How To Make Small Talk When You Haven’t Seen Anyone In A Year

And not one has to do with the weather.

by JR Thorpe
Originally Published: 
Shot of two happy women sitting on the floor making small talk and drinking wine. Smiling friends to...
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As more people get vaccinated, the invitations will likely start flooding in — and you may suddenly realize you haven’t chatted idly to a stranger at a party for well over a year. After a year in isolation, 38% of Americans are worried about being unable to make small talk when it’s safe to get together and 34% feel they’ve become more awkward in the past year, according to a survey by Evite in conjunction with OnePoll. But post-pandemic conversations don’t all have to be about the weather.

Can’t remember how to make small talk to save your life? “There is a learning curve now around reentering society and doing things again that once felt normal, but now may very much feel abnormal,” therapist Heidi McBain LMFT LPC tells Bustle.

But everybody is in the same boat, which may help you feel more comfortable. Social belonging is really important to humans, behavioral scientist Jon Levy, author of You’re Invited: The Art & Science Of Cultivating Influence, tells Bustle. “Exile or solitary confinement or the biggest punishments we can give people, and we lived in that for more than a year.” Your struggle isn’t unique, and it will take time to refresh your social skills.

In the meantime, here are some conversational training wheels to get you started at that first in-person dinner party.


Talk About Your Awkwardness

Levy recommends leaning into that awkwardness you’re feeling. He suggests saying, “‘Hey, I have not been around another human being in a year. So I'm feeling incredibly awkward and don't know how to behave right now.’” People tend to respond to something like this by saying ‘Oh my god, me too!’ he says.


Ask Questions About What Their Quarantine

To start a conversation, experts say, don’t immediately dive into a long story; ask questions. You can go for the general approach — ‘So, what have you been up to?’ — or something more specific — ‘What’s the one episode of TV that’s got you through quarantine?’ That immediately engages the other person and gives them a guide to bouncing something back.


Start With A Compliment

Compliments are the heavy hitters of casual conversation. They’re also a good avenue to a longer chat: asking somebody where they got their earrings, or a cool tattoo, makes them feel valued and also gives them an easy response.


Share Vaccination Stories

The Atlantic says that post-vaccine chat is the new trend in small talk. Lean into it; after all, it’s an experience you’ll all have in common. What did you do to solve your side effects? Was somebody in your vaccine line really impolite? Bond over the wonders of modern medicine.


Find Things You Have In Common

Levy suggests finding out if you have a shared activity. He’s observed that people bond quickly over shared experiences, so he invented a Get To Know You Bingo game where participants figure out their common points — whether they’ve broken the same bones, have the same number of kids, even want the same exotic animal as a pet.


Thank Them For Something

If they did something during quarantine that helped you, or you just felt that their Instagram posts were pure fire, tell them and thank them. Gratitude is a good way to enter into a conversation.


Ask For Advice

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One of the best strategies for small talk is to ask for advice, Akash Karia, author of Small Talk Hacks, told VICE in March 2021. “I’ve been looking for XYZ — do you have any suggestions?” is a compliment in a category of its own, because it shows that you respect their judgement and want their input.


Share Strategies On Getting Back Out There

Hit two birds with one stone. ‘What’s your best tip on figuring out small talk these days?’ is a neat way to combine two things: asking for advice and acknowledging that Social Time Is Mega Difficult Right Now.


Ask About Post-COVID Plans

Everybody’s got ‘em — whether it’s finally going to Paris once the COVID pandemic eases, or just seeing their newborn niece for the first time. This risks running into sad territory, so be prepared if people start telling you about the things they’ve missed.


Point Out Something Around You

If you don’t know your conversation partner at all, talk about things in your shared space, Gillian Sandstrom, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Essex, advised the Washington Post. See a dog? A puzzle? Hikers? Draw attention to them.


Go For Anecdotes Of Your Own Silliness

Finding it hard to draw on anything useful to connect with someone? Levy suggests using something called “the pratfall effect.”

“People who are gentle, bumbling fools — that is actually what makes them appealing,” he says. “When you drop papers or spill coffee, you’re rated as more likable.” Self-deprecate about your silliest moment — did you walk into a pole at the vaccination clinic? — and you’ll seem charming and open.


Do An Activity Together

Levy says a really good way to start conversations uses something called “the Ikea effect”. “We disproportionately care about our Ikea furniture because we had to assemble it, so we need to find shared activities that require joint effort.” If you’re playing a game on the same team, preparing a meal, or doing any kind of joint activity that involves working together, you can bond rapidly.


Ask About What’s Giving Them Joy

Everybody has gone through a tough 12 months, experts tell Bustle, so it’s good to keep things really light on your first social encounter. ‘What’s a thing that’s making you really happy lately?’ is a good start. Have your own answer ready, even if it’s just ‘looking at art restoration videos online’.


Offer To Help

If you don’t know what to do at a party, do what your mother always told you: find somebody doing something, and offer to help. It’s an activity you can share together, plus you can chat about what you’re doing as a natural introduction to conversation.


Pick From A Handy List Of Go-To Topics

If you’re really running dry and worry about standing there gaping, have a list handy of things you’d like to chat about. Maybe you’ve got really into old movies, or want to know about which podcast you should listen to, or are collecting old family recipes. There’s no shame in prepping before social time to make sure you feel comfortable.


Therapist Heidi McBain LMFT LPC

Behavioral scientist Jon Levy, author of You’re Invited: The Art & Science Of Cultivating Influence

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