The 2 Words That'll Make Small Talk Feel Less Fake

For someone who likes to talk to people as much as I do, I’m not necessarily the best at engaging in small talk. Usually I get nervous, which eventually evolves into panic, and I’ll comment on things like just how blue my water looks or how good of a deal I got on a recent pair of socks.

But a few years ago, a friend of mine told me a story about one of her students. Without knowing it, this kid asked her one of the most profound questions she ever had to answer.

How are you doing—and why?

Without the added caveat at the end, the question is a complete throwaway, especially when you’re talking to someone you don’t know too well. But two words tacked on to the end—and why—make all the difference.

And while you might want to dismiss this as something adorable that an elementary school student said off the cuff, asking someone to elaborate on why they’re feeling a certain way is a surprisingly good way to turn small talk into a quality conversation.

In fact, I couldn’t help but wonder if it applied to real-world conversations among adults.

So, I recently decided to give it a shot. For a week, I added the “and why” when I said hello to people around the office. For the most part, they laughed and asked me where on Earth I had come up with that kind of question. But not surprisingly, after they said that, it led to more meaningful conversations than we would’ve had otherwise. As a bonus, some people looked at me as they walked away and said, “Wow, that was a surprisingly pleasant way to start my morning.”

It became pretty obvious to me why this resonated with my colleagues as much as it did. Adding that little wrinkle to what’s otherwise a boring way to start a conversation is an effective way to show someone that you’re 100% invested in their response.

Not only is this an effective way to start a conversation, but it can also lead to some really interesting fodder that can help you turn an awkward or even empty chat into a meaningful discussion about something important. (And for even more questions that’ll help you start a convo, check out these 48 questions to ask.)

I know this might sound awkward—and truth be told, it was very uncomfortable for me to do this for a week. So, of course, use your judgment and feel free to skip this with anyone who you don’t think will react well. But in most cases, it led to a few co-workers opening up to me and sharing something—work-related or even personal—that they otherwise wouldn’t.

That didn’t just make that one interaction more productive, but it also gave me something to say later on in the day or week when we ran into each other again.

“How’s that presentation coming?”

“Is your dog feeling better?”

“Good luck at your softball game tonight!”

And that’s pretty awesome. Because I don’t need to tell you that the better you and your co-workers get along, the easier your job will be.

What are some of the most common questions that you think have room for a curveball like this? Let me know on Twitter.

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About Richard Moy

Richard Moy
Richard Moy is a Content Marketing Writer at Stack Overflow. He has spent the majority of his career in talent management, including a stint as a full-cycle recruiter and hiring manager. In addition to the career advice he contributes to The Muse, he also writes test prep and higher education marketing content for The Economist. Say hi on Twitter @rich_moy.

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