Small talk, less awkward
"Can I get your opinion on something?" Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
Small talk. It's a challenge. It's even harder now, post-pandemic. However, it also fills an important need—to kill time, make connections, and (underestimated) leave people with a positive impression of you.
Here are a dozen proven go-to phrases I’ve compiled over the years that took me from “mostly awkward” at small talk to “consistently at least OK.” I'll especially be interested to hear what readers think of numbers 7, 8, and 12.
1. "Can I be honest with you?"
This is a milder version of a favorite phrase, which comes directly from the 1987 movie, The Untouchables: "Let me pay you the compliment of being blunt." Either way, honesty is usually a compliment.
2. "I think you're going to find this interesting ... "
My wife's uncle was a master salesman. I got an insight into his technique once, when he used this phrase pointedly and I realized he had me waiting on edge for whatever would come next. I've used it dozens of times ever since, almost always to good effect.
3. "Can I ask a favor?"
This one might be counterintuitive, but asking for help pays a compliment to the other person, and used deftly, it's powerful. Ben Franklin wrote about this more than 250 years ago.
4. "Can I get your opinion on something?"
Related to the above. People like to talk about their opinions, and here you've explicitly asked them to share. You've also given them an "out" if their opinion is an unpopular one: "You literally just asked me!"
5. "You're welcome!"
So much more powerful than "no problem," or even worse: "Yep."
"You're welcome" acknowledges that you've done something worthy of thanks, which is a practical compliment to the other person. It works wonders.
6. "My pleasure."
I'm adding this one to my repertoire lately, only because so many people already know of my quest to make "you're welcome" widespread again.
"My pleasure" sends a similar message, and allows you to have a little bit of variety in your conversations.
7. "This [X] reminds me of my [Y]. What do you remember about yours?"
This construction is great because it's really three conversation prompts in one. It's easier to explain with examples:
"This song reminds me of my high school prom. What do you remember about yours?" (You're inviting conversation about their high school prom, but also yours if they ask, and about the song that prompts the whole chain.)
"That old TV reminds me of my first apartment. What was yours like?" (Bingo, three prompts: the old technology, your first apartment, and theirs.)
"That presentation this morning reminded me of X, which I learned at my old job. Did you ever have a job like that?"
8. "I have only a minute, but ..."
Finish this with something positive and specific to the person.
"I have only a minute, but I wanted to say hello."
"I have only a minute, but I have to say thank you."
"I have only a minute, but congratulations on your [X]."
It's a great construction because you've built in a time limit in case things get awkward, and also signaled that despite being under a crunch, you've made interacting with them a priority.
9. "You might not know this, but ..."
A short phrase is full of meaning. Make sure the second half of the sentence is a compliment, and you've probably got a friend for life:
"You might not know this, but people admire how you handle adversity."
"You might not know this, but just about everyone we work with wishes they had your people skills."
"You might not know this, but that presentation you did gave me some amazing ideas that really improved my performance."
10. "I took your advice. Thanks!"
Triple-win: reminds the other person that you listened to their opinion, tells them that you did as they suggested, and—we hope, as the "thanks" suggests—winds up with a happy ending.
11. "Disagree and commit."
This one is a Jeff Bezos special. It works because it acknowledges the disagreement, deals with it, discards it, and announces that you plan to drive on and be part of the team from this point forward.
12. "Say a little more about that."
Some fear social interactions because they don't know how much they're really supposed to contribute before the other people get sick of hearing from them. This phrase is an invitation to go on, which will almost always be warmly received.
Bonus: This is a great one to use if your mind has wandered. (I mean, you should try not to let that happen, but we all fall short sometimes.)
Try them out at an awkward social gathering this weekend! And let us know how they work—and any other go-to phrases you can contribute—in the comments.
7 other things worth knowing today
A 67-year-old man who ‘un-retired’ shares the biggest retirement challenge ‘that no one talks about.' (CNBC)
Next stop Chicago? In-N-Out burger is expanding east of Texas for first time. The beloved Southern California burger chain announced plans for a new location in Tennessee in 2026 and teases more shops to follow in other states. (Sun-Times)
Frequent visits to green spaces in cities such as parks and community gardens—rather than the amount or views of them from home—may be linked to lower use of certain prescription meds, suggests research conducted in Finland. The observed connections between such visits and lower use of drugs for depression, anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure and asthma were not dependent on people’s educational and income level. (Jerusalem Post)
"I took out $200,000 in loans for law school but never passed the bar. Now I'm stuck with all of the debt and none of the prestige." (Business Insider)
If this one ain't a heartstrings-tugger, I don't know what is: "12 questions to ask your dad before he's gone." (Fatherly)
In case you’re curious, Ivana Trump left around $1 million for the nanny who raised her daughter Ivanka Trump and sons Eric Trump and Donald Jr. She had about $34 million in assets. (Newsweek)
Interesting to hear how this works. Actor Don Cheadle has a 6-movie deal for The Avengers. But he says he had no more than 2 hours to decide to accept the offer, after he got the call during his daughter's laser tag birthday party. (Insider)
Thanks for reading. Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash. I wrote about some of his before on Inc.com. See you in the comments!
I’m “Team You’re Welcome” for sure! I’ve had multiple conversations with my young adult children why I prefer “You’re welcome” to “No problem.”
I liked #8--I often really do only have just a minute when I see someone at the post office or grocery store or on a walk around town. It’s a great way to show them I care about speaking to them but also protect my time.
These are all great but question #1 implies that you may be less than honest otherwise. I prefer to rephrase as “May I be candid with you?”