My passion for small talk dates back a long time. Spending years of my life on internships abroad, I got used to the communication standards adopted in those countries, and the study of the English language (and then the methods of teaching it) as a profession simply left no chances not to absorb all the subtleties of native communication. Returning home, each time I experienced something like a culture shock, as I learned to communicate again, but according to the rules of my native society. I cannot say that these rules are bad. They are just different.
However, my research interest in the “little conversation” was fueled precisely after employment in the company. Six years ago, I was challenged to polish the English skills of the Customer Technical Support team, with a strong emphasis on the art of small talk. Yes, I absolutely agree that these tasks should be paired, since without a high-quality level of language we will not be able to correctly compose a phrase, pronounce it natively, understand the interlocutor, respond to his comment, and so on. At the same time, I was given full carte blanche: resources, time for classes, technical equipment, a system for checking results. The huge advantage was that the employees had daily language practice with clients from all over the world. It was then that the work began to boil …
Since I provide a large number of examples in English in the text, it will not hurt to keep your favorite online translation dictionary ready if you are not very confident in the level of language proficiency.
So what is small talk and why is it so important to business?
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, “small talk: UK / ˈSmɔːl ˌtɔːk / US / ˈSmɑːl ˌtɑːk / – conversation about unimportant things, usually happens between people who do not know each other well enough ”… For example, “I don’t enjoy parties where I have to make small talk with complete strangers”. (I don’t like parties where I have to “chat about nothing” with complete strangers).
Thus, small talk is small talk, chatter, conversation about nothing, informally called chit-chat. Nevertheless, how difficult it is to support and initiate it in practice. Native English speakers claim that small talk is perhaps one of the most important communication skills in general, as it:
– avoids uncomfortable silence,
– makes it easy to meet someone and look friendlier,
– makes you closer to friends and colleagues,
– brings native speakers closer to the communication style, etc.
While it may seem at first glance that small talk does not have a very good reputation compared to communication “to the point”, it is impossible to imagine communication in the business world without it. It is he who builds bridges to each participant in the negotiations, determines the nature of future relationships, opens the door to friendship and even romance. For example, Mark H. McCormack (American lawyer, founder and president of IMG) argued: “All things being equal, people will buy from a friend. All things being not quite so equal, people will still buy from a friend”. (When choosing between products with the same characteristics, people will buy them from a friend. In the case of products with different characteristics, people will still buy them from a friend). Accordingly, it is much more useful to build friendships with partners than to exchange business cards.
Is it possible to master the “art of small talk”?
The good news about communication skills is that they don’t have to be innate, they can be learned. This soft skill is trained and practiced and then introduced into our daily life. There are mainly five topics for small talk: Life, Work, Food, Travel, Weather.
For Life it is appropriate to use phrases related to the emotional perception of the interlocutor, about current affairs and about life as such:
- Hi, fancy seeing you here – how are you ?!
- Hi … it’s great to see / hear you again!
- How are things going?
- What are you worried about?
- What are you happy about? How’s life in [city]?
Topic Work involves talking about the latest changes in business:
- Are you still working for (company)?
- How’s it going at (company / university)?
- How has business changed since we talked last?
- Do you commute to work or do you live nearby?
- Are you having a busy week?
Food – a topic that is very diverse in phrases not only about food, but also about places of its consumption, tastes, freshness of products, lifestyle and diet. Some phrases:
- How do you like your steak?
- Have you tried / Do you like the food here?
- Would you like to get a coffee?
- Do you usually have breakfast before work?
- Do you like to cook or prefer to go out?
- Do you know any good restaurants around here?
Conversation on the topic Travel is almost always appropriate, since many people like to travel, they will definitely learn something new and want to share it. Often, positive emotions and memories associated with travel can break any ice in communication. Phrases that will come to the rescue:
- What is the one of the best places you’ve ever visited?
- What is your idea of a nice relaxing holiday?
- Do you prefer to fly or to take a car?
- Where would you recommend for sightseeing?
- Where do you like to go on holiday?
Perhaps the most conservative topic for a “little talk” is Weather… Relevant cliché phrases:
- What do you think of the weather?
- The weather is great / terrible this week, isn’t it?
- What do you like to do when it is really cold / hot?
- Do you know if we have good weather this weekend?
