English For IT
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English For IT

Do we really need small talk?

Where do you stand on small talk?

Because we need to talk about it.

If making small talk is something you do on instinct, good for you. Hopefully, this article will help you up your small talk game even more.

If, however, you cringe at the very mention of small talk, then…

Oh wow, nice shoes! Where did you get them? It’s an Australian brand, you say? They must be vegan too, right? So you’ve been to Australia? Cool! Can you tell me more?

Come on, this wasn’t so bad now, was it? At any rate, making small talk is almost always better than just sitting there in awkward silence. Plus, small talk can be leveraged in a number of ways that can help you forge connections, build rapport with people, and even discover new career opportunities.

What is small talk?

Small talk is often defined as a conversation about unimportant trivial things such as the weather, weekend plans, your dog, your neighbor’s dog, etc. But that definition is not quite right.

When we make small talk, we are looking to answer the following questions:

1. What kind of person are you talking to? Are they friendly, polite, easy to talk to, etc?

2. What mood is this person in? Are they relaxed or stressed out about something?

3. Do you have a shared interest or hobby that you can connect over?

So as you can see, small talk is much more than just a “trivial conversation”. It’s a way to get to know the person you are talking to and, if possible, transition to a more “serious” topic after you’ve established some kind of connection.

When to make small talk

In a business setting, we usually make small talk to facilitate the following situations:

  • At the beginning and at the end of a job interview
  • At the beginning of a business meeting
  • At networking events
  • When you need to avoid awkward silences (for example, when you’re waiting for someone to join the meeting).

When not to make small talk

There are times, however, when small talk is redundant. You can skip small talk when:

  • Both you and the other person have an urgent problem to solve (for example, when you schedule a meeting to address a specific issue)
  • You’re pressed for time (for example, you run into your manager in the hallway and want to pitch them an idea)
  • You’ve already met that person and made small talk with them earlier that day

How to make small talk

Now, for the most important question. How do you make small talk in a way that’s not awkward, forced, or annoying? Here are some tips you can use in every small talk situation, from job interviews to networking events.

  1. Pay a compliment

Compliment something that the person has obviously put a lot of effort into, but avoid compliments of an intimately personal nature (such as complimenting the person’s hair, skin, teeth, etc.)

You can try these compliments:

I love your outfit / nails / shoes / purse.

I really liked that article you wrote / the tweet you posted / the thing you said about…

Great work on the project / speech / presentation. I feel very inspired by your example.

2. Make an assumption

Rather than asking someone a point-blank yes / no question, it is often more common to make an assumption that can provoke an in-depth answer instead.

For example:

Instead of: Do you feel tired after the trip?

Say: You must be tired after the trip.

Instead of: Did you learn anything?

Say: You must have learned a lot.

Instead of: Is it fun?

Say: It must be fun, right?

3. Comment on your surroundings

Just comment on whatever you can observe around you. You might notice that many people (mostly English native speakers) do that as second nature.

For example:

You’re ordering coffee? I thought you were a tea drinker.

They’ve done great work on the venue this year. I was here last year and everything looked very different.

That’s a cool photo. Did you take it?

You look very tanned. Did you just get back from vacation?

I really like this decor. Are these your brand colors?

Do you happen to play sports? I see you have some sports accessories on your desk.

4. Have a list of stock questions at the ready

Just in case there’s nothing interesting to comment on, it’s helpful to have a list of stock questions that you can fall back on.

Here is a list of questions that you can use:

1.Good to see you! How is it going? (for friends and new acquaintances alike)

2. How have you been? (for someone you’ve met many times before)

3. I think I’ve seen you before at … (insert the place where you met) (for new acquaintances)

4. How was your weekend?

5. What are your plans for this weekend?

6. Have you heard the news about … (insert a recent news topic)?

7. What do you do?

8. Have you worked here long?

9. How did you end up working here?

10. Can you tell me more about your company / your business?

11. What brings you here? (for networking events)

12. Do you often go to these events?

13. How do you know (a friend or acquaintance you have in common)?

14. What’s your hometown? Where are you originally from? (you can then proceed to ask more questions about the person’s hometown and what it’s like)

15. Are there any good places to visit in this city that you would recommend? (if you’re in a new town)

16. Is it always this hot/cold/windy here?

17. How do you like (this city) so far? (for someone who just arrived in your town)

18. Have you been to any cool events lately?

19. If you could only do one thing to relax and unwind, what would it be?

20. What’s the biggest problem you’d like to solve right now?

21. What’s your highlight for this week?

5. Use affirmative phrases

Encourage the person you’re talking to and show them you’re listening. You can use phrases like:

1. Really?

2. I see

3. Wow, I didn’t know that

4. That’s pretty cool

5. You must be excited!

6. That sounds awesome/terrible!

7. And so then what happened?

6. Exit small talk with grace

There’s no point in starting small talk if you’re going to cut it short and leave the other person hanging. Make sure you exit the conversation with proper grace and politeness.

For example:

1. It was great talking to you but I have to go now, unfortunately. You have a great time!

2. Awesome, I gotta run now. Hopefully, I’ll catch you later / I’ll see you around later!

3. You guys have fun! I have to take care of something so I’m gonna leave you for a bit.

4. It was really fun talking to you. Here’s my contact details. Feel free to reach out!

5. Well, I guess we’d better cut to the chase now.

6. I guess we can start the meeting now.

7. Let’s move on to our agenda for today. I’m gonna go ahead and jump right into it.

8. If everyone’s ready, I suggest we get the meeting started.

At English For IT, we place a lot of importance on teaching not only English but also communication skills you will need in the workplace and in daily life. Feel free to check out our course if you’d like to improve your knowledge of small talk and business communication.

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