Small Talk

What is Small Talk?

Small talk is light casual conversation of important matters that are not controversial. It usually includes topics relating to movies, music, theatre, sports and travel and travel to name a few. Small talk is important as it creates a positive first impression of the type of person you are. It shows that you are approachable and friendly and are willing and able to participate with others.

Small talk also helps us learn about others quickly. In high stress environments, it helps put people at ease. It also helps you find out about other cultural norms. If done well, small talk creates a positive first impression and can lead to long-lasting friendships both inside and outside the workplace and school.

Topics to Avoid

Avoid any topic that is controversial, of a sensitive nature or obscure. Sensitive topics can lead to an emotionally charged conversation that is something you want to avoid in the workplace. Obscure topics, while not offensive, are poor topics for small talk as very few will know anything to talk about.

These topics include:
> Divorce or death
> Gory crimes and decaying moral values of Western/Eastern/other civilization
> Layoffs and gloomy economic predictions
> Terrorism, war, pestilence, and famine
> Emotionally charged issues such as abortion, welfare, or capital punishment
> Sex, politics, and religion
> Human right in country...
> Immigration and taxes
> Recession
> Debt and money

Ideal Small Talk Topics

The best topics are those that are common every day. The weather is a great topic especially after a big snow storm, a heat wave or cold spell. However, this can be a sensitive topic if a tornado or hurricane has come through and caused death and destruction.

As mentioned above, sports, movies, music, literature and concerts are all great topics to start causal light conversation. Here are a few sentences that you can use to help start some small talk.

Have you read a good book lately?
> I hear the movie Batman is popular, have you seen it?
> Do you know any good restaurants in the area?
> Have you been to a concert recently?
> Did you go anywhere this summer or did you enjoy a "staycation"?
> Do you have any hobbies?
> Did you watch the game last night?
> Are you a [insert sports team] fan?
> What are your plans for Christmas|summer|winter?

Body Language

Pay careful attention to people's body language. If a person seems upset, busy with something or they have their arms crossed avoid making small talk. If someone is busy with something it is considered impolite to interrupt.

Pay Attention to Tone

Pay attention to a person's tone and language that they use. If a person sounds upset or uses the following types of sentences, try to change the subject to something else politely.

> After the jerks I worked for fired everyone in our department ...
> I couldn't wait to get out of that lousy marriage, so I ...
> You want to know what I really hate?
> Don't get me started!

Quick one-word answers usually mean the person is not interested in talking. At this point, you can say, sorry to bother you, or I can see you are busy.

Follow up Questions

Think ahead before asking a question. Once they have answered your first question, be prepared to follow up with engaging questions to show that you are interested.

After commenting on a movie or book review, you could say:
> Oh yeah, why is that?
> Do you like reading a lot?
> I have not read in a while. The last book I read was… have you heard of it?
> What about books made for movies: do you always find the book better than the movie?

After commenting on a restaurant, you could say:
> What is there specialty?
> What is the best dish that they serve?
> Sounds good. So what do you think of: sushi|Chinese|Japanese|European|Caribbean food?
> Is it spicy?

Where to Start Small Talk

There is not bad place to engage in small talk. Think of small talk as an introduction to a conversation. In fact, most native English speakers rarely start off the conversation without any small talk. Here are some occasions to start small talk.

When meeting people for the first time:
> While waiting for a meeting to start
> At a company lunch
> At school starting a new course
> At a trade show
> Meeting clients

Back to Basics

So when you first meet someone, how do you begin with some small talk? Well, start by introducing yourself and don't forget to smile. Most of the time, introductions will go well. The only exception to this rule is when you are asking a guy or girl out. This is better left for a separate discussion.

Once you have introduced yourself, ask opened questions like these:
> How do you know our host?
> What do you think of this spectacular view?
> Could you explain to me how this ... works?
> What is your opinion of...?
> Why do you think ... happened?

The worst thing you can do with any introduction is forget to make note of the person's name. Memorize their name. If you cannot clearly understand, make note of asking again. The person will appreciate that you care enough to get their name correct.

The Last Word

Pay attention to current events. Is there a block buster movie that is in all the papers? What about a sports event like the Super Bowl.