Networking Etiquette 101: Conferences, Interviews, and Making ‘Small Talk’ that Engages People

Why is it so hard to talk to strangers? People commonly cite feelings such as: fear of asking the wrong questions; fear that they don’t have anything interesting to say; fear that they won’t find any common ground with the other person; fear that they’ll have an unbalanced conversation where one person dominates; fear of how they’ll leave the conversation; and the dread of ‘awkward silences’. These fears can be exacerbated if you’re a non-native speaker of English, or if you’ve recently moved to New York City from another country and feel self-conscious about your fluency in English or your knowledge of American cultural references.

Carrying conversations is something that people have struggled with forever. From Arthur Martine’s Hand-Book of Etiquette and Guide to True Politeness to Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, authors and self-proclaimed experts have sought to help people in a skill that is socially necessary, deeply human, yet that is also learned behavior that is not formally taught in schools (although MIT’s “Charm School” is a recent exception). The goal of ‘small talk’ is not to get a job or even to make a new friend, but to establish common ground and uncover a potential connection that is reason to connect again. With that in mind, here are some tips:

  • The benefit of getting warmed up. Often, feeling confident, fluent, and having fun when you’re meeting strangers comes down to momentum. First of all, realize that it’s not just you: feeling social anxiety in gatherings of strangers is incredibly common! Often, we feel like it’s easier to wait for others to make the first move to start a conversation or make an introduction. Next time, try saying ‘hello’ to five different people in the first minute that you enter a social gathering. Don’t worry about starting a conversation with these people—just ‘hello’, a smile, and a nod is fine (although if you feel a natural connection then go with it!)—and just move along. This helps to get you into a more social state of mind, and you will find your conversations will become smoother and more fun as the event progresses because you’ve built some social momentum at the start.
  • Start with things you share in common. Don’t overthink it. Begin the conversation with a light and friendly remark, and the easiest way is to notice something in your environment—something you both can connect to that’s outside of yourselves. Some examples of things that are easy to remark on include: the room environment, including decoration; the music; attire or personal accessories. If you choose to give a compliment, just make sure that it’s genuine. For example, ‘Those glasses are nice, are they from Warby Parker?’ Alternatively, a great ice-breaker is to give yourself a role at the event. Consider volunteering to help out at the check-in desk. Or, tell people that you’re writing a story or blog post about the event, and ask for their reactions.
  • Find out how they relate to the event. As leadership consultant Simon Sinek says, ‘start with why’. Find out their passion or interest without being overly nosy. For example: ‘What brings you to the event tonight?’ ‘How do you know Joe/Mary?’ ‘What did you think of the talk/presentation/main speaker?’ ‘What’s keeping you busy when you’re not at events like this?’ ‘How did you come to be in this line of work?’ After they’ve shared their experience, feel free to share your own experience; or, you can relate what they’ve said to prior experiences you’ve had. From that point, pivot the conversation by picking one thread from the conversation so far to ask or share more about based on your perspective or passions.
  • How do you keep a conversation going? Show curiosity and draw out positive emotions without being overly nosy. ‘What’s the most interesting thing you did today?’ ‘What are you most proud of this week?’ ‘Have you seen any good movies lately?’ ‘Did you go anywhere fun last summer now that it’s fall?’ It’s a good rule of thumb to match the depth of dialogue to the function of the environment you’re in.
  • Ending the conversation. ‘It’s been great chatting with you, and we should definitely keep in touch (hand them your business card)’. ‘I’ve loved chatting with you, but I need to catch up with a few others, hopefully I’ll see you later on.’ ‘I’m sorry I have to step away, but I’ve enjoyed chatting with you.’ ‘It’s been great chatting and I hope we can reconnect—do you have Facebook/Twitter/Email?’

Your words may be forgotten, but how you make people feel will be remembered. In the Hand-Book, Martine quotes 17th Century French philosopher Jean De La Bruyere: “The great charm of conversation consists less in the display of one’s own wit and intelligence, than in the power to draw forth the resources of others; he who leaves you after a long conversation, pleased with himself and the part he has taken in the discourse, will be your warmest admirer.” (From Maria Popova, “The Art of Conversation: Timeless, Timely Do’s and Don’ts from 1866”, Brainpickings.org.) Above all, don’t take it personally if others seem unfriendly. You probably won’t have every experience go great when you’re talking to strangers, but if you look at it as developing a toolkit and giving yourself lots of practice, you’ll get great results.

Some selected references:

Carnegie, Dale. How to Win Friends and Influence People. Magdalene Press (2015).

Graham, Allison. “Hate Small Talk? These 5 Questions Will Help You Work Any Room.” Fast Company. Retrieved from http://www.fastcompany.com/1843752/hate-small-talk-these-5-questions-will-help-you-work-any-room, on 8/26/2016.

Levy, Julie. How to Talk to Strangers: The Art of Small Talk. Workshop held at Brooklyn Brainery on 10/1/2015.

Martine, Arthur. Hand-Book of Etiquette and Guide to True Politeness. Applewood Books (2006).

Popova, Maria. “The Art of Conversation: Timeless, Timely Do’s and Don’ts from 1866”. Brain Pickings. Retrieved from https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/04/17/the-art-of-conversation-martine-etiquette-1866/, on 8/26/2016.

Sinek, Simon. Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. Portfolio (2011).