But my mother did me a huge favor and made me talk in spite of my juvenile inclination. When she drove me to drama practice, or I went with her to pick up grandma, or she ferried me to my piano lesson, she made me talk about the little things of my day — and to ask her about her day.

I am no longer in theater, or have a grandma, or play the piano, but the lesson she taught me about making small talk is a treasure I use to this day. Thank you, Mother.

Why be good at small talk?

Mother taught me that the ability to make small isn’t a gift, but a skill. And it is a skill you can cultivate. In fact, it’s a skill that you must cultivate to get ahead at work, to get to know people you’re attracted to, and to create a friendlier environment at your church — and an atmosphere that will dispel loneliness and see your church grow.

Alcohol and small talk are both social lubricants — and until you can drink in church, you’re stuck with small talk. ;-)

Ben Altman at Charisma on Command talks about the three goals of small talk. With small tall you want to:

  • Learn about the person you’ve just met;
  • Establish a rapport; and
  • Finally, small talk is a chance to have some fun with the person.

What small talk is really saying

Small talk stays away from challenging topics, and instead seeks to explore the things you have in common with others — the givens of community life.

Whereas serious talk seeks to challenge minds; small talk works to make people relax.

If conversation were footwear, serious talk would be hiking boots. But small talk is not hiking boots; small talk is comfy slippers.

Some cultures have a gift for small talk — and others, well, not so much. The Irish author Maeve Higgins wrote in The New York Times about how Americans were terrible at small talk. She contrasted Americans with those in her native Ireland who could spend 15 minutes talking about the pros and cons of having a coffee car on the train from Cork to Dublin. She then makes a wonderful point about small talk:

“What the seemingly meaningless exchange means is we can relax. The person we’re inches away from for the afternoon is not dangerous.”

Small talk is how you put a newcomer at ease in your church, too.

Small talk can say, “You belong here.”

Small talk is how you establish rapport. It is the first few tentative threads that draws people in from the periphery of your congregation until it ultimately becomes a warm, comfortable blanket surrounding you both.

So, what can you say that might be the start of a long and fruitful connection with those periphery people? And how do you tell total strangers that you’re not dangerous? (Hint: It’s not by saying, “Hello, I’m not dangerous.”)

What to not talk about

In his book, Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen describes the foundation for showing hospitality, and it begins when we empty our lives of distractions and preoccupations — our self-absorption — to make room for others.

Here are five all-too-common topics you can avoid so you can make room for others in your congregation.

Self-absorbed topics to avoid

#1: Your health

Your health is of interest only if the guest tells you of a personal health concern and you have a similar issue. If you have it in common, and you sense that the topic is welcome, then by all means talk about this — but otherwise, keep it for later.

#2: Your favorite topic

Rather than start on your favorite subject, try to find the favorite topic of the person you’re trying to get to know. And when you do find that subject, there are three magic words to say. I know these words are magic because they won me the life partner of my dreams:

“Tell me more.”

If three other words ever opened up the wealth of a life together with another person, I have yet to find them.

#3: Your strong opinions

You don’t like political party X. You don’t like denomination Y. You don’t like purple cars. Who cares? For all you know, the person you’re meeting at church drove their purple car to your church today because her denomination Y church is off for the summer — and then she’s going to volunteer at the campaign offices of political party X.

Keep it light. Don’t put your foot in your mouth.

Bite your tongue now and feel good later.

P. M. Forni was a founder of the Civility Project at Johns Hopkins University. If you’re a fan of etiquette books (and who isn’t?) his Choosing Civility is a classic, if only for bon mots such as this: “Restraint is the act of feeling good later.” Read Forni’s classic 25 “rules of the road” for being a pleasant person here.

#4: That scary world out there

You may not like social media. You’re proud that you don’t have a cellphone. You worry about how much technology is tracking you.

Shut up about it. It’s too soon in the relationship to share all this with a newcomer.

Your thinking the world is the enemy doesn’t move the relationship forward. That person you’re getting to know is from the world. Expressing these opinions turns people off. And besides, your opinions are not the gospel.

Instead, find enjoyable things in common with the people you meet in church. For a few minutes every Sunday, give everything the benefit of the doubt.

Be gracious. If they bring up something controversial that you agree with, then by all means run with it. But other than that, don’t go there.

Newcomer-absorbed topics to avoid

There is a fine line between curious and nosy. Curiosity is nosiness with emotional intelligence. Curiosity takes the hint that there are no more answers forthcoming around a particular topic and moves on. P. M. Forni calls this “respecting even a subtle ‘No’.”

#1: Their church background

What church did they come from? Until they tell you, it’s none of your business.

If they do mention other churches they’ve been connected with, have something nice to say about that church or denomination, or at least be neutral.

Your newcomer might be looking for a church that would be a good fit for them. That should be your concern too. But being nosy makes your church resemble a place to be avoided.

Gary V Carter, in his book See You Next Week, has a great insight about asking after someone’s religious life. When you ask people, “What brought you here today?” people who come to your church already have an answer for that question. Let that answer be the answer. Don’t go any further. By all means, don’t cross-examine them or ask for specifics. That’s their answer for now.

Don’t be nosy.

And then there are the questions you might ask that are far too inquisitive based on what you can see.

#2: Their relationship

This couple you’ve just met: Are they married? Are they dating? Are they brother and sister? Are these two women friends or lovers? It is none of your business until they tell you!

#3: Their physical condition

Never assume a woman is pregnant. Wait for her to talk about it. If she tells you she is expecting, then say, “Congratulations”. Stay away from, “When is the baby due?” or “Boy, you’re really big!”

If someone has a physical deformity, or a skin rash, or a wine stain birthmark, shut up about it. It’s none of your business until they bring it up. And when they do share about it — if ever — rather than say, “That’s a shame,” or “God bless you in that,” or “Do you want me to pray for you?” remember that they may not think of it as a cross to be carried. Instead respond with, “Oh,” or “Thank you for telling me.”

If they are in poor health, do not give them health advice. This is none of your business, either.

And that goes for their tattoos, too.

Just like small talk, your silence sends a message

You are always sending a message, even when you’re silent. You cannot not send a message. It’s the same as having a Christian witness. You cannot not be some kind of example of Christ in your world.

I hear churches talking about making a connection with their community; some churches with dwindling attendance are exploring the idea of going outside their doors with social agencies to achieve viability. These are good intentions. But what if the people in the church don’t make small talk with the newcomer in the pew behind them?

Friend, that newcomer is the community.

If you cannot create a rapport with that person, how will you make a relationship with the world outside your doors?

Try small talk.

Photo by Isabel Vittrup-Pallier on Unsplash

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