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  (I love xkcd: alt text here “But surely I owe you an accurate answer!)

When I was at Holy Cross Hellenic College for a few years, I noticed something: Many of the guys had no idea how to talk to women. They would open up about huge, deep topics and theology and then three sentences in, ask for a date. Invariably, they were always rejected. With no conversational history whatsoever, this question would come out of left field, and invariably, it would come off as WAY too strong. (And there were some very awkward openers, too. One of my friends was asked out with the line, “I will take you out on a thousand dates!”)

On the other hand, I was considered a player by some of the guys (or so they told me), because I would and could talk to pretty much every woman on campus… and more or less become their friend (or at least a friendly acquaintance) fairly quickly. I never dated anyone who was on campus with me at the time. I made friends for the sake of making friends, never with any ulterior motive in mind. I attribute this partly to having forced myself to learn small talk for a previous job, and because I was very good at making myself non-threatening (which is another topic we’ll cover later—namely how not to be creepy). Somehow, these guys had gained the idea that you only talked to girls if you were interested in them, or if they were your sister. (which is utter poppycock, but we’ll get to that eventually)

The thing is, Small Talk is an essential facet of communication between humans. There is no way around it. It allows for social diffusion, a way of getting to know one another. And when we are not good at it, it makes others feel awkward. Awkwardness is not a good thing. When you’re with someone who you’ve been friends with for a long time, sitting with wine, beer, or a hookah, you can break into the big questions of the cosmos. But you can’t really do that with someone you’ve just met. Society does not work that way. You must be patient. You can’t ask out a girl on your third sentence to them, nor can you propose to her on your third date. It doesn’t go well.

I learned my small-talk skills while working at the gift shop at a major National Monument. I had none, at first. I had, in the past, done the whole awkward asking for date thing right off the bat. I honestly had no idea why I was single. On paper, I seemed perfect! But, while I was working there, I noticed that if I tried abruptly to sell something…there was no takers. It was only when I started talking to other people about other things, some small, some medium, that people actually became interested in buying books and flutes. It dawned on me that, perhaps, this abruptness in myself in trying to sell objects was the same reason why I was finding it so difficult to go on dates.

See, here’s the thing. Most other people actually do like small talk, because it gives the other person a chance to talk about themselves in the long run. It slowly allows people to open up. Instead of slamming a door open and shouting at them, it’s more akin to cracking a door open slowly, and asking calmly if anyone is home. Small talk gives people the chance to open up on their own accord, as they choose. Talking about favorite books, weather, where someone’s from, these are largely safe topics. When I’m in the tasting room, I rarely talk about myself except in barest detail, or if people ask me questions about how I got to where I am (which is a doozy of a story in and of itself).

Here’s the thing: We need to be more willing to listen to other people, than to simply open up and talk about ourselves. Let others talk. You can answer. And when you do talk, first use simple subjects. Talk about the weather. Talk about sports (if you know sports, if not, then don’t worry—I don’t know squat about sports other than fencing, myself), where someone’s from, where they went to school, what they’re studying. These are all fairly simple, easy to talk about subjects. They create doors for conversation, which can be opened. By the end, you might find yourself with a new, friendly acquaintance, if not a new friend entirely.

And that’s another thing: people can choose to close the door. You mustn’t be mad if they do. Because if you keep talking to someone who doesn’t want to talk to you, then you’ve officially become creepy. And that’s a Very Bad Thing.

You can’t just go up to a girl you think is pretty, that you know nothing about, and propose marriage. That doesn’t work. You don’t know her as a person. You don’t know her dreams, hopes, desires, what her favorite artist is, what she likes to do on weekends, or even if she wants to be married. It comes off as super-creepy.

So to sum up: Small-talk is actually useful. Learn how to utilize it well. More on avoiding creepiness next up.