Americans use small talk with anyone, regardless of social standing or circumstances. It’s appropriate to engage in small talk with strangers, co-workers and higher-ups at work and in business. It may seem too casual to engage in light chatting with someone to whom you want to show respect, like a boss, an executive from another company, or someone who is interviewing you for a job, but it is actually a necessary step in showing you are a confident communicator.
Small talk is positive, light, restricted to certain “safe” topics, and balanced between talking about oneself and directing the topic to the other person. Usual small talk topics include the weather, entertainment (movies, books, television), travel, food and sports. Topics to be avoided are politics, religion, money, sex, family problems, or anything potentially controversial.
When and Where:
Use small talk when first meeting someone, or beginning an interaction with someone you already know. Respond if someone starts a small talk conversation with you, and start a conversation yourself when waiting for something to begin, when you are introduced to someone new, or when you would like to speak with someone about something else. Opening with small talk will put the other person at ease and allow you to make a connection in order to have the conversation you need afterwards.
Using small talk demonstrates that you have good communication skills and cultural understanding. It enables you to make connections for more important communication. It allows you to get to know someone and have them learn about you. It puts others at ease and gives you a starting point for interactions.
Practice and have a plan. If you have a few comments and questions ready, you will feel more confident when it is time to engage in some small talk. Start with “how are you?” or an equivalent (how’s it going; how have you been?). Be ready with your answer (I’m fine; I’m doing well, thank you; things are going well, thanks). Comment on the weather, ask a question about the other person, or introduce a topic you enjoy talking about. Have a short list of possible complements to give the other person based on what you know about them. Have a few comments about your surroundings or neutral topics ready.
Small talk may not be your favorite thing to do, but it should be a skill you feel comfortable with. Knowing how to use it effectively will increase your confidence and have a positive effect on your communication in social and business interactions. For recordings and practice conversations, consider a subscription to our online practice site.