How to cope with small talk and making plans after a year of isolation

After 12 months of socialising mainly online, Isabelle Aron speaks to experts share their tips for easing out of lockdown

Thursday 01 April 2021 17:17

fter months of having an empty calendar and limited in-person contact, the easing of lockdown restrictions means that socialising in real life is back on the cards. With groups of six people or two households now able to meet up outside, your social life no longer has to revolve around walks with one other person.

Beer gardens are booked up for weeks on end, picnics are being planned months in advance and suddenly our diaries aren’t looking so bare.

Being able to make plans and have conversations that aren’t via a video call with dodgy internet connection is a welcome change for many. But for others, the thought of having to commit to a casual pub trip three months away, or even making plans at all, might feel overwhelming. Some people may be wondering if they can actually remember how to hold a conversation that won’t end up in an awkward silence.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the thought of making small talk and meeting up with friends or you’re struggling with making plans after a year of limited social contact, we spoke to experts for tips on how to cope.

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1. Be honest and acknowledge your feelings

Feeling awkward about making conversation? Georgie Nightingall, a “conversation trainer” who is running a new course on small talk at BPP University, tells The Independent it’s best to be open about it. “Whenever I feel uncomfortable or out of practice, what often helps me regain my confidence is just to name how I’m feeling,” she says.

Nightingall gives examples: “Wow, this conversation thing feels pretty weird, I haven’t spoken to a real human in weeks!” or “I’ve been waiting for this moment for months and now I have no idea what to say”.

While you might feel out of practice, she says conversation isn’t something we actually forget how to do, meaning it’s just a case of getting over that initial barrier. “Getting started is really all that is needed”, she says.

2. Ask questions, but don’t interrogate

Liz Wyse, from etiquette specialists Debrett recommends asking a mix of open questions and closed ones. “Closed questions, such as ‘Have you lived here long?’ can be answered pithily and are great for establishing facts,” she says. “Open questions encourage a more reflective and subjective answer: ‘How did you find the last three months of lockdown?’.”

While you might want to preemptively avoid any awkward silence, try not to fire off a barrage of questions. Wyse stresses that small talk and any kind of conversation is “a two-way street”. She adds: “Whilst you can take the lead in asking questions, you mustn’t turn the conversation into an interrogation.”

3. It’s probably best to avoid talking about politics

Thinking about casually bringing up the government’s handling of the pandemic? Maybe... don’t. Nightingall says she prefers not to have topics off the table, favouring a mindset of “curiosity over judgement”, but she acknowledges that this isn’t easy for everyone.

“It can be hard to hide it when we judge others based on their views, experiences or ideas”, she says, adding that if you find it hard not to judge others, it’s best to start with “safer subjects” and avoid “more political ones”.

When it comes to answering questions, avoid one word answers which will stop a conversation in its tracks

4. Try using statements rather than asking questions

Statements make surprisingly good conversation starters, according to Nightingall. While questions involve “asking for something from someone”, she says that statements “invite people into the conversations softly”.

She suggests making statements about yourself (“I am feeling so excited about…”), others (“That’s a great dress”), or the environment you’re in (“This park is so busy right now”).

5. Don’t be afraid to “break the script”

Rather than sticking to a regimented list of questions (there’s only so many times you can ask about the weather), Nightingall recommends recognising what “scripts” you usually follow and “finding ways to break these scripts”.

For example, instead of just asking: “How was lockdown?”, try asking: “What was the most surprising thing you learnt?”. Instead of “How are you?”, you could ask: “What two words would describe the last week?”

When it comes to answering questions, avoid one word answers which will stop a conversation in its tracks. “Give yourself permission to answer authentically, and to share a story that invites others to be curious,” says Nightingall.

6. Don’t feel you have to say yes to everything

There are only so many hours in the day – and that’s true whether you’re terrified of having multiple social engagements in one day (imagine!) or you’re desperate to fill up your diary. Nightingall says that recognising this is a good first step. “Whilst FOMO is real, it helps to know that everyone else experiences it,” she says. “In saying yes to something you will always be saying no to something else.”

Wyse agrees – it’s best to pace yourself if you’re feeling overwhelmed. She suggests being honest and gently turning down invitations by saying something along the lines of: “All this socialising after lockdown is a bit of a shock to my system and I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. Do you think we could meet up in a few week’s time when everything is a bit more normal?” She adds: “Your honesty will be appreciated, and nobody will feel insulted.”

7. Work out what your boundaries are

It’s important to recognise what you are and aren’t comfortable with. Nightingall says one way of doing this is to check in with your “true desires” when you’re invited to something, to check that you’re not saying yes to plans out of feeling guilty.

She advises imagining that you have said yes and see how you feel as a result. Anxious? Relieved? Resentful? Nightingall says these signals are about your “real desires”, so listen to them.

If you’re concerned about whether the plans you’ve been invited to might break the rules, don’t be afraid to ask questions. To work out what level of risk you’re comfortable with, Nightingall suggests writing down or saying your boundaries out loud (this includes the “the hard ‘nos’ and the ‘maybes’.”). She adds: “This can be a good way to verbalise and explore what you’re feeling and help you make better decisions.”

8. If you’re nervous about lockdown easing, that’s okay

“It’s common to experience some discomfort or unease when coping with stressful events or changes,” says Rosie Weatherley, information content manager at Mind. While some people will welcome the easing of lockdown, others might find it difficult or overwhelming. “It’s important to remember that there is no ‘normal’ response to these changes,” says Weatherley.

Weatherley advises speaking to someone you trust about how you’re feeling and if you do find yourself in a difficult social situation, breathing exercises can help or keeping a mood journal. She suggests using it to “note your emotional responses and what was going on at the time” which “can help you to spot and understand patterns.”

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