If the thought of thinking up small talk at networking events and office holiday parties gives you stress, do not fear — there’s a science-backed solution on how you can sound interesting to other people.
It does not require you to remember talking points, trivia facts, or local weather patterns. It does require you to be fully present, to not just wait for your turn to talk, to genuinely listen to what is being said. For some people used to working off of scripts, this level of attention is much harder, but the rewards will be much greater. That’s because studies have found that being curious about other people is the key to being remembered as interesting in conversations.
To be seen as the most interesting person in the room, it is more important to be interested in other people, rather than be inherently interesting yourself.
One 2004 study found that strangers who acted curious in first-time conversations — people who asked follow-up questions, who asked intimate questions about a person’s future and goals — were seen as more attractive and socially closer to the recipient than strangers who acted less curious.
“Being interested is more important in cultivating a relationship and maintaining a relationship than being interesting; that’s what gets the dialogue going,” one of the study’s authors, Todd Kashdan of George Mason University, concluded. “It’s the secret juice of relationships.”
When people show genuine interest in our hobbies and goals, this also gives us the chance to speak about our favorite topic: ourselves. Neuroscience research has found that when we talk about ourselves, we feel good because that topic activates the pleasure and reward areas in our brains. In other words, that person you met who chattered away about themselves may remember you fondly simply because you gave them the chance to talk your ear off.
How to show interest in other people
Being interested in your conversation partner means letting go of your assumptions about who the other person is. It means going into a conversation with the belief that everyone is interesting, regardless of their social status, connections, or occupation.
Being genuinely interested in someone means showing each person you run into at the party the same level of politeness. As writer Paul Ford advised, politeness buys both parties time.
“People silently struggle from all kinds of terrible things,” Ford writes. “The good thing about politeness is that you can treat these people exactly the same. And then wait to see what happens. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t need to make a judgment.”
So next time you’re at a party and the dreaded lull in the conversation occurs — speak up. Ask to hear more about that vacation, that pet, or that hobby, and then close your mouth, pay attention, and listen.