Small Talk, Tall Smalk.

November 16, 2009·

chattering teeth[This post is all about the using the philosophy of improv to enhance small talk and social media interactions.]

PREFACE: My dear friend, margarita drinker, olive lover, and Punk Rock HR-blogger-rockstar, Laurie Ruettimann, wrote about this topic a week-or-so ago. Her post, entitled: “F@%k It Friday: Weather & Small Talk,” in short, is about how the weather unites us all — we can all create small talk by bonding over the weather. No matter where you are, you can talk about the weather. Laurie posed this series of thoughts/questions:

Do we have one universal ice breaker that works in all countries, cultures, and regions? Is it weather? Can we replace it? Should we replace it? What would we replace it with?

And of course, I got to thinking. So, I decided to write a post about this whole idea, but connect it to the things I know and love: IMPROV & SOCIAL MEDIA. Yes.

[All of these statements are going to be made with regards to the general public. So if you live in a small town or you’re a stay at home parent or whathaveyou, I’m sorry, I’m just trying to make a point 😉]

Unless you’re a hobbit or a hermit, you are interacting with dozens, if not sometimes, hundreds of people on a day to day basis. And I guarantee, at least HALF of those people are either mere acquaintances or complete strangers. Well, the days of don’t talk to strangers are behind us in a high-tech world. Most people are strangers to us. And of course, even our now-friends were once strangers to us. So, if we don’t talk to strangers, how are we ever going to make connections? Now, that doesn’t mean run off and start talking to creepos… use your judgement, people.

Now, the harsh truth is, that 9 times out of 10, most of us are somewhat challenged in the small-talk-and-make-simple-conversation-with-someone-we-don’t-know department. Therefore, we go to the default topics, such as the aforementioned weather, or “Hey, how are you?” I think both of those topics are fake, surface, jibber-jabber, nonsense that is superficial and just ends up being a big ol’ pile of B.S.

[BTW: For the most part, I really don’t enjoy asking people how they are. Let’s be honest, most of us aren’t going to give an honest answer. Now, I like to mess with people that I don’t know, so sometimes if someone asks me how I am, I’ll give a crazy answer like, “Ahhh you know, feeling a little shmackity doo in a diddy land.” People immediately leave me alone. And then I regret my decision.]

But going back to Laurie’s question, should we break the “universal” ice breaker? Should we replace it?

In my humble opinion, the short answer is, YES. Now the long answer is, YES. My explanation of WHY is TWO FOLD.

There are two things I am passionate about: Improv Comedy & Social Media. In BOTH of those fields, I am constantly engaging with people in my “community” – whatever community that is at the time – whether it be on stage or on the web. Either way, I have to engage, make small talk, connect with, and relate to people I’ve know for 10 years, 10 months, 10 weeks, 10 days, or 10 minutes. It doesn’t matter.

Especially in the world of social media, we are ALL trying to engage with our community. And the vast majority of the people in our community, we have never met. Yet, if I were to only make “small talk” about the weather or how I’m doing in my social media or improv community, I would be seen as a “me-monster” (someone who only talks/cares about themselves) and I wouldn’t last 24 hours.

SO here’s MY question:

“How do we engage people in our respective communities without being superficial?”

In the art of improvisation, which I love so much, our primary philosophy that we live by is this philosophy of, “Yes, and…” meaning YES (agree to everything), AND build upon that agreement by adding new information, a detail, a feeling, or a consequence. When we are on stage improvising a scene, you must be in agreement and on the same page with your scene partner at all times or else the scene will fail.

For example, if you were to hand me an imaginary cat and say, “Hey Molly, I fed your cat for you.” And if I were to respond with, “What?! That’s not a cat, that’s a jar of peanut butter.” Well, then our scene has failed because I denied your offer. I did not YES, AND, if you will.

One of the best ways that I learned to really take the notion of YES, AND… to heart was to incorporate these key elements, in this order:


LISTEN to what your scene partner (or the person in question) has to say.

CONNECT with your scene partner (or the person in question) on a personal level. Establish a relationship. Who are you to each other?

REACT to what they have said and how your relationship or the connection is affected by this.

RESPOND by building on that new information with something of value.

Now, of course, this all seems a little complicated and a little “much” for a way of coping with small talk. BUT, now hear me out, by thinking about these simple ideas, we can use the lessons we’ve learned to avoid the plague of endless, superficial small talk. Hey, at least it will make networking events a whole lot more fun.

People are interesting. Talk to someone you don’t know, strike up a conversation about something completely unrelated to the weather, or the event you’re attending, or the gum you’re going to buy while waiting in line, find out something about them – and be genuine. People appreciate a genuine conversation and people loooove to talk about themselves. We have so much to learn from each other that we shouldn’t waste valuable learning time by talking about the fluctuating barometer levels.

And what I love is to also apply these same philosophies and ideas from improv to my interactions online. Social media and community building is all about the give and take – the yes, and. It is all about the listening, the connecting, the reacting, and the responding. If we have too much of one thing, we won’t last very long.

Tell me, what do YOU guys think? Do you think these simple ideas could help connect with people in a new way rather than the traditional, “SOME WEATHER WE’RE HAVING” way?