The Dos and Don’ts of Small Talk

MOLLIE WINTLE guides you around the potholes of making conversation

Bristol Cambridge Dos and Don'ts eye contact Freshers gap-year hemp hobbies mollie wintle Nepal secondary school small talk Tab trumpet

The autumn of each year heralds more than just a change in the leaf density on trees and the amount of wool in your wardrobe. Autumn heralds an arrival, a change, a necessity: it’s time for freshers everywhere to air their small talk. You can barely remember the last time you got it out. That time you saw your neighbour at the bus stop? Or maybe when you got sat next to your friend’s friend at the cinema. Truly it is a rusty beast, cocooned for many years now in a soft nest of secure friendships. No more. The tide is out and the friends are in Bristol. It’s time to face the music, prove that your bark is as good as your bite and drop all clichés for fear of being found out as an intellectual fraud.

It’s got your friends but it doesn’t have tripos!

DON’T mention your name, college or subject. This goes for hobbies, secondary school and sexual orientation too. NO ONE CARES. Literally no one. At all. That Max goes to Christ’s is not an interesting fact. Would it be interesting if Max went to Newnham? Yes. But he doesn’t. In fact I’ve already forgotten where Max goes. That’s how uninteresting it was. Much more productive would have been for Max to mention any of the following:

–          how he got his nick name pepsi max

–          why women don’t make good prime minsters

–          whether he’d rather murder someone or be murdered

–          the joys of hemp

–          bigamy

DO talk about your gap year. Remember: some people didn’t take one. They have literally come to university straight out of school. Their eyes are so empty of wisdom it’s like looking down a well. Which is empty. By telling them how you spent the year teaching blind orphans how to dance, you are helping them. In fact, I’m going to thank you right now on behalf of the unenlightened everywhere: thank you, gap yearer, for sharing your story. It was so relevant and modest. I only hope you make constant references to it in the year to come. God knows your facebook will! (NB: if you didn’t take a gap year, you will, repeat will, be cast out like the unsophisticated runt that you are. Stave off imminent desertion by talking about the monastery you built in Kenya. You may lack a prayer bowl to prove it but at least you’ve bought yourself a few hours.)

Friends in high places/Nepal

DON’T forget the handshake, otherwise known as the Ultimate Corporeal Aid to Small Talk. And don’t forget to adjust said handshake to your gender! Too much small talk has gotten off to an uneasy start because of a participant looking like a girl, but shaking someone’s hand like a boy. I beg you, don’t make this mistake. It’s so easy to avoid. Girls: be docile. Don’t grip your partner’s hand too hard. Better yet – try not to even touch their hand at all. Ideally just hover slightly above it. Boys: it’s your duty to football, meat and guns everywhere to crush the proffered paw like a crunchy leaf. A successful handshake will result in mild to severe bruising and a friendship unclouded by gender confusion.

DO blow your own trumpet. Be this a real trumpet (because you’re grade 8 and by god were almost a music scholar) or a metaphorical one. Use very long words. You’re at Cambridge now! Everyone is Very Clever. Everyone has Achieved Highly. When introducing yourself, say exactly how many A*s you got at GCSE. If your New Friend feigns disinterest, he is a Pleb. Drop him like an uncomfortably warm potato and move on to the bespectacled young lady on his right. Those glasses promise Competition.

No regrets

DO make eye contact. Before I left for freshers, my brother told me that the three E’s of memorable small talk were Eye Contact, Eye Contact, Eye Contact. You know how I remember that? Because he maintained eye contact throughout. And, crucially, because each of the E’s were the same. The value of such contact cannot be overemphasised. It’s what changes a meaningless encounter into a meaning-infused one. NB: don’t be the starey weirdo in the corner. Be the starey weirdo less than a foot away! If your eyelashes aren’t brushing theirs, it didn’t happen.

I bid you farewell and good luck with a final tip: there’s no better way to fill an awkward pause than with a good joke. And then just hope that it fits!