Published on December 17th, 2013 | by Joanna Holman

When Small Talk Is A Big Problem: A Survival Guide for Parties

If aliens landed on earth, learned English, and tried to make sense of human social interaction, they would find many things confusing. Fanatical behavior at sporting events would be high on the list, as would road rage and the inability of many people to stand properly in line.

I suspect the aliens would also find the practice of small talk challenging to understand, given that it is frequently awkward and often doesn’t communicate much useful information.

Small talk is an unfortunate inevitability in relationships with casual friends, old acquaintances, colleagues, and relatives you wouldn’t associate with if it weren’t for family ties.

If you agree with the aliens, here are some tips for making it through small-talk-heavy situations like holiday parties and networking events.

1. Pick a few topics ahead of time

Having some topics to discuss thought out ahead of time is a good idea so you don’t go blank when there’s gaps in the conversation. Ideally these will be something that isn’t controversial but most people have lots of thoughts on. Among my circles TV show Doctor Who seems to be a good choice. As cliche as it is, the weather can be a decent topic, especially if there’s been something unusual about it lately.

2. Have something in your hands

I don’t advocate getting over your fear of small talk with substantial quantities of alcohol. However, having a drink or a plate of food in your hands can make the situation feel a little less awkward or at least stop your fidgeting so much.

3. Get a job

Finding a role at the gathering may be a helpful way to negotiate the challenges of small talk. You could volunteer to take photos, help with serving food, run the sound system or many other tasks that need to happen. This approach has a couple of advantages. It ties up some of your time at the event you might just otherwise be standing there. Your task can also be a relatively easy topic to start small talk about. For example, asking people if you can take their photo.

4. Dress comfortably

I realise this sounds like strange advice for navigating situations involving a lot of small talk. My reasoning is that if you already find making small talk difficult, you don’t need the added distraction of clothing that uncomfortably tight or of shoes that have been hurting your feet since five minutes after you arrived. Constantly adjusting misfitting clothing isn’t a good solution for #2.

5. Take a break

Some people can talk for four hours straight, barely stopping to breathe. You don’t have to be one of them. Excusing yourself from conversations and hiding in the bathrooms for a few minutes can be a good way to get some headspace. Stepping out of the room to make or receive a phone call can work too.


Whatever tactics you choose and however well you manage them, you can take heart in knowing that most people are not super observant, so what feels overly awkward to you has probably not left them thinking much negative about you. Unless they’re aliens.

Picture by Donald Cook via Stock.Xchng

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