Over the past few weeks, I’ve been talking with students around the country who are reflecting about this past school year and thinking about the upcoming one.
Some students have been learning remotely for nearly 16 months, and others returned to school with strict social distancing protocols. I’ve heard concerns about wilted friendships, strained social skills, and a genuine nervousness about reuniting with classmates in-person.
Recently, when one high schooler authentically shared that she wanted to strengthen her social skills and learn to make new friends in anticipation of her transition to college, others nodded in agreement.
It’s not surprising: many of us – adults and kids – have become a little rusty at maintaining the casual, day-to-day conversations that we once took for granted.
We shouldn’t overlook the importance of small talk skills in supporting positive social interactions. We are all in need of practice after this past year, and adult modeling can be super helpful. A few tips:
1. Encourage open-ended questions. Help students come up with a few different open-ended questions to start conversations with friends, new acquaintances, and salespeople in stores. Here are some sample small talk questions.
2. Promote active listening. When we juggle two or three tasks at once, we often miss or overlook key nuggets of conversation that can lead to interesting discoveries. Also, active listening can be a great way to be an engaged participant in a conversation without having to speak nonstop.
3. Create phone-free conversation zones. I recently watched a movie from 1992 with no cell phones anywhere — the entire dialogue at a lunch scene seemed remarkably calm and present without technology distractions. Remind students that cell phone use during conversations can often signal disinterest. By deliberately removing phones from conversation zones, we can become much better conversational partners.
4. Promote positive engagement with enthusiasm. Gamify it! Small talk doesn’t have to be stressful — genuine curiosity can make it interesting and fun. Invite conversation partners to share details about themselves related to specific topics or themes. Topics could include: location, art, food, hobbies, school, sports, weather or current events (as appropriate). Knowing what works best can often be a matter of practicing, knowing your audience and learning to “read a room,” which all take time.
5. Be patient and support consistent routines. Becoming a better conversationalist takes time and effort. Developing new patterns — spending mornings at a cafe, becoming a regular at sandwich shop, or greeting the neighborhood crossing guards every day — can provide new opportunities for practice.
Summer is a great time to be outdoors, be social, and practice small talk as a way of prepping for the upcoming school year.
Other links of interest:
Why some families are sticking with remote learning even as schools reopen (Brookings)