So many people whom I meet in my workshops tell me how awkward it is for them to engage in small talk. Whether international students or immigrant US professionals, individuals who grew up outside the US find American small talk superficial and forced. So if you think “small talk” is odd and superficial, you’re not alone! However, one of the most important things to understand about small talk is that, culturally, it’s a sign of friendliness and professionalism for Americans. So small talk is incredibly important for becoming part of the American community and for professional success.
Why do Americans engage in this “superficial talk”? Actually, it’s meant to be superficial, that is, it’s meant to be “at the surface”. That’s why it’s called small talk — not deep talk! If it feels transactional and transitional, it actually is! Culturally, Americans believe it’s impolite to sit next to someone in a class or in a conference and not talk to each other. We feel obliged to talk to strangers at social functions to show our grace and social maturity. Because of this outlook, we will “meet and greet” each other for perhaps only a few minutes, and move on to meeting the next person, until we find someone we really connect with. Then the conversation can get deeper and longer.
Professionally, at an interview for example, we believe starting with small talk, even for a minute, is a sign of our professionalism. People who can’t carry on a short conversation are seen to be less polished and not very good at interpersonal skills. Especially for client facing jobs, such as consulting, the ability to engage in small talk is paramount for success.
You can imagine, then, that if we are expected to talk to people we don’t know, we have to find “safe” topics to start with, that are also pleasant in nature. Thus the birth of discussions about the weather, sports and how traffic. It’s a starting point for engagement in an otherwise awkward moment!
Small talk topics will differ depending on the context:
- At a party, a typical starter would be, “so, how do you know the host?”
- At a conference, you could start with, “what brought you to this conference?”
- At a company outing, a senior executive could ask a new employee, “how has your first months been at the company?”
- At an interview, the interviewer can ask, “how was it getting here?”
It’s important to predict and prepare possible questions and answers if you haven’t engaged much in small talk. Like all interpersonal skills, it takes practice to become fluid, graceful and elegant at small talk.
A few tips to consider, if you are a newcomer / immigrant to the US or if you are socially introverted and talking in large groups makes you feel highly uncomfortable:
1) Start with a natural smile, relaxed upper body and approach authority figures as if (s)he is a friend’s friend. You’ll feel and look less nervous! In professional settings, always include a handshake.
2) Have questions ready when you attend social and professional events. For example, at a social event: “How do you know the host?” At a career fair event: “Did you travel far to come to the fair?”
3) Go to events with a friend or two — just be sure to meet people individually, as it’s easier to start conversations this way. Look for other people who are standing alone or a group of 3 or more people to step into.
4) Don’t worry about feeling self-conscious or embarrassed — everyone feels this way when new to small talk, even Americans! Laugh at your
mistakes. Be okay with feeling awkward – nobody else needs to know!
5) Remember, we’re all people first. Whether you’re from China, India or the U.S., we all care about the same fundamental things: family, friends and being welcomed. Find points of commonality! Ask, “What do you like to do?”
6) Small talk gets easier…with practice. You can’t “think” to toward small talk perfection — you’ve got to do it! Talk to bus drivers, cashiers, waitresses. Every contact will help you become more comfortable! Stay curious, be open and have fun!