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Small Talk: Big Impact

Why do I need it?

As the title of the article suggests, small talk can make a big difference to your career. While, useful in all areas of life, small talk actually occurs in most business situations. Not only does it break the ice in new or awkward situations, but it also creates good relationships and helps achieve business goals. In this article, we’ll first explore how small talk skills can help you and then we’ll give you some tips on how to be a better small talker.

How will making small talk help me?

Making small talk with your coworkers gives you the opportunity to practice your English and build up your confidence. It helps build both your business and your social relationships by making you a more approachable person. In fact, employees who are good communicators and who have good people skills are the ones who most often get promoted. While small talk is frequently how a conversation starts, it often leads to more in-depth talk. Small talk can open the door to networking — extending conversation to get information you need — a vital skill in any workplace.

How can I make small talk when I don’t get much opportunity to speak at work?

In many fields employees spend a lot of time sitting in front of a computer and don’t get much chance to use their speaking skills, let alone improve them. However, small talk doesn’t have to take much time from your work day. Identify, create and take opportunities to connect with colleagues. Rather than always sending an email, try walking over to a colleague’s desk. Arrive at meetings early and use the time to connect with others who are there. Ask an office mate if they’d like to grab a quick bite or a coffee. Take the time to say hello to the receptionist when you arrive. The bottom line is you have to make time for small talk during your day and make a deliberate effort to initiate conversation with your coworkers.

How do I do it?

Successful small talk is all about finding and maintaining common ground. Initially, you might have to take a conversational risk to discover what you and the other person have in common. You also have to be a good listener and be interested in what the other is saying. What is your conversational partner talking about? Are you showing that you’re interested in it and are you following up on it? Successful small talk requires that both people take responsibility in the conversation; this means you will need to share some information, listen attentively, ask questions and probe for more detail to encourage the other to talk further.

How do I start small talk? I don’t know where to begin.

The best way to open a conversation is to exploit the context: Where are you? What can you see around you? What are you doing in common with the other person? What’s the weather like? Is it a Monday or Friday? How was the traffic?

  • How was your weekend? (e.g. on a Monday morning in the elevator)
  • Do you have any plans for the weekend?
  • Traffic was terrible this morning, wasn’t it? It took me an hour to get here!
  • Can you believe this line-up? (e.g. waiting at Tim Horton’s)
  • How’s your project going? (e.g. at the photocopier)
  • What did you think of the new CEO’s speech? (e.g. at a conference)
  • (It’s a) gorgeous day, eh?
  • This weather is terrible, isn’t it!
  • I can’t believe the snow we’re getting!
  • Did you watch the debate last night? (use only if you know the other person is interested in it)
  • Did you see the game last night? (use only if you know the other person is interested in it)

Tip: Be observant: listen to good small talkers and steal their lines. Write down the openings you would feel comfortable using. Make sure you’re using language and expressions that you feel comfortable with and that will sound natural to others. People know if you’re not being real.

How do I keep the conversation going? My small talk is awkward or ends too abruptly.

Often, people don’t realize how much responsibility they need to take in the conversation. They don’t offer enough information about themselves, and, consequently, the other person has to do all the work, which is awkward and uncomfortable. Let’s look at an example:

Susan: How was your weekend?

David: Fine; nothing special.

While it might be true that David hasn’t done anything that weekend that he thinks is interesting to talk about, Susan might get the impression that David is being rude or that he isn’t interested in talking right now. Susan might not want to have many more conversations with David if he always gives such short answers.

Your job in small talk is to connect with the person and continue the conversation. Look at the difference in the following conversation:

Susan: How was your weekend?

Fine; nothing special. Spent a lot of time doing chores — fixing the house. It never seems to end!

David has started the same way as the first conversation, but he has added more. This time he has offered some information about himself and has given the listener something to respond to and can now commiserate with Bob and might offer something like: “I know what you mean! A squirrel ate through my screen doors last weekend and I spent the whole day repairing them and putting them back up!”

Tip: Make time to practice: On your commute to work on weekday mornings, practice what you might say (either out loud if you drive, or in your head if you’re on public transit) when someone asks you about your plans for the weekend or how your weekend was. Try preparing different answers – shorter answers for someone in the same elevator as you, longer answers for your colleagues who work near you. Imagine different situations and different contexts. Play with it and experiment. Then try it for real!

The best way to improve your small talk is by doing it! Observe others and try it yourself. Make a commitment to increasing your small talk conversations by 100% over the next month and see what happens!

Andrea Griggs is the founder of Catalyst Communication, and Sara Anderson is a key associate. They are both committed to helping clients take charge of their learning.

Useful Resources

This is our home page. In addition to information about our services, our Resources page has many links to great sites to help people improve their language and communication skills.

This website lets you both listen to and read various real conversations and texts. You can get help with vocabulary as well. The site is a bit confusing, so spend some time taking the useful tutorials to learn how to use the site. Most of the services are free; some services require a subscription fee.

The Fine Art of Small Talk. Debra Fine, 2005

This book (written for Native English speakers) has some great tips for improving your skill at small talk.

Other interesting websites on small talk: