I love people, but I hate small talk.
When I meet someone new, I don’t want to know what they think about the traffic that morning or how hot it is in Houston (all the time). I want to know who they are at their core, what they believe in, what keeps them up at night. It takes all my self-control to not get into the weird stuff right away. I want to ask things like:
“Have you seen a ghost?”
“What’s something weird you believed as a child?”
“Do you ever think your life is being filmed like The Truman Show? Have you ever said anything out loud for your pretend TV audience?”
Clearly, this is why it’s better for me to stick to small talk.
Small talk is light conversation appropriate for people you either don’t know or don’t know very well. It’s often considered polite preceding a meeting, in shared spaces, and during brief moments of downtime.
It might seem like teachers are hardwired for small talk. After all, don’t we spend most of our day speaking to kids? However, the language and register for teaching children is surprisingly different for informal conversation with adults. Plus, post-pandemic, people across professions are reporting it’s more difficult than ever to engage socially.
Let’s get into it. (That is not a good way to precede small talk, BTW.)
The benefits of small talk
There are many reasons it’s good to know how to talk small.
- Helps you connect with your coworkers or other strangers
- Keeps that connection comfortable for everyone involved
- Makes sharing in-person downtime far less awkward
- Can lay the foundation for a closer friendship
Tips for small talk
Like any skill, learning to strike up a conversation can be nerve-wracking at first. But here are some things to keep in mind to make it easier:
- Most people are relieved to have something to chat about. Teachers are mostly kind and curious people. The odds are definitely in your favor for starting a convo!
- You’ll strike out sometimes, but don’t take it personally. I had a coworker who, when I asked him a small-talk question at one of our first faculty meetings, he responded, “Can we not do this? This small-talk thing?” Although I nearly melted into the floor from horror, I learned that he didn’t hate me—he’s just very no-nonsense and has his defenses up with people because of some early life experiences. (Turns out he LOVED talking to me about ghosts!)
- Use a question as a starting point, not an ending point. Build off their response. If you find out they’re a fan of a sports team in a different state, ask how they ended up a fan of that team. Have they been to any games? Which was the most memorable?
- Don’t talk about the same topic every time. If you bring up the same talking point about someone every time you see them, they could start thinking that you’re just that to them: a talking point. Bring up other questions to show you’re interested in them as a person.
Easiest go-to topics
- Asking about the previous or upcoming weekend
- Asking about their day or week
- Superlatives. “What’s the funniest thing a student said this week?” “What’s the best thing that happened today?”
Other safe topics
- Books or podcasts
- Where they’re from
- Projects they’re working on outside of school
- TV shows or movies
- Recommendations for restaurants or activities in the area
Topics to avoid and why
These topics aren’t bad or taboo, per se. But each of them requires a level of trust and vulnerability that isn’t appropriate for an acquaintance relationship. They also may make the other person feel pressured to give you an answer they’re not ready to talk about.
- School gossip. I don’t believe we should avoid negativity at all costs. (To me, the aggressive “no negativity” stance is most often pushed by principals who don’t want to be held accountable for poor leadership.) Talking about what’s wrong in schools is for certain times, places, and with people you’ve decided you can trust, not acquaintances.
- Venting about students. If you need advice on how to handle a specific student, seek out a teacher or administrator privately and clarify your intentions. But just venting about a student to whoever will listen is unprofessional and unwise.
- Things you hate. Go off with your buddies in spaces conducive to that purpose! But when you’re trying to create light conversation, saying “Man, I hate pizza so much” is going to shut down opportunities to connect with other people real fast. (Also, I think that comment is a fireable offense in New York and New Jersey. Not sure, though.)
- Politics. Everything that happens in a school is political in nature, and it’s silly to pretend it isn’t. But when there are moles in schools to sniff out certain political parties, keep your cards close to your vest.
- Health/bodies. Just don’t ever ask a stranger or acquaintance about any of the following unless they offer: weight or weight loss, fertility, pregnancy (I have a friend who likes to say “Don’t ask women about their pregnancy unless you can see the baby crowning”), mental health … really just bodies in general. On the same subject, it can be uncomfortable for other people to hear about the cancerous mole on your inner thigh, your chronic diarrhea, or your fluid-filled goiter. There’s nothing wrong with discussing health with close friends or family, but the line in discussing health with acquaintances is too easy to slip into being invasive (or even harassment).
- Questions that make assumptions about sexuality, marriage, or gender identity. It might seem totally innocent to ask someone if they’re dating anyone, or if you see a wedding ring to ask a man about his wife. But these questions can make others feel like there’s a “right” answer to your question that you’ve already decided on. It can also make someone feel pressured to reveal things about themselves that, in some states, are literally getting teachers fired.
Small talk is a good skill to have in your back pocket for before a meeting or interview starts, getting a parent conference off on the right foot, or—horror of horrors!—getting stuck in an elevator. Just remember that like any skill, practice makes perfect.
P.S. If you have a story about a ghost encounter, I want to know about it ASAP.