Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Stranger danger, or the terrors of small talk [April 17]

Try this short quiz: given the choice, would you prefer to A) make small talk with a stranger or B) chew your own arm off? If you answered A) you are probably shy. Don’t worry, you are in good company: approximately forty percent of us identify ourselves as suffering from shyness. And if you’d rather chew both arms off than engage in chit-chat with someone you’ve never met, you might even be one of the five percent of the population who are stricken by social phobia.

According to psychologists, shyness is a temperament trait that exists on a spectrum between approach and withdrawal. ‘Approachers’ are the ones who’ll try to strike up a conversation with you on the bus about the weather forecast or the football results. If, like me, you were born on the withdrawal end of the spectrum, you probably put your sunglasses on and bury your head in a book to avoid having to chat to any public transport approachers. For shy people small talk can be an agony.

According to Professor Ron Rapee, head of the Centre for Emotional Health in Sydney, shy people often suffer from social anxiety, at the core of which is ‘worry and fear about being negatively evaluated’.

‘A lot of shy people avoid social situations because of that concern about being evaluated by others. They have physical symptoms (of anxiety) like shaking’.

So it makes sense that engaging in small talk could induce distress in those of us who struggle with ‘stranger-danger’. As a young traveller backpacking solo around Europe for six months, the most frightening part of the trip for me was being called upon to chat with other travellers at youth hostel dining tables.

According to linguists, though, small talk is a vital part of human discourse. It oils the wheels of interaction and generates social cohesion. Think about the trust and goodwill generated between the new client and the hairdresser as they chat about the latest celebrity updates in the salon’s fashion magazines, or the stress relief for disappointed fans as they commiserate with strangers about their team’s loss on the train ride home from the match. Even the outcome of job interviews can be influenced by the tone set during those initial verbal pleasantries before the serious questioning begins.

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar believes human chatter is a form of social grooming, a bit like monkeys picking insects out of each other’s fur. In ‘Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language’, he writes ‘it’s the tittle-tattle of life that makes the world go round, not the pearls of wisdom that fall from the lips of the Aristotles and the Einsteins. We are social beings and our world… is cocooned in the interests and the minutiae of everyday social life.’

But what if you’re shy and don’t think you can ‘do’ small talk? Won’t that increase your anxiety in social situations?

According to Robert Coplan from the Psychology Department at CarletonUniversity in Ottawa, Canada,‘it’s fairly well established that shy children and shy adults tend to talk less, typically because they are feeling nervous or self-conscious in situations, so they produce less language. Some people have suggested that if you speak less then you have less opportunity to practice your language skills.’ Psychologist Ron Rapee has a different take on this debate: ‘My view is that it’s all perception. Socially anxious people perceive themselves as incompetent at small talk but they are perfectly competent.’

Whatever the cause of our anxiety about small talk, we shy people are probably more interested in finding the solution. One American self-help author believes the best strategy is to focus on helping others as a way of helping ourselves. Debra Fine’s book ‘The Fine Art of Small Talk’ offers a strategy involving two basic rules.

The first could be seen a form of exposure therapy: ‘Take The Risk: it is up to us to take the risk of starting a conversation with a stranger… even if we are shy’. This is all very well, but when your shy brain is full of ‘what if’s’ (what if they don’t want to talk to me? what if they think I’m an idiot?) it can be almost impossible to make the first move.

Fine’s second rule has proved more useful for me as a way of tackling my aversion to small talk. ‘Assume the Burden’, Fine suggests; ‘it is our responsibility to come up with topics to discuss… to assume the burden of other people’s comfort’. According to psychologists, shy people are often deeply empathic. After all, we spend a lot of time wondering what others are thinking. We can employ that empathy to help ourselves in awkward social situations by focusing on helping the other person out. If forty percent of us are shy, there’s a good chance the stranger we’re stuck next to at the wedding party buffet is feeling just as anxious about making small talk. By ‘assuming the burden’ and making the first conversational offer, we can be simultaneously altruistic and self-serving.

This strategy can sometimes lead to even more awkwardness. At a book launch recently I took the initiative and began chatting with a young Asian woman who was standing alone, looking bereft. My chatter ground to a halt when I realized she spoke almost no English, and I skulked away in embarrassment. More often, though, I am finding that my Small Talk Super-Heroine impersonation leads to an enjoyable conversation with someone who soon feels more like friend than foe.

The fact that I’ve written a book about my own shyness is proving to be an excellent conversation opener when I’m targetting the most socially anxious person in the room to practice my small talk. Before long we are swapping tales of social terror and giggling about our irrational fears. And nothing oils the wheels of social discourse – and banishes terror – like sharing a laugh.


(A version of this article was published in Fairfax’s ‘Sunday Life’ magazine on June 14th)