Breaking the First Rule of Small Talk

Keith Ferrazzi, author of Never Eat Alone, has a good post on making small talk more effective (and authentic) that makes the simple point: be yourself. But to do this, you have to ignore conventional wisdom’s first rule of small talk:

Small talk experts claim that when you first meet a person, you should avoid unpleasant, overly personal, and highly controversial issues.

Wrong! Don’t listen to these people! Nothing has contributed more to the development of boring chitchatters everywhere. The notion that everyone can be everything to everybody at all times is completely off the mark. Personally, I’d rather be interested in what someone was saying, even if I disagreed, than be catatonic any day.

There’s one guaranteed way to stand out in the professional world: Be yourself. I believe that vulnerability—yes, vulnerability—is one of the most underappreciated assets in business today. Too many people confuse secrecy with importance. Business schools teach us to keep everything close to our vest. But the world has changed. Power, today, comes from sharing information, not withholding it. More than ever, the lines demarcating the personal and the professional have blurred. We’re an open-source society, and that calls for open-source behavior. And as a rule, not many secrets are worth the energy required to keep them secret.

  • Bryan

    This is a great post to read right before the Desiring God National Conference – thanks, Matt.

    So, as a Sr. Director of DG, how does that play out in your leadership on the Executive Team? In other words, are there any main principles that guide your behavior in sharing important, high-level information with the staff while keeping more sensitive, personal issues secret?

  • Matt

    Bryan: My main principle, as with everything, is to provide as much information as I can. I see it as part of my job to make sure that useful information is disseminated through the whole organization, and I’m developing some systems to help make that happen better.

    Not everything is helpful or relevant, but I think my first disposition is towards keeping everyone as informed as possible on things. That’s first, then would be the question of whether it would actually be useful to people or just be more FYI’s. And obviously some things are more confidential, but I’m not interested in making things artificially confidential out of an attempt to make information scarce and more signficant.

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  • Matt Stephens


    I suck at small talk (partly because I’m an INTJ), and have had mixed results with being myself right from the beginning. I often make bad impressions right out of the gate, but winning people over once they get to know me a little better. Some people are just not ready for authenticity and vulnerability, so they’re a bit freaked out by it. Anyhow, I hope the trend you’ve noted spreads and that we can all learn to enjoy a little political and social incorrectness.