Up Your Small Talk Game with Improv

Most of us are regularly forced to have superficial conversations with people. Conversations that are based off formalities we could easily enact in our sleep — playing both parts. We are pressured to have these conversations in order to lay the foundation for “human connection,” but why can’t we create our own standard of formalities that better reflect who we are — ones that attract the genuine connections we truly want in our lives?

As a college freshman in San Francisco, I am constantly meeting new people and having to ask the basic questions (What’s your major? How are you? How was traffic getting here?), usually being met with formalities such as awkward half-smiles. Recently, I invested in a Monday night improv class — a class where a group of people partake in exercises that construct unplanned scenes/conversations. These classes have been a great way to create my own standards of conversation because, in a class, I’m exploring different routes of conversation to walk upon. And, at the same time, developing initial formalities with a twist of humor that best suits me.

***

I venture deep into the financial district of downtown SF on Monday evening. I arrive in what looks like a giant conference room with a few chairs placed in random areas. A clean slate. There are a group of 12 people gathered in a circle, and they range from a few college students to a 64-year-old plumber named Mark. All complete strangers. We gather around a barefoot woman with the greatest posture I’ve ever seen. She walks and talks as if she’s the definition of confidence.

The first exercise has the 12 of us pacing around the conference room. Very carefully, I maneuver through the moving bodies, focused on avoiding collision while the instructor directs us to lead our ways of walking with different body parts. The forehead, the knees, the nose. We paint characters from these leads, slipping into their guises as we walk. It’s quite amusing watching the spasms of movement that erupt across the room and then realizing you are also a part of the sporadic pulses.

The barefoot woman suddenly tells us to look up and make eye contact with the person closest to us. What?

My goal of avoiding confrontation self-destructs as I lock eyes with a middle-aged Asian woman a few feet in front of me. Oh God, this is awkward.

I feel as if I’m invading her personal space by staring this long. The teacher then tells us to make our way to that person… only not as yourself. “Choose a character from one of our leads and have a short conversation about grocery shopping,” she instructs the group. I quickly think of my nose lead and take on the persona of a detective who smells a rat while my counterpart swings her hips and strides over to me. Now, for the hard part. I’m not supposed to be myself, and this lady is clearly not the supermodel her walk suggests. What the hell are these peoples’ standards of conversation?! God only knows as our characters meet. She begins in a light southern accent:

“‘Scuse me suga’, do you know where I could find some sugar?”

“No ma’am, I do not. I wouldn’t poison myself with such a substance.”

“Well now, no wonda’ you seem so grumpy.”

“Grumpy? This is me on a good day toots! Move along now.”

“My my.” *Clicks her tongue.

These characters completely skipped the small talk! They delved right into the points of conversation that would be the most interesting or suited to them at the moment.

Why then, should I be confined to the same standard of small talk all the time?

This rush of enthusiasm brings more of myself into characters throughout the night. From a distraught writer searching for inspiration in Mark’s receding hairline to a woman lost in an African terrain, I begin crafting conversations that jump into hilarious anecdotes and situations, free of the pressures to have superficial conversations.

My voice was taking shape in different characters and I was loving it.

Walking into class the next day, I don’t hesitate to make eye-contact with my peers. I don’t give them that awkward half smile, but a full one. I might even manage a “Hello” or “Good day, Amigo.” Every Monday rejuvenates and invigorates my drive to go against the grain of basic formality conversation and create something that makes me feel better about the connections I’m making through conversation I enjoy having.

***

In this day and age when people are so attached to their phones, our verbal conversational skills have taken a beating. Many people don’t know how to carry a conversation with strangers past the basic formalities — let alone construct an intriguing conversation they can walk away from feeling like it wasn’t the most awkward thing they’ve ever done. Learning to develop your social skills through an improv class is an unconventional and liberating means of breaking free from the grey formalities. Conversation and human interaction will always be prevalent in our lives, so why not create new and exciting ways of making these connections?

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4 responses to Up Your Small Talk Game with Improv

You are a deep thinker Kena and a wonderful writer too I see! Sorry our holiday gatherings are always so rushed and never last beyond our crazy card games…which you’re also good at I might add!

You are so right about the young generation’s obsession with their phones. I think they also hide behind their phones an awful lot in order to avoid eye contact and real human interaction. You have suggested a wonderful and unique tool for developing social skills. Thank you for a well written and interesting article! If more people follow your lead, there is hope for your generation after all!

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