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The Art of Small Talk

What is your definition of small talk? What is it to you?

The tricky thing about small talk is that it is a conversation without a clear goal, agenda, or purpose, and that’s what sets it apart from other forms of business communication.

When you are writing an email or running a meeting, you are always pursuing a clear outcome. That’s not really the case with small talk and maybe that’s the reason why in certain cultures, people tend to brush it off (dismiss, consider something as unimportant) as something pointless and unnecessary.

In the English-speaking culture, however, small talk plays an important role. If it’s done right, small talk can help you discover something interesting about the people you are talking to, build a connection with them, or just avoid awkwardness and tension.

It may be difficult for certain cultures to wrap their heads around (understand) the importance of small talk. Here are two simple tips that will help you improve your small talk game and communicate with American colleagues and peers more easily.

Tip #1. Don’t be negative

Unlike the British, Americans don’t find it funny or appropriate to listen to people complaining and whining about things. They generally choose to look on the bright side of life and make it seem like everything is going great, regardless of whether it’s true or not. That’s why you are way more likely (a lot more likely) to hear an American say “I’m doing great” instead of “I’m doing ok” or “It’s amazing!” instead of “It’s not bad” or “this is hilarious” instead of “this is kinda amusing’.

Americans also like to say “I’m excited” a lot for seemingly no reason. For instance, “I’m excited to show you our new demo.”

Tip #2. Keep it light-hearted

There are certain taboo topics that exist in American culture when it comes to small talk. Americans like to keep small talk casual and argument-free. This may seem strange to some people. Why would you want to talk about trivial things like parking, weather, or ice cream when you could discuss recent political events or deep philosophical topics. But that is just not how Americans roll (it’s not what Americans do). They like to minimize all chances of the conversation getting out of hand (out of control). To them, it’s less about what you say and more about how you react to what’s being said to you, whether you are coming off as approachable, friendly, energetic, and positive or not. Try to stick with “trivial” topics at least in the first minutes of the conversation.

Tip #3. What you choose to talk about doesn’t really matter

People often make mistakes researching, preparing, and rehearsing the topics they are going to use for their next small talk session. This approach is doomed to fail. Small talk is a spur-of-the-moment (spontaneous) thing. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a list of go-to (something you typically use for a particular purpose) questions you can use to start up a conversation, but it’s just much better to keep it flexible and organic. Instead of thinking about which topics for small talk are best to choose, focus on making observations about surroundings and circumstances that fit the situation. Ask people about their day, compliment them on their outfits, comment on something that’s in the same room with you, etc.

A good formula to use if you want to start a conversation is comment/compliment + follow-up question.

For example, ‘These are nice shoes! Where did you get them?’

Tip #4 Give expanded answers to questions

For example:

“Did you ever watch Game of Thrones?”

“No”

This response isn’t going to help you keep the conversation going.

“Did you ever watch Game of Thrones?”

“You know, I was never able to get into fantasy. It must be a good show because so many people love it, but when I get some free time, I prefer watching documentaries.”

This is much better because now you can easily discuss other topics — documentaries, entertainment, leisure activities, etc.

Tip #5 Show interest in the person you’re talking to

This can mean:

  1. Giving compliments (compliment something that the person has put some effort into, such as their shoes, nails, or even a laptop sticker).
  2. Asking questions

As far as go-to questions go, how about trying a few less expected ones. For example:

What made you want to go into (Marketing?)

What’s the craziest thing a boss has ever asked you to do?

What surprised you the most about your current job?

If you could only watch one genre of movie for the rest of your life, what would it be?

What’s a book you hated that everyone else loved, and vice versa?

Do you have any podcast suggestions for my commute?

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?

Are there any foods that you absolutely would not eat?

For more free tips, lessons, and live streams on English for tech, business, and daily life, follow English For IT on Instagram.

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Helping you improve your English and communication skills

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