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Overcoming the Strain of Small Talk

How introverts and those with social anxiety can find confidence in a world where conversations are never ending.

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You know that twenty second elevator ride with a stranger that feels more like twenty minutes?

The ache of the silence and that awkward feeling that you should probably say something start to eat away at you, until you quickly pull out your phone.

We’ve all been there: the moment of coming face-to-face with situational small talk and wanting to avoid it at all costs.

For some of us, the thought of making small talk leaves us in a big bundle of anxiety. It can be so strenuous that we go far out of our way to avert any form of conversation.

When we find ourselves in these sticky situations, our phones can feel like our only lifeline out of the pending imprisonment.

Thank you cell phone for giving us the perfect excuse to ignore the awkwardness.

We look down at our phones and busily scroll through Instagram, respond to nonexistent texts, or find just about anything to keep us from having to engage in small talk with strangers.

But are our phones really helping us out or holding us back?

Remember way back when, in the days before cell phones (if you’re not a millennial), when we walked into an elevator, stood across someone and had to put up with whatever awkward small talk ensued?

Remember what it felt like to be pushed outside your comfort zone and have to engage in small talk?

The big question is this: In are modern cell-phone-as-an-outlet-world, is it now okay to avoid someone in an elevator (or anywhere for that matter)?

Is there really any benefit to our chit-chatting with strangers? Do we really need to expend our energy on something that makes us so uncomfortable and on someone we may never see again? Is the art of avoidance really such a bad thing?

The answer is yes and no, depending on a few factors.

The art of avoidance

Not wanting to engage small talk doesn’t make you antisocial or asocial. It doesn’t mean something is wrong with you. The problem occurs when the art of avoidance begins to cause anxiety, which likely returns every time you’re in that situation.

My husband works alongside many celebrities who have become partners in his sunglasses business, Privé Revaux. Many of his connections (dare I say most) were made because he was willing to engage in conversation with people who led him to the right people to help establish valuable business relationships (i.e he talks to the people many of us may want to avoid in the elevator).

See where I’m going with this?

Looking at the brand my husband built, no one would think that he could have cringed at the thought of starting a conversation with a stranger, and for the most part, he didn’t (and still doesn’t)…though David is an extrovert and I am most definitely not.

Put me in the same situations and it’s a different story.

As a quintessential introvert, I am fueled up when I can get a few quiet moments to myself, not when I force myself into daunting situations of small talk.

In her (bestselling) book, Quiet (one of my favorites), author Susan Cain understands and explains this predicament all too well. She is a leading expert on introversion and her TED talk has over 23 million views.

Cain has an interesting solution for those of us who lean to the side of being introverts and struggle with small talk:

She asserts that if we approach situations as though we are journalists, we will be armed with questions that can create a bridge that is fueled by curiosity. Open-ended questions are shown to lead to better conversation.

For example, “What do you enjoy most about this? is better than “Do you enjoy this?”

Introverts are not anti-social, we just need a little extra help arming ourselves with small talk tools.

I’ll never forget one time we were shopping at a department store and ran into an NBA basketball player. The thought of approaching him made me sweat, but I learned a lot from my husband that day.

When I saw David walking toward him, I cringed so deeply that it made me uncomfortable (and I wasn’t even the one starting the conversation!) Talk about second-hand anxiety.

Long story short, David and the NBA player stayed in touch and he eventually did a photo shoot for the suit company my husband owned at the time.

Orchids and Dandelions: Fostering Resilience

Some of us are simply more sensitive to the world around us. Things don’t come as easily and often to us amid social situations.

It can take stepping out of our comfort zone (in non-extreme ways) to prove to ourselves that we in fact can push a little bit and awaken to something beyond what we thought we could or couldn’t do in the company of strangers.

In his groundbreaking research on vulnerability and resilience, titled “Biological sensitivity to context,” Thomas Boyce shares a beautiful analogy of the orchid and the dandelion.4 He refutes the conventional view that an individual is either vulnerable or resilient, and that the two are mutually exclusive.

We have to know where we have the opportunity to blossom and tending to and caring for ourselves (aka self-compassion) can make all the difference.

Much like an orchid can wither away in the wrong climate, we must know that within the wrong settings, we shrink and in the right settings, we can thrive.

Deep down, one thing we all have and can all rely on is a “knowing” – a part of us that knows when it makes sense to give something or someone a shot and see how we do. Call it a gut feeling on whether to move forward or not.

It’s okay to feel an initial sense of discomfort at the idea of making conversation. Just always tune into that “knowing” of whether it makes sense to step into the discomfort or move away from it.

In other words, know your climate, but be okay with unpredictable weather.


When the situation feels right to engage, allow yourself to feel the vulnerability and slight discomfort of looming small talk, then tap into the resilience that allows you to take on the challenge.

The personal growth that stems from it will be undeniable.

Understanding Our Motives

As an additional note of awareness:

If avoidance is leading us to a place of disharmony and unease within ourselves, it can also be a great opportunity to explore what’s going on within ourselves – i.e. to increase our self-awareness.

My signature character strengths are “love of learning” and “empathy.” Knowing this, if I am in a situation where I want to avoid small talk at all costs, I step back and assess whether my actions in line with my character strengths.

Instead of giving into the avoidance behaviors, I can hone in on my character strengths of curiosity and empathy and have those characteristics lead me to become curious about the person sitting next to me.

To get to know your character strengths, you can check out the free resource viacharacterstrengths.org.

What’s most important in growing into greater comfort in these small talk situations is having self-awareness on all fronts.

Yes, we want to lead with our character strengths to find the gusto to take on engaging with strangers, though we also want to know when to step away from unhealthy engagements and when that “knowing” is telling us to step away is merited.

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