Small Talk: A Quick Guide

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The nerdy characters in The Big Bang Theory fumble with small talk till Penny arrives on the scene! (Photo credit)

“What’s shaking?” is Sheldon’s way of starting small talk with Penny in The Big Bang Theory. And we all know how tenuous his grasp is of any social convention. Although this leads to comic effects in the sitcom, small talk is no laughing matter. Chit-chat that seems banal can not just get you promotions but also crack million dollar deals!

The first few sentences of a conversation, in any culture, set the tone for the rest of the exchange. The closeness of that conversation really depends, as I’ve discussed later, on the cultural norms apart from social ones. But first, let’s look at why is small talk important and how do we do it right.

WHY SMALL TALK

– It breaks ice, in personal and professional conversations

– If you find the right subjects, it makes you more likable

– It’s a social convention that establishes trust

– It lays groundwork for specific requests

– It can yield important information about businesses or clients (or neighbours)

– It glues professional relationships in the long term

– It fills uncomfortable silences

– It smoothens the way to difficult situations

– It conveys warmth and affection

– It can be beneficial to your career

– It helps make contacts in a networking event

Within an organisation, small talk can happen before meetings, at water filters or coffee stations, or as you walk by the cubicle of your colleagues. Small talk is great for fostering a sense of camaraderie and trust within a team. Asking about a sick family member or following up on someone’s challenges with kids helps learn more about each other and forge a closer bond.

Here are 6 reasons why small talk is important from Forbes.com

WHAT TO TALK ABOUT?

Before you jump into chat mode, it is important to understand small talk is a delicate thing. One wrong topic and it could have quite the opposite effect. Some topics are safe while others are not. Some popular topics include hobbies, common interests, travel, food, books, cricket/sports, movies, personal questions/light connect, news, weekend plans, weather, traffic. If you don’t know about a topic, ask intelligent questions to learn more. “Why did you break up with your girlfriend?” is neither intelligent nor polite as a follow up question. 

It is a good idea to steer clear of subjects like religion, sex, politics. Personal comments on weight, hair (especially receding hairlines) or negative comments about your employer or co-workers are better avoided. Office gossip is a definite no-no. You’ll only end up getting a bad reputation – a real one for yourself and an alleged one for the subjects of your gossip. 

Here are some questions that’ll help make small talk much easier.

WHEN TO USE SMALL TALK?

From sales calls to welcoming new neighbours, small talk is a handy tool. In fact, in a country like India, starting your sales call asking about the family background of the client can get you brownie points. Whether it is networking events or a regular client at your counter at the bank, small talk is a great way to start.

SMALL TALK IN DIFFERENT CULTURES

 In a world where cross cultural communication is so important, small talk cannot be an exception. It is important to understand how different cultures look at this social convention. While there are cultures – known as “Peach” – warm up to strangers as quickly as cookies in a microwave, there are also others – the “Coconut” – where a seemingly innocuous smile at a stranger can be misconstrued. And not knowing where to draw the line can spell doom for your best social intentions.

Cultures like the US, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Asia (India) and China are Peach. In fact, our super successful neighbours in China hardly get any work done in the first meeting. That time is spent on an elaborate exercise of getting-to-know-each-other. The hard nuts to crack are the Scandinavians, French, Russians, Germans. And imagine when a Peach falls among Coconuts! The friendly Brazilians can leave the French suspicious with their unsolicited good nature. While a Russian can be offended by the chatty American next to him on a plane. 

So the first thing to find out in new cultures is the kind of information you can ask of strangers and share with them. You can get friendly with a Coconut if you are a Peach, but don’t pry for their personal information and you should do fine. 

Small talk is a simple skill that can enhance your communication skill in new ways. What are your tips to small talk? How do you find common ground with new colleagues or neighbours? I’d love to hear more tips from you. Share in the comments below.

 

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