The 3 Stages of Initiating Small Talk

I love games. Some games, like tennis, require a few attempts to really get going. Small talk is similar. Don’t get discouraged if your first comment or question doesn’t get returned as well as you’d hoped. A new conversation typically goes through three phases: 1) Starting, then 2) Moving, then 3) Flowing. Like tennis, sometimes your first serve isn’t very hittable. Additionally, your tennis partner may not be adept at hitting the ball back. It’s usually worth hitting the ball a few times to see if you can reach a state of flow.

My local grocery store is famous for their chatty cashiers. Every time I check out, someone inevitably starts a casual conversation with me, and it often starts with the tried and true Feeler question, “How’s your day going?” The other day, I had the following interaction there:

Cashier: Hi, how’s your Tuesday going?

Me: Good, how are you?

Cashier: It’s going well, thanks. I see you’re buying the gnocchi, have you tried it with some Monette marinara sauce? They make a great combination.

Me: No, I haven’t…but maybe I’ll try that.

Cashier: I don’t buy it a lot, but the last time I bought gnocchi for my girlfriend and she loved it…I probably should buy it again soon, her birthday’s coming up.

Me: I’m not a great cook so we always go out for my wife’s birthday. Last year we went to…

Notice that my response to his first question didn’t add much to the conversation. I intentionally wanted to see if he would keep hitting the ball or give up. Luckily, he was a tenacious talker and didn’t give up after my neutral response. The cashier then located a cue he knew I cared about: my cauliflower gnocchi. He tried a Them Feeler about my gnocchi in an attempt to jump-start the fledgling conversation. Again, I intentionally didn’t give him much to work with. Undeterred, he switched tactics and expressed a You Feeler by disclosing an interesting tidbit about himself. Success! That tidbit inspired me to disclose some interesting information in return. The conversation finally reached a flow state. It took him three tries, but with a little effort, he succeeded.

The YETA Model

If you can’t find an observation or think of a question to jump-start the conversation, then skip to a different YETA comment. Try some light self-disclosure like the cashier did.

You should always go into any interaction assuming your first comment may not ignite a genuine conversation. If additional attempts still fail to get anything going, then congratulate yourself for trying, but it’s probably not worth your time anymore. Remember, if your efforts to kick-start a conversation don’t work, many times it has nothing to do with you. (Perhaps they’re running late to a Yoga class or maybe Jimmy’s Famous Chili isn’t cooperating with their stomach.) Even I, an individual with an unhealthy obsession with studying social interactions, don’t always feel like talking with people!

Stay social, my friends.