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The Introvert's Guide to Business Small Talk

by Marcia Yudkin

If you're an introvert, you probably dislike, disdain and possibly even dread small talk. Little nuggets of meaninglessness do not roll off your tongue. You don't enjoy people tossing dialogue at you and expecting you to carry the conversation along. You don't appreciate throwaway remarks like "How are you?" that could be taken as deep but are intended as superficial. And because society defines being able to talk in any situation as the normal, decent way to be, you most likely regard yourself as deficient for not instinctively knowing how to play along.

Self-appointed pundits tell us that small talk has an important human function. It greases the way for genuine social and business exchange. The words themselves don't matter much. They help establish a connection, much the way that animals sniff each other out before they romp ahead as friends.

To introverts, however, words do matter. Insincerity feels both unnecessary and wrong. Superficiality seems false. Think of important scenes in your life where you met someone who turned out to be a lifelong close friend, a mentor or a business confidant. Chances are, you connected right from the beginning, with words that weren't about the weather, or the Patriots, or the food, but about something vital you had in common.

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So here's what I say. You don't have to engage in small talk. Just don't do it.

There are actually two ways to refrain from small talk. Both of them unbalance the extrovert who is trying to get you to behave like them. And that's a good thing, from where I sit. You send the signal that you want to be understood on your own terms.

Method #1 is saying nothing in reply. Simply smile. I did this in the library the other day, when the woman checking out my books chatted, chatted, chatted at me. "Ooh, you look very outdoorsy today." I did not let myself be goaded into saying something personal in reply. The smile communicated that this was not a hostile move on my part, that I meant no harm. I just stood my ground. Nicely.

Be sure to accompany your silence with a reasonably genuine smile rather than a smirk, a sulk or a scowl. The man or woman who doesn't initiate or respond with small talk often acquires an aura of power and mystery in others' eyes. Think of Clint Eastwood, Greta Garbo, Calvin Coolidge or Emily Dickinson. You're not nasty, unfriendly or arrogant when you smile and say nothing. Just self-contained and reserved.

Method #2 also signals that you don't play the game. Instead of exchanging banter, you say something meaningful, something you would say to a friend or something that invites a heart-to-heart reply.

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Let's say you're at a networking event. You see someone standing alone, clinking the ice cubes in her drink. You walk over and say, "I always feel uncomfortable coming to these things. How about you?" An extrovert might be taken aback at this opening, but another introvert will usually light up and respond in kind.

Or you open with, "I'm thinking about trying social media. What works for you?" Here you've skipped the banalities and leap right into a genuine talk about experiences and perspectives.

Unless you enjoy being a hermit, living in society involves meeting social expectations to a certain extent. Most introverts don't mind getting a nice haircut and wearing deodorant to the office, to avoid offending others. But when it comes to connecting with strangers and acquaintances, you don't have to pretend you're an extrovert. Follow your own natural tendencies, not theirs.

Your marketing mentor,

Marcia Yudkin

P.S. If you're an introvert and could use intensive feedback and guidance on your branding, web site, marketing strategy or a publication project, come work with me one-on-one next spring on Maui. Your retreat is structured so you have ample time to relax on the beach and tour the island, too - and most likely, your whole trip is tax deductible.  Maui private marketing retreat. 

And be sure to download the free Marketing for Introverts Manifesto!

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