Deepen boring small talk with the ABC strategy

A recent study looked at both small talk and deeper conversations, or what they called “substantive conversation.”


Nothing cues a deep internal sigh more than small talk.

You know the drill. You sit down for a group meeting or line up behind a friend of your mother’s, and before you know it, you’ve discussed the weather, vacation plans, and that new fast-casual salad spot down the street. It’s a dance of civility: You don’t reveal much, and you don’t take anything away, either. It’s boring at best, and painfully awkward the rest of the time.

But what if, instead of seeing small talk as a necessary evil, you saw it as an opportunity to connect with your coworkers and friends-of-friends? I’m not talking about baring your soul, necessarily, but just opening yourself up for the possibility of something more.

As it turns out, something more can seriously boost your mood. A recent study looked at both small talk and deeper conversations, or what they called “substantive conversation.” The study built off of previous findings that small talk had a negative effect on a person’s wellbeing. What researchers uncovered was surprising: Not only is small talk neutral (not bad for you, but not good for you, either) but it can lay the groundwork for deeper, connected conversation—and those deeper conversations can contribute to happiness.

The researchers listened to the daily interactions of a variety of subjects, from college students to recent divorcees. They then sorted the participants’ conversations into two categories: substantive and not substantive.

Overall, they found that those who had more substantive conversations were happier than those who had fewer. Conversations that weren’t substantive, aka small talk, didn’t appear to have any link to wellbeing, but the researchers acknowledge that what seem like breezy, inconsequential interactions can often lead to deeper communications.

“We all understand that small talk is a necessary component to our social lives,” said study author Matthias Mehl. “You cannot usually walk up to a stranger and jump right into a deep, existential conversation because of social norms.”

No, you certainly cannot. But what can you do when you find yourself exchanging pleasantries and wish you could go deeper? Rely on your ABCs.

Introduced to Shine by Shine member Meg Hoffay, the strategy consists of:

●︎ Asking questions

●︎ Building off someone’s answer

●︎ Connecting to their answer in a personal way.


Consider it your roadmap to reaching those happiness-boosting substantive conversations. Sure, you won’t get there with everyone you chat up (and let’s face it, do you really want to go deep with your sister’s friend’s dentist?) but using your ABCs can, at the very least, take the panic out of any small talk situation. Here’s how to give it a try.

Ask questions

Starting with a classic “How have you been?” makes sense, but it also sets the stage for the smallest of small-talk answers: “Good!” Or, “Busy!” If the question won’t seem too out of the blue (or lead to any awkward rants), try asking something more specific: “Read anything interesting lately?” or, “What are you most looking forward to this spring?”

Kyle Kellams, a radio host, likes asking his guests, “What’s the first movie you ever saw in a movie theater?” Just be careful to stop short of prying. If you know your convo partner’s mom has been sick lately, try something like: “How’s your family doing,” rather than, “What’s the latest on your mom?”

Asking a broader question leaves room to avoid talking about painful or draining topics because let’s face it—when you’re running out to grab coffee after hours on the phone with the insurance company, you’re probably not going to want to keep talking about hospitals and surgery. The key is to pinpoint a specific subject, but let the questionee dictate the depth.

Build off the answer

Say your tablemate can’t get over a recent memoir about DNA testing. You might ask about the plot and suss out whether you should read it yourself. But you might also want to know why she found it so interesting—does she know anyone who was surprised by their genetic testing results? Has she thought about getting tested herself? What would she do if she found, say, that her parents weren’t quite who they said they were?

Again, you’re not prying, exactly. You’re building the space for her to reveal her own info, whether that’s her own story of finding out things weren’t as they seemed or just a deep interest in medical ethics. Keep an open mind and let your curiosity lead the way.

Connect with the answer in a personal way

Remember: Your job isn’t just to give your conversation partner space to get personal. A deeper conversation requires a little sharing on your end, too. Maybe you admit that your world was shaken in a similar way when you decided to leave your church. Or that you once tried to bribe your cousins into admitting you were adopted.

If all goes according to your ABC plan, you’ll wrap up having shared a connection—and possibly with a lighter, more empathetic, possibly even happier spirit. And if you strike out? Well, you can always try talking about the weather.

This article originally appeared on Shine—a daily self-care & meditation app that feels like a pep talk in your pocket. Join 3 million people who start their weekdays with Shine’s motivational message. Plus: Get support with audio challenges developed by self-care experts. After using Shine, 96% of people saw a decrease in anxiety & depression.