Small Talk 1: Getting started and knowing what to talk about

group of friends in an apartment talking

Sometimes people with schizophrenia tell me that they have a hard time with small talk. However, people can get better at small talk through learning more about it and practicing it.

Starting a conversation-Icebreakers

“Icebreakers” are questions (or comments) that get a conversation started. They can be very specific if you know the person, like “How’s the new apartment?” or “Did you have fun at Jon’s bar-b-que?” You can ask any question about the person or their lives, or a general question, as long as it’s appropriate (see below).

If you don’t know the person, you may want to ask a more general question. Here are some examples:

  • How are you doing?
  • What do you do?/Where do you work?
  • (If in school) What classes are you taking? How do you like them?
  • What do you think of the weather these days?
  • How was traffic for you today?
  • Did you do anything fun over the weekend? What was it?
  • What brings you here today?
  • What do you do in your free time?
  • What kind of TV or movies do you like?
  • What’s your favorite sport?
  • Did you see the game on Sunday?

Use follow-up comments/questions to keep the conversation going–make a statement about the topic or ask questions about the topic. An example would be:

Natalie: “Hi, nice to meet you. I’m Natalie. So, what do you think of the weather these days?”

Isaac: “I’m so sick of winter!”

Natalie: “What’s the worst part of winter for you?”

Isaac: “Feeling stuck inside. I like to get out and go for walks and play Frisbee, but it’s impossible when it’s so cold.”

Natalie: “I agree. I walk my dog every morning, and sometimes it’s really hard to motivate myself to go.”

Isaac: “What kind of dog do you have?”

Natalie: “She’s a lab mix. Her name is Molly. She’s super sweet, but she gets hyper if she doesn’t get walked every day.”

Isaac: “I love dogs. When I was a kid I had a Basset Hound named Harvey. He was never hyper, haha. It was hard to even get him to go for a walk. But he was still so awesome, he was super mellow. I wish I could get another dog.”

Natalie: “Why can’t you get one?”

Isaac: “I can’t really afford one right now. Plus my roommate is allergic to dogs.”

Natalie: “Oh, dang, that sucks. But you’re right, dogs are expensive. Molly got an ear infection once and seeing the vet plus medications was like $200, it was so expensive.”

Isaac: “Wow. Well, I gotta head out. It was nice talking to you, maybe I’ll see you again soon. Take care.”

Natalie: “Good talking to you too. Bye.”

As you read the conversation, notice how Natalie starts the conversation with an introduction and a general question about the weather. Then when Natalie says something about walking her dog in the cold weather, Isaac changes the subject to dogs. Since Natalie had just mentioned her dog, this is a good way to change the subject.

Starting a conversation-appropriate topics

Appropriate Topics for anyone

It’s important in small talk conversations to talk about topics that everyone is comfortable with. Below is a list of general topics that most people will be comfortable talking about, no matter how well you know each other.

  • weather
  • sports
  • your job
  • school
  • news headlines
  • hobbies
  • TV shows
  • interesting things you saw on the internet
  • movies
  • books
  • food
  • travel
  • celebrity gossip
  • upcoming events or holidays
  • pets
  • new babies/kids
  • traffic

In the conversation between Natalie and Isaac above, they talked about two of these topics, weather and pets.

Topics to Avoid

Some topics aren’t appropriate for small talk, or will make people uncomfortable or upset. Try to avoid talking about these things during small talk conversations. Some of these topics are:

  • religion
  • politics
  • schizophrenia (unless they know you have it and accept you)
  • dating
  • things of a sexual nature
  • personal medical issues
  • personal or psychological issues
  • family problems
  • relationship problems
  • money
  • bad news
  • gossip
  • details-most people aren’t interested in the small details of things, just the general
  • anything that makes the person seem uncomfortable

Good friends and family members

The better you know someone, the more subjects that are appropriate during small talk. The list above is good for anyone, someone you don’t know or someone you do know. But if you do know someone, there are a few more topics you can talk about. Some of these are:

  • religion (but be careful, avoid this topic if people get upset)
  • politics (but be careful, avoid this topic if people get upset)
  • schizophrenia and other symptoms
  • dating
  • personal medical issues
  • personal or psychological issues (though people don’t want to talk about these things very often)
  • family problems
  • relationship problems
  • money
  • bad news

Partners, very best friends, very close family members, and your mental health providers

For the people you are closest to, there are a few more topics you can talk about:

  • deep personal issues
  • things of a sexual nature (be careful and appropriate)
  • fears
  • worries

Remember, small talk is a skill that can be learned. Practice. Ask someone you trust if they are willing to chat with you, and then ask afterward if they have any advice or ideas for how you could do better. A lot of people feel awkward during small talk, not just people with schizophrenia disorders.

Check the blog out for Small Talk Part 2: Keeping the conversation going, on how to show you’re interested in a conversation, and for tips on concluding one, Small Talk Part 3: Ending a conversation.

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