Magic phrases to make small talk easier

12 Magic Phrases to Make People Like You More (and End Awkward Small Talk for Good)

There’s a hard way to do this and an easy way. I prefer the easy way.


12 Magic Phrases to Make People Like You More (and End Awkward Small Talk for Good)
Photo: Getty Images

Small talk. It’s a challenge. It’s even harder now, after so many people have scaled back their human interactions during the pandemic.

However, we have some good news. Small talk fills an important need, and it turns out that you can learn to make it come more naturally, and even prompt other people to like you as a result.

There’s a hard way to do this and an easy way. I prefer the easy way, which involves memorizing specific phrases that fill awkward silences and prime other people to feel good about you.

Here are a dozen proven phrases that work more often than not. I’ll especially be interested to hear what readers think of numbers 7, 8, and 12.

1. “Can I be honest with you?”

This is a milder version of a favorite phrase, which comes directly from the 1987 movie, The Untouchables: “Let me pay you the compliment of being blunt.”

Either way, honesty is usually a compliment.

2. “I think you’re going to find this interesting … “

My wife’s uncle was a master salesman, and I got an insight into his technique once when he used this phrase pointedly.

In short, he teed up what he planned to say with a preface that suggested it would be interesting or enjoyed by the other person. It worked; it caught people’s interest, and I’ve used it dozens of times ever since, almost always to good effect.

3. “Can I ask a favor?”

This one might be counterintuitive, as you’re requesting something from someone you might not even know all that well.

But, asking for help pays a compliment to the other person, and used deftly, it’s powerful. Ben Franklin wrote about this more than 250 years ago.

4. “Can I get your opinion on something?”

Related to the above. People like to talk about their opinions, and here you’ve explicitly asked them to share.

You’ve also given them an “out” if their opinion is an unpopular one: “You literally just asked me!”

5. “You’re welcome!”

So much more powerful than “no problem,” or even worse: “Yep.”

“You’re welcome” acknowledges that you’ve done something worthy of thanks, which is a practical compliment to the other person. It works wonders.

6. “My pleasure.”

I’m adding this one to my repertoire lately, only because so many people already know of my quest to make “you’re welcome” widespread again.

“My pleasure” sends a similar message, and allows you to have a little bit of variety in your conversations.

7. “This [X] reminds me of my [Y]. What do you remember about yours?”

This construction is great because it’s really three conversation prompts in one. It’s easier to explain with examples:

  • “This song reminds me of my high school prom. What do you remember about yours?” (You’re inviting conversation about their high school prom, but also yours if they ask, and about the song that prompts the whole chain.)
  • “That old TV reminds me of my first apartment. What was yours like?” (Bingo, three prompts: the old technology, your first apartment, and theirs.)
  • “That presentation this morning reminded me of X, which I learned at my old job. Did you ever have a job like that?”

8. “I have only a minute, but …”

Finish this with something positive and specific to the person.

  • “I have only a minute, but I wanted to say hello.”
  • “I have only a minute, but I have to say thank you.”
  • “I have only a minute, but congratulations on your [X].”

It’s a great construction because you’ve built in a time limit in case things get awkward, and you’ve also signaled to the other person that despite being under a crunch, you’ve made interacting with them a priority.

9. “You might not know this, but …”

This short phrase is full of meaning. Starting with “you” makes it clear that the other person is the subject of the conversation, and the “but” at the end suggests you’re about to contradict a previous assumption.

Make sure the second half of the sentence is a compliment, and you’ve probably got a friend for life:

  • “You might not know this, but people admire how you handle adversity.”
  • “You might not know this, but just about everyone we work with wishes they had your people skills.”
  • “You might not know this, but that presentation you did gave me some amazing ideas that really improved my performance.”

10. “I took your advice. Thanks!”

This one is a triple-win. It reminds the other person that you listened to their opinion, tells them that you did as they suggested, and — we hope, as the “thanks” suggests — winds up with a happy ending.

11. “Disagree and commit.”

This one is a Jeff Bezos special. It works because it acknowledges the disagreement, deals with it, discards it, and announces that you plan to drive on and be part of the team from this point forward.

12. “Say a little more about that.”

Most people have a not-so-secret fear in many social interactions. They don’t know how much they’re really supposed to contribute before the other people get sick of hearing from them.

This phrase is an invitation to go on, which will almost always be warmly received.

Bonus: This is a great one to use if your mind has wandered. (I mean, you should try not to let that happen, but we all fall short sometimes.)

Of course, these dozen phrases are just to get you started; I’m sure you can think of others. The point, as I write in my free e-book, 12 Simple Tricks That Will Probably Make Your Life a Little Better, is to put together your own list.

That way, you’ll know exactly what to say during awkward moments. And you can make a better, warmer, impression on the people you meet.

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