Small talk is both an important people skill and business skill in American culture. People from other countries don’t always initially realize just how important small talk is in the US, and can be surprised by how comfortably and naturally small talk can come to some. But the truth is that small talk is a skill that can be learned and perfected by anyone. Here are 7 things you should know about small talk and why it can help you succeed professionally:
What is small talk?
Why is it important?
How do you get started?
What does good small talk look like?
Are there topics I should avoid?
Can one prepare for small talk?
Does small talk last forever?
1. What is small talk?
Small talk is basically about being polite and showing an interest in the other person to make them feel good, comfortable, and included. It is a means of casually connecting and building relationships through light conversation. Small talk is appropriate for situations in which silence would feel awkward and uncomfortable, but where more serious or personal conversation isn’t appropriate.
2. Why is it important?
It is important for creating and nurturing the business relationship as well as other types of relationships. People prefer to do business with those they know, like, and trust. It’s no wonder that in the American business culture, getting along with others is considered an important soft skill. Keep in mind that even in the job interview setting, the interviewer will be assessing personality, in addition to professional skills, in order to make sure that the person hired is someone that others will find trustworthy and likable.
Beginning and ending a more serious conversation with a few minutes of small talk is a great way to establish rapport and leave a positive, lasting impression. A successful small talk interaction will help you come across as approachable and friendly.
3. How do you get started?
Think of small talk as an icebreaker that paves the way for a more meaningful conversation. As with any interaction, a greeting is the first step. Within a networking setting, find someone who’s not already engaged in a conversation, approach that person, and make eye contact with a smile. Introduce yourself by stating your name and make a point of using the other person’s name to both personalize the conversation and to help you remember it.
4. What does a good small talk conversation look like?
Small talk conversation is meant to be light and easy. You’ll want to keep the conversation semi-personal, non-controversial, and positive. You’ll want to give some thought to your choice of topics for the conversation. The weather and traffic are common topics for small talk, but there are also more interesting and unique topics to choose from. Some examples include:
Joint experiences (such as a conference you’re both attending) and interests
Displayed items (a photo, award, or artwork)
Current events (but only if you can focus on the positive!)
Within an interview or meeting, small talk can focus on something you see such as an item displayed on the desk or wall, something you’ve heard in the building on your way in, the location of the office, or the city in which the meeting or interview is taking place.
Questions are a great way to get the conversation going. Make sure your questions are open-ended and not too personal. Try to ask questions in which the answer would be at least a sentence, and avoid questions where the answer is only a word or two. Some prefer to comment on something and then follow-up their statement with a question. This is a great strategy, but again, make sure your comments are always positive!
Good listening is another key to a successful small talk interaction. Maintaining eye contact and nodding occasionally are good ways to demonstrate that you are attentive to the conversation. Avoid interrupting the other person and make sure you’re not being distracted by your phone.
Every conversation involves some back and forth, so when it’s your turn to speak make sure that your answers or comments are neither too lengthy nor too short. A good and balanced conversation can be compared to a “pass the ball” game. Each person should have the opportunity to speak (or hold onto the ball), but then pass the “ball” along to someone else so they have a chance to speak as well.
5. Are there topics that should be avoided during small talk?
Absolutely! The purpose of small talk is to make the other person feel comfortable, so you’ll want to avoid controversial topics that could offend someone or challenge their opinion. Specific topics to be avoided include:
A person’s appearance
Health or health issues
Anything else that’s too personal.
Avoid speaking ill of anyone, discussing the cost of things, and making remarks or jokes that are not in good taste. Be friendly, but make sure that your behavior does not come across as flirtatious.
6. Can one prepare for small talk?
You can definitely prepare for small talk. Make an effort to to remain current on happenings in the world around you - locally, nationally, and even worldwide. Movies, TV, and books are good topics for conversation so make an effort to remain up to date on those as well.
If you’re on your way to a meeting, an interview, or a networking event, try to come up with a few topics so that you’re prepared in case there’s a lull in the conversation. You can also prepare by finding out as much as you can about the person you’ll be meeting with. Research their professional social media profiles (such as LinkedIn) and website. Commenting on a recently published blog, for example, is a great way to start a conversation.
7. Will the small talk interaction last forever?
No! The small talk interaction is intended as a prelude to the more important part of the meeting or interview. In this case, making a comment or asking a question related to the purpose of the meeting will indicate that the small talk portion is over and that it’s time to proceed with the meeting or interview itself.
If you’re attending a networking event, you’ll want to catch up with more than one person, so after 5 or 10 minutes it may be time to wrap-up the conversation and move on so that you can connect with others. Showing appreciation for the interaction and expressing that you’ve enjoyed it are great ways to bring a small talk conversation to a close.
Small talk is not intended to replace the focus on business or your professional skills, but it’s an important part of the American business culture. Foreign-born professionals can be surprised at how important small talk is in the US, as not all cultures value this type of interaction in the same way. Taking the time to learn/read about small talk, observe others in action, and perfecting your own small talk skills can go a long way.
Opportunities to engage in small talk are everywhere! Beyond interviewing and the corporate world, you can engage in small talk in a variety of social and family events. Even random encounters such as standing in line at the store or riding the train provide opportunities for small talk - to make the wait or the trip a bit more interesting. And you never know who you'll meet while small talking! For more information about small talk, Debra Fine's book, The Fine Art of Small Talk is a great resource for tips and examples of small talk in a variety of settings.
**If you’re a non-native speaker and feel that your communication is impacted by a strong or heavy accent or by cultural or language differences, accent modification training and communication consulting can make a big difference! Contact me to find out more about how these can aid you in your professional and personal life.