7 Things You Need to Know About Small Talk
In American culture, small talk is an important personal and business skill. People from other countries often don’t realize just how important small talk is in the U.S., and are surprised by how naturally small talk comes to some Americans. They also don’t know that small talk is a skill that can be learned and perfected by anyone. Here are seven things to know about small talk and how it can help you personally and professionally succeed.
1. What is small talk?
Small talk is a means of casually connecting and building relationships with others through light conversation. It’s appropriate for situations where silence would feel awkward and uncomfortable, but where more serious or more personal conversation isn’t appropriate. Small talk is about being polite and showing an interest in the other person, so they feel comfortable and included.
2. Why is small talk important?
Small talk plays an important role in creating and nurturing business and personal relationships. 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. The small talk helps you come across as approachable and friendly.
In addition, people prefer to do business with people they know, like, and trust. In the American business culture, getting along with others is considered an important soft skill. In a job interview, the interviewer will be assessing your personality, as well as your professional skills, in order to make sure you’re someone who others will find trustworthy and likable.
3. How do you get started with small talk?
Think of small talk as an icebreaker that paves the way for a more meaningful conversation. A greeting is the first step. If you’re networking in a group, find someone who’s not already engaged in conversation, approach them, make eye contact and smile. Introduce yourself by stating your name. Make a point of using the other person’s name to both help you remember it and to personalize the conversation.
4. What does a good small talk conversation look like?
Small talk conversations should be light and easy—keep it semi-personal, non-controversial, and positive. Think about your choice of topics. The weather and traffic are good ones, but there are many others:
- Shared experiences (such as the conference you’re both attending)
- Shared interests
- Items on display where you’re meeting (photos, awards, artwork)
- Current events (but only if they’re positive and politically neutral!)Where one grew up
In an interview or meeting, small talk can be about something you see, such as an item on the desk or wall, something you heard on your way in, the office location, or the city where the meeting is taking place.
Questions are a great way to get small talk going. Make sure your questions are open-ended and not too personal. Ask questions in which the answer would be a sentence versus ones where the answer is only a word or two. You could comment on something and then follow that up with a question. Just make sure your comments are always positive!
Good listening is another key to successful small talk. Maintaining eye contact and nodding occasionally are good ways to demonstrate that you’re being attentive. Avoid interrupting the other person and don’t let your phone distract you.Allow the conversation to go back and forth between you and the other person. When it’s your turn to speak, make sure that your answers or comments are neither too lengthy nor too short. A good, 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.
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.
In addition, 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 doesn’t come across as flirtatious.
6. Can one prepare for small talk?
Definitely! Make the effort to remain current on what’s happening locally, nationally, and around the world. Movies, TV, and books are good topics for conversation, so make an effort to remain up-to-date on those too.
If you’re on your way to a meeting, an interview, or a networking event, come up with a few topics, so you’re prepared if there’s a lull in the conversation. You can also prepare by finding out as much as you can about the person you’re meeting. Research their professional social media profiles (such as on LinkedIn) and their website. Commenting on someone’s recently published blog, for example, is a great way to start a conversation.
7. When should the small talk stop?
Small talk is intended to be a prelude to the more important part of the meeting or interview. Making a comment or asking a question related to the purpose of your getting together will indicate that you feel the small talk portion is over and you are ready to proceed with the meeting.
If you’re attending a networking event, you’ll want to catch up with more than one person, so after 5 or 10 minutes of small talk with someone, wrap-up that conversation and move on. Bring the small talk conversation to a close by telling the other person you appreciate the interaction and have enjoyed it.
Small talk is not intended to replace focusing on your business or profession, but it’s an important part of American business culture. Some foreign-born professionals can be surprised at how important small talk is in the U.S., as not all cultures value this type of interaction to the same degree. Taking the time to learn about small talk, observing others in action, and perfecting your own small talk skills can go a long way to your success in this country.
Opportunities to engage in small talk are everywhere! Beyond interviews and business meetings, you can engage in small talk in social and family events. Even random encounters, such as standing in line at the store, or riding the train, provide opportunities for small talk that will 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, American accent training and accent reduction coaching can make a big difference! Contact me to find out more about how these programs can aid you in your professional and personal life.