An elevator is a place where being silent or burying your phone (if you are not alone, of course) is not accepted in the English-speaking environment. It is believed that in the elevator we are “here and now”, so we must be open for communication on almost any topic. Relevant phrases in the elevator:
- Hi, how are you?
- Hi, we keep meeting. Where do you work?
- Hi, what lunch / coffee places do you recommend around here?
- Hi, is it supposed to rain today?
- What did you think about the game last night?
- I’ve just read this article about… Have you heard of (it)?
- Would you like to hear my elevator pitch?
In addition to topics for “small conversation”, forms are also important: verbal communication at a meeting or communication on the phone, as well as non-verbal communication (correspondence). It is believed that in the latter form of communication, it is easier to avoid stressful situations in the context of small talk, while verbal communication is much more demanding. If when meeting (albeit with strangers) we can dazzle them with our smile, use personal charisma, charm and gestures, catch their emotions and facial expressions, then when communicating on the phone we are largely limited. The situation is greatly aggravated when we are dealing with a frustrated client, with whom a telephone conversation is fraught with many sharp angles. Here, small talk is more appropriate and useful than ever, especially if it is initiated in a friendly tone with a smile on his face (experts say that this smile is felt even when talking on the phone).
Some helper phrases for a telephone conversation:
- Anything new happening today?
- How are you doing today? (the word today shortens the scope of the question and increases the likelihood of getting a genuinely entertaining answer)
- How is your day unfolding so far?
Also, an important stage in the conversation is the moment when you need to support the conversation with a short motivating response. The most common clichés are:
- Oh, really?
- What happened next?
- Oh, wow!
- Oh, I see.
- That sounds great.
- That’s interesting.
- Why was that?
Of course, the list of phrases can go on and on. However, it’s not about quantity, but about practice! Without real communication, these phrases and skills are “as useful as a chocolate teapot” (that is, completely useless). What will really help create an atmosphere of “small talk” is speaking clubs, working with foreigners, sites for communication of interests. It can be of great help to watch talk shows in English, in which there is more spontaneity on the part of the guest and less staged situations, which immerses you in the world of native communication with its humor and culture.
What is not talked about in small talk?
Of course, the skill of “small talk” is important in any field of human activity, but special attention is paid to them in the business world. Often, an employer, through a seemingly simple conversation about the weather, local news and snow in the spring, can immediately decide to hire a particular candidate. It may seem unfair that he has not yet reached your professional qualities and regalia, but the decision has already been made and is in the air. Therefore, the art of small talk in any language is priceless and truly worth learning!
Great, you say, you just need to practice asking competent questions, learn to answer them briefly and succinctly, remember to smile, and success will come by itself. This is true, but we must not forget about the “pitfalls” – forbidden topics for small talk.
Money and finance: avoid talking about salaries and bonuses. An acceptable exception is real estate. In some circles, people are happy to discuss the real estate market and the value of their homes.
Politics: 100% taboo, as this is an extremely dissociative subject for conversation, and you will inevitably hurt the feelings of someone in the audience.
Religion: an absolutely forbidden topic, as it concerns personal choice and spiritual life.
Floor: small talk does not involve talking about the personal relationships between men and women. Moreover, the initiator of such a conversation may be held accountable, as he risks inadvertently offending the views of those present.
Life and death: in small talk, it is not customary to discuss what is associated with grief, serious experiences or chronic illnesses. Often times, native English speakers may disguise their feelings and experiences with an appropriate proverb or idiom, but will not develop the topic further.
Appearance / age: a neutral comment on clothing is appropriate, but not in appearance and age. Sometimes we may think that we have paid a compliment, but this can be regarded with skepticism. This topic is too sensitive for both men and women, it is best to avoid it.
Personal comments: slander and gossip is an absolute taboo in business negotiations. This robs you of confidence and can make the situation worse afterwards.
This is how “little talk” can play a big role in communicating with native speakers of English and culture. In their reality, a person who passes the stage of small talk in communication looks rather strange, suspicious and unfriendly. This behavior is not conducive to communication and building further social relations. It is an integral part of socio-cultural competence and etiquette, akin to the snow-white smile that you see on the faces of Americans walking down the street. Therefore, a little knowledge in the field of small talk will not only not harm, but will also be able to bring communication with native English speakers to a qualitatively new level.