global English small talk

Small talk. Big opportunity

Small talk month continues with a guest post by Rik McShane. Rik is a bookseller and a Scrabble fan. He is also well known for talking, a lot.


For many people, a double gin and tonic or a glass of chardonnay is seen as a social lubricant, for me however it is those first gentle forays into the maze of conversation themselves, the tentative stepping stones of relationship-building that give me the greatest desire to carry on talking. Somewhat dismissively referred to as small talk, I find that these halting, explorative, proto-conversations can bring the same frissons of excitement as your first momentous, clammy hand-holding in a darkened Cineplex. A cool shandy at the start of a summer party has nothing, as far as I am concerned, on that chillingly refreshing moment when a conversational gambit to a stranger takes you off into discursive riffs of mutual interest, enlightenment and shared hilarity.

I suppose if there is any art at all to small talk, then it is in knowing how to start and when to finish. For a garrulous individual (read loud, overbearing and completely immune to any social embarrassment) such as I, who has worked in bookselling for eleven years, honing the skill of filling in the gaps between “Next, please” and “That will be £7.99” has been an interesting challenge.

For those of you afraid to take the first step, I offer this simple advice: begin with something obvious but don’t scare them. Great to start a bookish bit of chit-chat with “Oh, I really love Jilly Cooper. Have you read Polo?” as the said title passes under the scanner (I discovered Georgette Heyer this way as a veritable avalanche of like-minded recommendations followed), less good would be “Oh, chlamydia. My mother swears by cranberry juice” as a flustered sufferer tries desperately to back away from you whilst shoving the “How To …” guide into her Mulberry tote.

Similarly extricating yourself from a stilted small talk cul-de-sac takes finesse. Accepting that your tête-à-tête should perhaps be shown the discursive guillotine is the first and most important step. Check the eyes – the desperate over-your-shoulder flicker to try and latch onto someone, anyone, else is a dead giveaway. Equally, the mild look of fear as you lead them towards deeper revelations that they really don’t want to give means you should let them off the hook. You can’t win them all and your fellow conversational inmate will most likely be delighted that you were able to end what quite possibly was, for them too, a form of verbal torture. Smile, be polite, and simply say goodbye. No need to overcomplicate. Step away from the exchange.

However you do it, wherever you do it, don’t be afraid. Commence a conversation, get going on a gossip, tackle a talk. You never know, you just might like it.

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Rik McShane


  • Love the casual use of the word “tote”. I remember this being used when I was a child and have not seen it in print so to say before.

    PS I am also a garrulous bookseller, but can’t see you looking over your shoulder!

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