Everyone has a different understanding of the true meaning of “small talk” means. Some view it as a “warm-up” to grease the wheels before getting down to business. Others consider it a throwaway chat about the local little league game on a Monday morning. Then you have those who are terrified by the idea of “small talk,” consider it difficult, artificial, and maybe even trivial.
Small talk comes naturally to some people. They never seem to run out of things to say and can ignite a conversation in just about any situation. For others, though, making small talk can be downright painful. They can find themselves in a room with people they’re keen to speak with, but the words simply fail to come out.
If you currently struggle to make small talk, don’t sweat it – it’s a skill that most everyone can learn. In this post, we will explore how you can make small talk, and how it can be beneficial around the office and in your personal life. After covering how to make small talk and the associated perks, we’ll wrap things up and review some of the common pitfalls of small talk that you want to avoid.
What is Small Talk?
Bronisław Malinowski, a Polish anthropologist, was the first person to formally study small talk in 1923. Malinowski described it as “purposeless expressions of preference or aversion, accounts of irrelevant happenings, (and) comments on what is perfectly obvious.” In everyday terms, small talk is a means of being sociable, not a means through which to communicate information.
In reality, small talk can be all of these things. While shallow and superficial in nature, small talk is one of the most underrated communication skills. In fact, small talk is of great value in many business cultures since it can play a critical role in terms of both networking and day-to-day interactions.
Why is Small Talk Important?
The value of small talk is rooted in the bonds that it creates, not the words that are exchanged.
Simply chatting with your peers and clients is a great way to build healthy relationships. It’s also a great way to win over potential clients. Furthermore, small talk helps build and strengthen your social connections.
Making a strong first impression can get any business relationship off to a great start. Knowing how to make small talk can help nurture business relationships by building rapport and earning trust.
Small talk can carry you well beyond just making a good first impression. For instance, a little small talk with a potential client could very well lead to more serious business discussions down the road.
How to Make Small Talk
You’re either comfortable making small talk, or you totally dread it – there’s really no middle ground here. Either way, small talk is a skill that you can learn and improve upon with a little effort. There are three key steps to developing your small talk skills: preparation, engaging, and repeating.
Doing a little homework usually pays off big time and will provide you with the confidence to engage in small talk. If you come prepared with a few things to say, you’ll feel more ready to strike up a conversation or join one already in progress.
Here are a few thoughts to consider:
- Take the pressure off yourself: try to think positively. You’re only looking to make a good impression and create a connection, not score an instant sale.
- Start small: practice with casual greetings, compliments and smiles whenever you get the chance. You can then build upon this initial foundation by adding a question or two.
- Stay informed: few things sap your confidence faster than having nothing to say, so stay current with what’s happening around you. This can include news stories, local events, sports, and industry news.
- Prepare an introduction: the most common question people ask is, “so, what do you do?” Respond with a brief, yet punchy reply that invites more questions. Rather than telling people that you’re in sales, take things a step further. Leaving people wanting to know more allows you to get your small talk off to a strong start and really connect with them.
- Have a handful of strong openers at the ready: here are a few questions that you can ask to kickoff any conversation:
- “What do you enjoy about your job? this event? this city?”
- “What’s the most exciting thing you’ve heard of lately?”
- “How did your last session go?”
- “What’s the best thing that’s happened to you today?”
- “Where did you last hear a presentation as interesting as this one?”
Once you’re ready to take the plunge, you just need to start talking! You can initiate a conversation or join one that’s already in the works.
So, how do you get started? First, keep your eyes (and ears) open for opportunities – listen for chances to connect with other people. For instance, if you hear someone mention that they drive the same car as you, or support the same hockey team, use one of those nuggets to open up a dialogue.
Second, if you’re anxious or nervous, try your best to relax! Try taking a few deep breaths and focusing your mind on reducing any lingering stress. If you’re relaxed, you’ll come across as more natural and confident!
Use the A-R-E Method
As your confidence and small talk skills begin to develop, make it a point to actively start more conversations. This will allow you to guide and maintain discussions, rather than simply participate in them. The A-R-E method is a three-step system that will help you reach this point:
- Anchor: Make a brief observation about a shared experience to another person as the starting point of your small talk. This can be something as simple as, “What a beautiful day,” or, “The food here is amazing.”
- Reveal: Try to establish a connection with your conversation partner. For instance, saying, “The weather here last year was terrible,” or, “I’ve eaten at some great restaurants but this place comes out on top,” reveals something about yourself and gives your partner a chance to respond.
- Encourage: Ask a question to draw your partner in, such as, “Were you at the conference last year?” or, “How do you rate it?”
Exhibit Positive Body Language
Your body language can play a huge role in terms of the effectiveness of your small talk. Adopt a posture and use gestures that show that you’re approachable, positive, and enthusiastic. For instance, stand up straight, use a firm handshake, maintain solid eye contact, and avoid touching your face since that’s a sign of dishonesty.
Leave on a High Note
Lastly, don’t spend too long with one person or group – both parties want to speak with other people. Keep your exchanges brief, then you can either end your conversation politely or excuse yourself from group conversation.
When you disengage from a conversation, do so in a way that doesn’t leave anyone feeling hurt or ignored, and that leaves the door open to speaking with you again in the future. Waiting for a lull and then returning to the subject you opened with is a polite way to bring your small talk to an end. For example, if you open by saying, “Where did you last hear a presentation as interesting as that?” you could close with, “The next speaker is on soon. Let’s hope that she’s just as good.” Then us a positive exit line such as, “I must go and find a seat. It was a pleasure to speak with you and I hope to do it again.” Then take your leave with a smile and potentially a handshake.
Repeat the Process
The more you engage in small talk, the more natural you’ll become. Taking opportunities to talk with colleagues, friends, family, and even total strangers will help you improve your small talk skills!
Pro Tip: When you engage in small talk, watch how the other person behaves and listen to their input mindfully. Take note of their body language, the subjects that they touch on, and they way in which they talk. Their tone, assertiveness and questioning style can also provide insights into what works and doesn’t work.
Avoid Small Talk Pitfalls
Remember, small talk typically revolves around “light” topics of conversation. These types of conversations are usually short, yet there are still some topics and behaviors that could trip you up. For instance, don’t talk too much about yourself. While you may find yourself extremely interesting, don’t hog the conversation. Show a genuine interest in the people you are conversing with and let them be part of the conversation.
Furthermore, you’ll also want to avoid controversial or provocative topics. Keep things friendly and light. It is wise to avoid topics such as religion or politics, in caus you unintentionally offend someone.
If you’re working in a new or unfamiliar country, read up on its approach to small talk and be aware of any possible cross-cultural differences. For example, in the United States, small talk is an important part of business culture, whereas the British are well versed in the craft, and Germans tend to prefer to get straight to the point. Meanwhile, in hierarchical societies, such as Japan and India, engaging your superiors in small talk is considered inappropriate.
- One’s ability to engage in small talk is a critical tool for finding common ground with other people via exploring personal interests and ideas. It can open the door to more meaningful communications where relationships are created and forged.
- Small talk often plays a massively important role in the workplace. Its content is less important than its role in creating, building, and maintaining connections between peers.
- Making small talk is a skill that you can learn. Effective preparation is essential, as is openness, curiosity, self-awareness, and the ability to listen.