I’m trying to stop saying “I know.” I say it too much to my friends or my wife when they’re just trying to be helpful. But unless someone’s actually being a dick or assuming I’m an idiot, I don’t need to protect my ego that hard. I win more points if I say “Thanks!” or “That’s true!” and keep the conversation going. Artist Austin Kleon lists a few more conversational shortcuts that you might want to use instead of your current defaults.
For example, Kleon says, if you have trouble taking a compliment, try using “Thank you for saying that.” If someone criticizes you and you wish you could tell them to fuck off, use “You may be right.”
Kleon also cites a famous trick from writer Paul Ford: Say you’ve just met someone, and you’ve asked what they do for a living, and you have no followup. Try saying, “That sounds hard.” The other person will probably open up and express some emotion, and boom, you’re past bland small talk.
Lifehacker writer Alicia Adamczyk follows up “What do you do?” with “Do you like it?” It disarms people, she says. I like to ask “How do you do that?” It’s a less emotional version of the same question.
Another small-talk trick I’ve learned the hard way: when someone tells you their area of expertise, ask them about it, don’t tell them about it. If you meet a geneticist, don’t tell them about an article on CRISPR that you read. Ask them their opinion on it, or to correct your impression of something. Do it in an open-ended, casual way—some people don’t like to be called on to judge everything. (And don’t ask people to speak on behalf of a gender, ethnicity, or other identity.) But pay attention to what they’re interested in explaining, and dig into that. Keep asking “How does that work?” and “How do you get good at that?”—questions that assume the other person is smart.
Another conversational trap I’ve fallen into is “What have we all watched?” That’s when everyone in the conversation keeps naming shows or movies until there’s one that you’ve all seen. Then everyone freezes up, because you don’t have much to say about it. Get out of that trap by finding a similar show or film (or book or musical artist) to recommend, say why you recommend it, and then ask the others for their recommendations in turn.
And when someone asks you what you do, and you don’t want to talk about it, get ready to segue. Pivot to your hobby, or a job you had that you liked, or a thing that makes your job worth it. Remember, you’re not filling out a form, you’re making conversation.