The Fine Art of Catholic Small Talk


When you’re the kind of guy who thinks shooting the breeze is beneath
him, some social situations tend to be awkward, especially when you’re
not amid a familiar crowd.

In most cases, however, those who
shun what is known as “small talk” are usually intimidated or afraid of
it – afraid of being rejected or simply looking stupid. But remember,
for most people outside of diplomatic circles, small talk is a big
deal. Some believe it’s boring and superficial – and it can be – but
never underestimate the value of small talk. It’s one of the best ways
to build rapport and eventually relationships. Think of it as a way of
separating the wheat from the chaff.

First, small talk isn’t the
same thing as ‘schmoozing,’ at least not if you’re sincere, genuinely
interested in other people, you don’t have any sinister ulterior
motives, and you’re not shaking anyone down for money. Thus, there’s
nothing inherently untoward about striking up a conversation with
someone you’ve never met or don’t know very well. Second, small talk
doesn’t require some mysterious innate talent; it’s actually an
acquired skill. You have no good reason, then, to thumb your nose at
this fine art of conversation.

The primary purpose of small talk
is to connect with other people in short, casual conversations in a
graceful manner. You’re looking to establish common ground, and there’s
nothing superficial about that. What most people never realize,
however, is that small talk provides an excellent opportunity to
exercise the Christian virtues – and that’s primarily why I believe
there’s such a thing as ‘Catholic small talk’ – ‘Catholic’ in this
context meaning both ‘universal’ and ‘Christian.’

Many “experts”
have written treatises on the fine art of small talk, usually from the
perspective of building business relationships, where the bottom line
is, well, business. I can’t claim to be an expert or even claim to be a
successful small talker. But I have long taken an interest in this
subject I formerly disdained, not for business purposes but for purely
social situations – and would like to offer you what I think is the
most helpful and sensible bits of advice that I’ve discovered through
the years.

Introductions: If you can believe the hype,
conventional wisdom holds that you have only three seconds – yes,
three! – to make or break your first impression, supposedly that image
that the other person will carry with him or her for ever and ever.
Amen. You’re right, there’s not much you can do in three seconds, but
an introduction doesn’t take longer than that. Some rules of thumb,
then: Be the first to say hello. Smile, maintain eye contact and always
state your name, even if you think they may already know it. Often
times, they won’t know it; even if they’ve met you several times
before. If they have to ask, “and you are…?” you’ve just been reduced
to the role of a child being prompted by an adult. Ouch! And, it’s
always embarrassing when you ask, ‘Remember me?’ and they don’t. Double
ouch! At the same time, make the effort to retain the other person’s
name, and address that person by his or her first name at least once
during the conversation, and once at the end. People generally love to
hear their name. It indicates that you’re interested enough to retain
their name.

Chit chat: Bearing in mind that small talk is a way
to establish some common ground, stick with ‘safe’ topics at the
outset. This isn’t the time to cut deep into controversial topics like
religion and politics (plenty of time for that later!). You will also
do well to stay away from heavy sledding like philosophy and
microbiology, and never open with a quiz question, such as ‘Do you know
which European nation has the highest fertility rate?’ or ‘Do you know
who Dante consigned to the lowest ring of Hell?’ Small talk isn’t
designed to make others look ignorant. Nor is it a time to show off how
many factoids you’ve got packed between your ears. You’re not Paul

Again, stick with the safe stuff: current events (though
it’s often good to stay away from mass murders, pedophilia scandals,
and UFO sightings), sports (but don’t insult their favorite baseball
team or soccer club, and never say ‘that’s a sissy’s game’), weather
(unless you’re in the subtropics during hurricane season), and family
life (unless a dysfunctional family is involved).

Don’t strike
up a conversation with a litmus test, e.g., “Do you believe the Novus
Ordo Mass is valid?” or “Is there salvation outside the Catholic
Church.” No matter what your intention, this is super-duper tacky.
(Yes, people I’ve never met before have actually come up to me with
these questions.) Oh yeah, and unless your at a convention filled with
angst-filled Goth artists in Berlin, don’t jump into conversation with
some complaint or negative comment. Sure, it’s sometimes difficult to
refrain from saying something such as “were you as bored as I was
during that last presentation?” or “You know what really makes me
sick?” but, if you must, vent your spleen in front of someone you know
well and who might be sympathetic.

Don’t try to be brilliant
during small talk; there’s time enough later to show off how fabulous
you are. Stick with the simple and straightforward – and be sincere.
Besides, why risk coming across as a clown so soon after meeting
someone? Not everyone is cut out to be David Letterman. In other words,
small talk is not a time to practice your stand-up routine. A good rule
of thumb: be more interested than interesting. If you can do this
right, they’ll walk away thinking you’re fabulous without your having
to do much work.

And that brings up the most important point of
all when it comes to small talk: Refrain from long-winded stories or
talking too much about yourself. Ask open-ended questions, and let the
other person do the talking. Listen, listen, listen. People enjoy
talking about themselves, especially when they think someone is
interested in what they have to say. Of course, listening takes a great
amount of discipline. It’s difficult to resist bringing the spotlight
back onto yourself. Nevertheless, resist!

In small talk, the
little things matter: the words you use, the details of what you talk
about, and how sincere you present yourself. A reminder: insincerity is
the kiss of death. If you don’t have something sincere to say, keep
your trap shut. Facetiousness should be tabled for a day yammering with
your best mate or your kid sister.

When all is said and done
within the space of the precious four or five minutes you have
together, be sure to make a graceful exit, whether or not you ever want
to see or talk with this person again. If you do want to talk with this
person again, make sure he or she knows how to get in touch with you,
and if you enjoyed talking to them, say so. Your small talk may be the
beginning of a long relationship, and that’s exactly the purpose of
shooting the breeze. Small talk builds the foundation of common ground
that lets you move into deeper, possibly more significant discussions
and chatter the next time.


1 Comment »

  1. Hope-1049882 February 24, 2014 Reply

    Such an important art form. I sat for an hour waiting to get my hair cut on Saturday. The temptation to just disappear I to my Iphone was strong, but there was an older woman on my right with whom we wondered together when spring would come, and a young professor of political science on my left with whom the co versatile went from how long she’d been in town teaching to how hard it must be to have lived through her first winter in New England (she was from Louisiana) and finally to whether she thinks the country is drifting socialist, and why today’s college students are just fine with this (yikes). It was 15 great minutes I wouldn’t have experienced if I’d retreated into my phone, a magazine, or silence.

Post a comment