The Art of Small Talk

By Mel Sim

Talking about the weather has its merits.

Talk is cheap… unless of course it is small talk. Say what?

That’s right – what you think is cheap talk (like about the weather or what you did over the weekend) carries more weight than you think it does. And at work, it can really make a difference to your career.

How so? For starters, small talk is a natural way for people to connect. It’s easygoing and informal, setting the tone for a more friendly conversation to take place after, even if it is about work as it is a softer approach to move into the more serious stuff. And if by having small talk you discover that you and your client have something in common, well – that’s bonus points right there and then!

Also, it is a sign of politeness and respect when you take the time to acknowledge the other person and listen plus respond to what they are saying, even if it is non-essential. True story: A friend told me a story about how two candidates were invited for dinner by a big firm. One made the effort to make small talk while the other one merely scrolled through his phone. No prize for guessing who got the job!

Which also points to why you should make small talk at work – it’s your chance to make a good impression. The candidate who took the time to make polite conversation obviously impressed his future employer that he is at the very least friendly and would be a nice addition to have in the office due to his good nature while the one scrolling through the phone seemed like someone who is aloof and not exactly a team player (and even if it’s not a true judgment but not making small talk sends off that impression!).

If anything, small talk fills in the silence – whether it is with your colleague, your boss or a client. Because nothing is more awkward and uncomfortable than silence and small talk can help make the atmosphere more friendly and less rigid.

Master the Art! Some people find making small talk easy; some can struggle. And especially since we’ve been WFH for so long, the thought of having to talk about the weather or that new café in town can be quite tiring!

Plus, there’s effective small talk and ineffective small talk. For small talk to work in your advantage, it needs to be authentic and the tone needs to be right, not forced.

It’s a social skill that will come in handy and fortunately, it can be nurtured. Here’s how:

#1 What to talk about
What make for good topics for small talk? We mentioned the weather earlier on but to be honest, it’s a cliché topic that you shouldn’t fall back on to unless necessary (like sports, traffic). Instead, think of something more exciting – like something interesting you read, a new movie, TV series or book, or maybe even some place new you went. The trick is to be genuine so you can carry on the conversation, especially if the other person read the same article or watched the same movie!

What doesn’t make for good topics? Personal affairs (your client, especially if it is the first time you’re meeting them, doesn’t want to hear about the argument you had with your boyfriend last night) and politics. Tip? Just steer clear of things that may escalate into heated arguments or if you don’t have enough knowledge about to hold your ground throughout the conversation.

#2 Let the other person lead the small talk first
So you’re not good at coming up with topics. No worries – let the other person take the lead and you can ask questions along the way to have a conversation. This way, you are talking about things that interest the other party and when you ask questions, it shows that you’re interested and engaged.

#3 Listen!
This goes without saying – even if you are chatting about inconsequential topics, you still need to pay attention and listen. And by listening, we mean active listening where you are concentrating on what the other person is saying so you can ask insightful questions after. It may be all too easy to tune out but the other party will notice… and it won’t exactly have the positive effect small talk is supposed to offer. While you’re at it, show genuine interest! Don’t be fake and ask questions that don’t really make sense; show that you have true interest in what the other person has to say so whatever conversation you have later can sets a positive tone instead of one where the other party feels like you’re just filling in the gaps.

#4 Try not to talk about work
Because that’s not small talk. You can get to work later but if you are doing small talk, ask about a person’s life instead, like open-ended questions that can lead to more interesting conversations and allow the other person to open up more.

#5 Remember what you talked about!
So that the next time you meet up again, you can ask follow up with questions which proves a few things: One, you were really listening; two, you’re interested in the other person’s life, and three, you’re friendly! All plus points!

Photo by Kate Kalvach on Unsplash.

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