Benjamin Peterson isn’t one for small talk. While waiting in line at the bank recently, the 21-year-old pretended to be texting on his mobile phone to avoid a conversation with the man standing behind him.

It didn’t work. After 15 minutes of awkward silence, the man finally broke down and asked, “So, have you had the new Wendy’s pretzel burger yet?”

Anyone who’s discussed the weather – ad nauseam – at a party knows that making small talk isn’t always easy. Conversing with strangers, acquaintances or relatives you rarely see can be uncomfortable, even painful.

As Peterson and many others have discovered, the explosion of digital devices has given us a handful of tools to avoid engaging with others. But small talk is a big deal when it comes to personal and professional success – as trivial as topics such as the weather and the traffic may seem, they are necessary rungs on a ladder of more meaningful conversation.

“Talking about things that are not intensely personal is the foundation of any real relationship,” says matchmaker Sheila Delaney.

And a simple conversation can lead to new connections, which can lead to new business or romantic opportunities, says Diane Windingland, author of Small Talk, Big Results. The holiday period is “a great time to connect with people” because everyone is more relaxed, Windingland says.

However, our increasing reliance on mobiles, tablets and e-readers is cutting into opportunities for small talk. As a result, experts say, many of us – especially young people – are becoming less adept at it.

“Because we’ve become so desensitised with electronics, people have lost the art of conversation,” says life coach Barb Churchill. “This generation hasn’t been trained how to speak in more than 140 characters.”

Peterson admits his generation is terrible at small talk, in part because social media fill the need for meaningless conversation.“If someone were riding in the elevator, and I were to get on, I can almost guarantee that if the person is under 30, a cellphone will be pulled out,” he says.

And while 22-year-old Tony Mansmith isn’t as ready to say casual conversation is dead, he’s convinced we’re headed that way. “As we move toward a more technological world, we drift away from that way of communicating,” he says. “I would admit it has impacted my ability to converse with those who are present.”

But take heart. “Even the most introverted people can master the art of small talk,” says Susanne Jones, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Minnesota. “It’s a challenge, but people should not underestimate the power of small talk.”

There are plenty of ways you can improve your small-talk skills. Be yourself, be genuine, focus on others and not you, and don’t put so much pressure on yourself, experts say.

Some say it’s even worth practising small talk. Try listening to someone who does it well – either because they’re naturally good at it, or because their jobs require them to talk about the mundane.

As an ICU nurse and perpetual party-goer, Nicole Marshall, 37, says she “could probably sweet-talk the president of the United States”.

“Small talk is like speed dating,” says Marshall. “You get to find out a quick little snippet about people in a short amount of time. Small talk opens the door for relationships and often leads to something great, like a new friend.”

How do you go with small talk? Chatterbox or stumped for words? Let us know!