Small talk, or “polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters” as the dictionary has it, has an unfairly bad reputation. For a lot of people, small talk feels awkward or difficult, and for many others it just seems like a total waste of time, especially in a business context. But small talk has an important purpose and learning how to make great small talk will serve you in good stead.
Opportunities for small talk are surprisingly frequent during the work day and, for people who feel comfortable with it, they pass without regard. In the lift, at the beginning of meetings, walking up the stairs, waiting for the kettle to boil when making tea, we’re chatting away to all and sundry about seemingly meaningless things… or we’re suffering in uncomfortable silence, wishing we either knew what to say or could just be left alone. So why do we do it?
Small talk is a form of ‘phatic communication’ – that is communication that has no informational or transactional content – and it’s this seeming lack of purpose that can make us feel uncomfortable. But phatic communication is a social activity that we use to create and maintain social bonds, define interpersonal relationships, and determine our relative social position. At the beginning of a meeting, small talk helps strangers to demonstrate friendly intentions and acquaintances to re-establish their relationship. At the end of a conversation, it’s a way to affirm our positive attitude towards the other party – think about how discombobulating it is when someone cuts a conversation off cold and just walks away.
Through small talk people also reveal contextual information that they couldn’t otherwise share, particularly in a business setting. It’s around the coffee machine that you’re most likely to find out that your colleague was up all night with their sick child, which is why they looked like they were nodding off in the meeting. This extra nugget of information allows you to sympathise with them instead of getting annoyed – the context turns a negative reaction into a positive one, and helps prevent ruffled feathers.
But what if you feel deeply uncomfortable with small talk and just don’t know what to say? The good news is that it’s a skill that can be learnt and developed, and that there are some simple tactics for you to try:
Prepare some questions
Memorise a list of open-ended questions that you can ask the other person. They don’t have to be questions about work, though if you know you have something in common that’s a good place to start. As clichéd as it sounds, commenting on the weather is a pretty safe bet, as is asking how someone’s weekend went.
But beware formulaic questions such as, “How are you?” which invite closed responses like, “Not too bad, thanks” and don’t give you an opening to further conversation. It’s also unwise to ask questions that are too personal, so don’t ask women if they have children, for example, and avoid topics like religion, politics and money.
Listen more than you speak. If you’re shy and don’t like talking about yourself, then you’re in luck, because people respond very well to those who actively listen to them. Make eye contact, smile, and use both verbal and non-verbal cues to indicate that you’re listening.
Prepare your responses
If you can, try to give away something about yourself when you’re answering a question. Small talk is a back and forth, so try to resist the temptation to give a monosyllabic answer to a question to try to shift attention away from yourself.
If you really don’t like giving up info about yourself, you can also ask supplementary questions that deflect attention to yourself, but still indicate that you’re interested in your conversational partner. You can also practise mirroring the gestures, posture, facial expressions and even tone of voice of your interlocutor to help build a rapport.
There are no wrong answers
Don’t fret about getting an answer ‘wrong’ or about whether you think you were sufficiently scintillating. Phatic communication is about signalling openness to future social interactions, it’s not going to be remembered for long by the other party, so if you ask questions, smile, listen, and give salient answers, you’re saying everything you need to say.
Small talk doesn’t have to be tedious or awkward. With a little bit of thought and practice, it can help you to build stronger professional relationships, as well as giving you valuable insights into what’s going on with your colleagues. So the next time you’re in a lift or waiting for a meeting to start, embrace the weather forecast!